If your agency is kissing too many frogs and not winning enough new-business, then a different sales mindset and model can be transformational.
For most agencies, lead generation is a serious hurdle to growth. And that’s fair enough, especially if you’re not as differentiated as you increasingly need to be.
But if you’ve solved the lead gen. conundrum and are meeting the right people, what happens if things go nowhere?
What if you keep hearing ‘we’ll call you if we need you’? Or even if there are live projects on the table, what if you can’t consistently convert them into money?
Your reflex response might be to invest in sales training. But crowbarring in pushy traditional tactics often just creates a ‘used car salesman’ feeling that makes you feel grubby and clients recoil.
Instead, a more progressive approach is to rethink how and when you ‘sell’.
Get yourself upstream
In a world where clients are wrestling with complex, unfamiliar problems, there’s a real opportunity for agencies to have bigger conversations at a more senior level.
This major change in how clients buy means you can start the conversation earlier, before the brief is set. It takes you out of a one-of-many pitching context and recasts you as a scarce and trusted expert.
Imagine new-business meetings where clients say ‘I need your help’ instead of ‘I need you to do this’. It’s a far cry from reverse e-auctions, right?
A big part of that transition is reframing how you sell. The traditional pitch process is largely a beauty parade. It reinforces your role as a commodity – and not just in the client’s mind.
As well as placing too much focus on the pitch meeting itself, you’re also having to answer an exam question you had no input into – often to a client you haven’t met before then.
All this combines to make that hour or two far too much about persuasion. No wonder pitch outcomes are so tough to predict. You’re making success a hostage to subjectivity.
So philosophical wrangling aside, what should you do instead?
Finding a fit
Now more than ever, selling is about establishing a fit – the earlier the better and certainly long before a pitch meeting.
Consider this – if you meaningfully connect your offer with the client’s problem, then the rest of the sale is just admin.
Author and sales trainer Blair Enns has a great take on this. If you accept that your solution to any client problem is about helping them achieve their desired future, then sales is really just change management.
With that perspective, it’s much easier to see ’selling’ as a diagnostic – can you define the client’s future state and, hand on heart, are you the right people to help them get there?
If that’s a yes and another yes, then you’re not really in the persuasion game any more.
Reframing sales as change management – an act of assistance – is a fundamental shift. It builds ‘selling’ around the relevance of your practitioner expertise, as opposed to timing, subjective ideas and whether you’re polished enough in a pitch meeting.
Selling expertise not schtick
Just as beliefs and habits go hand-in-hand, approaching sales as change management requires a different model – one that replaces schtick with knowledge, jargon with simplicity and passivity with the freedom to challenge.
The following three-step sales framework leverages expertise instead of persuasion.
1. Be the expert
If you’re in the right rooms, then clients should say ‘we need your help’, not ‘what do you do?’. That’s a totally different meeting, so you must live up to that billing.
>> Take nothing as read – steer the conversation away from solutions; it’s too early and you don’t want to get too invested too soon
>> Focus on future value – to manage the client’s desired change, you need to know how they define it, where they’re starting from and what stands in their way.
2. Inform the process
Once your expertise is seen as essential, step two leverages your scarcity to establish the terms of engagement that you’re prepared to work to.
>> Readiness – influence the client’s timeline, not just noting their view
>> Reasons – inform their criteria, don’t just ask how they intend to choose
>> Respect – ensure you meet the decision makers, don’t just ask their names.
3. Own the close
A central feature of this framework is that you get to decide how and when you offer your solution. It happens when you’re ready, in a format of your choosing.
>> Format – you offer (and insist on) alternatives to RFIs and pitches
>> Face-to-face – unless you’re able to close the sale with the crucial person present, you have every right to pull out.
Needless to say, this is a simplification. Firstly the framework should be tailored to reflect and substantiate your specific audience and proposition – for example, in the questions you ask, responses to prepare for and tools to use. But none of that is hard to pick up.
Also, although these three steps can happen across fewer or more than three conversations, it’s the sequence that’s important. Each step enables the next and the order gives you a reliable, client-centric measure of where you are in the sale.
Are you ready for this?
If you’re still wedded to the traditional brief-and-pitch beauty parade, all this probably sounds like pie-in-the-sky. But that’s fine – it’s not for everyone.
To adopt this approach, you’ll need complete conviction that your proposition will appeal more strongly to fewer clients. It’s the opposite of sales being a numbers game.
You also need to be comfortable walking away – and not just when a brief arrives or the budget’s too low. It relies on giving clients on ongoing sense of jeopardy and being willing to stand your ground – at all times.
Most importantly, you need to live and breathe the scarcity that your proposition promises. As well as sales, everything from strategy and marketing, to people, process and pricing should be tailored to substantiate your claim of expertise. That means rejecting the commoditised behaviours that implicitly reveal your lack of conviction.
If you can tick these boxes, then you can dramatically improve how you sell.
Liberation from talking-up your pipeline
Tailored around a strong proposition, this framework makes sales empowering. And not just because it applies what you uniquely know, but also because it stops you rushing to the end before the client is ready to join you.
It liberates you from running through the same stale pipeline in every Monday morning meeting. And it saves you the soul-crushing humiliation of sending endless ‘any news on our proposal?’ emails.
By having a sustained impact on the client’s buying process – and qualifying out whenever that stops – you’ll not only kiss fewer frogs and shorten your sales cycle, your conversion will dramatically improve too.
You’ll also establish a leadership position that extends beyond new-business; teeing-up more productive and profitable client relationships.
In a nutshell, this framework helps put you in control of growth.
Robin Bonn is the founder of agency management consultancy Co:definery, as well as a columnist for Marketing Week. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org.