Finding new clients is one of the most challenging aspects of running a service agency. Unlike other types of businesses where you can decide to spend X dollars on advertising this month knowing it will yield you Y amount of leads, agencies rely a lot on word of mouth and leveraging existing relationships.
Unfortunately, finding new leads when you run an agency can feel like a farmer performing a rain dance in hopes of altering the weather - the rain is either going to pour down or not and there’s not much you can do about it. Cold calling doesn’t work. Advertising doesn’t work. The only action you can take as an owner is to be visible in your marketplace, do great work for existing clients and hope they’ll send you referrals. Not exactly the most reliable way of growing your business nor will it get you a quick sale in the door.
It’s especially challenging if you as the owner aren’t particularly passionate about sales and prefer to work directly with clients on projects. You’d rather someone else go catch the fish so you can prep and cook it, am I right?
When I ran my agency, my partner and I experimented with hiring salespeople in the hopes of growing the business. Here’s what I learned during the process:
This isn’t Glengarry Glen Ross
My favourite movie about sales is Glengarry Glen Ross. If you’re not familiar with it, Jack Lemmon plays Shelley "The Machine" Levene and was the inspiration behind the ‘Old Gil’ character from The Simpsons. Needless to say, it’s both funny and depressing all at once.
‘Sales’ can be an ugly word, so much so that many salespeople prefer to use other job titles like ‘business development’ or ‘associate’ to describe what they do in the hopes that they won’t turn off a prospect who’s afraid of talking to someone whose purpose in life is to sell them.
The last thing you want for your business is an old-school salesperson (think used cars) who uses dated tactics to land a deal, like lowering the price or saying ridiculous things like “What’s it going to take for you to sign on the dotted line?” (Note: I once worked with someone at an agency who said this on the regular.)
When working in an agency environment, salespeople often alienate themselves from the rest of the production team by promising too much work for too little time and money, forcing the team to work long hours so that the client gets what he/she was promised. When salespeople are selling on commission but don’t actually have to perform the work or be accountable for profitability, they are going to promise the sun, moon and stars to land a contract. Then they promptly wipe their hands clean of it, cash their cheque and probably go buy a new plaid blazer or a steak dinner.
Hire someone who already knows the game
If you hire someone who doesn’t understand your business, they may use the wrong terminology with prospects and that can cause your agency a lot of embarrassment, not to mention jeopardize your reputation. One time we had a sales guy who sent a mass email to his list implying that our agency was responsible for inventing responsive design (apologies to Ethan Marcotte). I didn’t even know the email was going out, so I didn’t have a chance to proof it first, and when we got called out on it on Twitter it was awkward, to say the least.
The best person to hire when selling professional services is someone who already worked on the frontlines in your industry for many years and intimately understands what you’re selling. If your agency primarily sells design, development, or marketing services, then the best person to hire is going to have actually worked as a designer, developer, or marketer earlier in his career. There are people out there who aren't in love with their craft anymore but love the business side of things and really know how to sell.
Make them part of the team
If you are lucky enough to find someone like that who you want to get involved with your business, make them part of your team and culture. The last thing you want is your production staff scratching their heads wondering who the suit is walking through their workspace and disappearing for hours on end. Your culture will take a hit if the team doesn’t know or trust the person you brought in.
The salesperson should be a respectable business consultant who adds value to the team and can mentor less experienced team members. Include her when going for Friday beers. Bring her into the production meetings so she is aware how busy the team is, and whether or not she needs to step on the gas pedal or the brakes in the sales department. Get her to share her sales funnel with the team so they know what high probability projects are coming down the pike.
Know when to get involved and when not to
A good agency salesperson should strike a fine balance between freeing you up as the owner to run the business but also know when to bring you into the mix and help close a new project. The key here is to have a system in place so your schedule isn’t chock full of lunches with unqualified prospects. Your hired help should know when to bring in the owner and when to keep moving the prospect down the sales funnel himself.
Get someone with a Rolodex
Some owners make the mistake of hiring business majors fresh out of college to bring in sales. The problem is that if he isn’t established in the city then he won’t have any contacts to leverage, which is one of the best assets a salesperson has.
The real value a good salesperson brings is her existing relationships so she can start working the phone to uncover new opportunities.
Monitor their activity and results
When you have a team of production staff you can keep tabs on what they’re doing by reviewing timesheets and talking to project managers. It’s pretty easy to find out if your designer is slacking off and going out for too many bong hits during the day.
With salespeople it’s not as easy. Sure, you know what new deals are coming in, but you may go a month or more without anything new closing and a month later get hit with an influx of new projects. You can’t really come down on someone who is legitimately hustling to bring in work during a lull when the work just isn’t there.
That’s why using a CRM is important and training your salesperson to be diligent about entering new leads, leaving detailed notes about conversations, next steps, and dates for following up. You can also use proposal software that will give you a high level snapshot of what proposals are on the table and what your salesperson’s win/loss ratio looks like.
Don’t give up and fire him just because he goes a period of time without closing a deal. This isn’t an impulse buy industry. Bringing in a BD guy or gal is a long term investment that may take months to pay off so you need to you hire right from the start and provide proper training.
Focus on lead nurturing and client relationships
In most cases, it doesn’t make sense for agencies to hire salespeople, but what does make sense is hiring good account managers who can fill a sales role in the company.
The best agency account managers:
- Can manage a project from start to finish
- Can lead proposals and pitches
- Are professional and knowledgeable about the company’s core services and communicate them well
- Are well-connected in the community and not afraid to represent the agency at a conference or event
- Understand how much time/effort/money things take and manage client expectations accordingly
- Can strike the balance of being friendly and likeable to clients while also being firm and not letting clients walk all over them
- Keep in touch with existing/past clients to get referrals and new projects
- Think like an owner and want to bring in new business
People like this are worth much more to your business than someone who will just bring in new clients and hand them off to the production team. I was lucky enough to find someone like this at the agency I ran (shout out to Ashley) and she quickly became an instrumental part of our business.
I firmly believe that as the agency owner you are always going to be the best salesperson for the business, and ultimately it’s your job to bring in leads and close deals. But hiring another salesperson can help double-down your efforts when you need to sell. If you find the right person for the job, of course.
What do you think, is hiring a salesperson for your agency a good call or a waste of money?