Birth of a Salesman: Finding New Agency Clients

This post is third in a series on starting a digital agency. Check out the first and second for more tips.

Running a web agency requires you to be skilled at development, project management, and maintaining customer relationships. But at the risk of stating the obvious, you won’t have a web agency for long if you don’t have clients. It can take years of training and practice to develop a successful sales career, but fortunately, you don’t need to be a sales powerhouse to grow your business. You can start with a few simple steps and build from there.

Here’s a great story: over 15 years ago, Geoff Wilson started building a business from his dorm room at the University of Florida. Today, about 80 employees make up his digital product development agency 352 Inc. He’s become a sought-after public speaker on product management and running a successful agency, so we tracked him down for some wisdom on how to get clients as you’re starting out. Read on for Wilson’s advice on how to spur growth—and five places you might find new clients.

#1: Your Personal and Professional Contacts

Your friends and former colleagues or clients already know you’re legit, so start there. Don’t simply post an announcement on social media that you’ve started a company. Take time to contact each person directly with a thoughtful message or call, including a request to share the news with their networks and engage with your content. Remember, most people want to help, so no need to be shy about asking them to be your advocates.

If you’ve already built a strong network, you might find enough business to get started with this strategy alone. One of our agency partners, Nyberg Technologies, is a perfect example of this—their founder started the business solely on his professional contacts at the time—and can attest to the importance of maintaining a strong network even before you make it official with your new agency.  

Of course, this strategy isn’t for everyone. If your network is comprised of mostly people from a different industry or doesn’t produce many immediate leads, you can expand your efforts to a wider radius.

#2: Networking and Prospecting

While you’re still developing your client base, you’re going to have to hit the outreach and networking hard. Whether its SXSWi or a 20-person meetup in your city, attend them with specific goals in mind—who to meet, what to ask them, and how to follow up. Wilson recommends events thrown by the Bureau of Digital, “not for business development purposes, but rather to meet and share stories and best practices with other agency owners”.

Reach out to strangers in a non-spammy way

If you live in a city where many local business make good prospects, reach out to them for an introduction. You’ll want to do as much research as possible to find a specific person and their contact information—email is likely the best form of outreach, saving LinkedIn messages for when you can’t find a better method. Phone calls will feel disruptive unless you ask to schedule them first.

The most important aspect of contacting prospects is that the communication should revolve around them, not you. Take the time to research what technology they’re using and the main drivers of their business. Understand their pain points and work them into the conversation without being overly critical of their current solution—you never know when you’re reaching out to the developer of the archaic website you’re looking to replace.

A great tactic if cold calling in any form isn’t for you: reach out and ask for a few minutes of their wisdom. A quick meeting over coffee or informational call is the softest sell you can use, and can teach you a lot about their industry, what someone like them cares about, and if you’re actually targeting the right people. They may not be a prospect themselves, but there’s a good chance they know someone who is.

Beware of time-sucks

It’s hard to find focus when you’d welcome pretty much any new business. But knowing what to tune out is as helpful as knowing where to look. Prospects that can end up wasting your time include people who ask for free work or samples first,  potential clients who try to lowball you on price, and RFPs with a pre-determined scope (and probably winner). Wilson explains:

RFP processes are typically a waste of time. Many RFPs already have a pre-determined winner and are being sent out just because the organization has to follow their policy. You should only respond to an RFP if you can talk to the people who created it and get a good sense from them that you have a good shot at winning it.

Another source of potential business to be cautious of are freelance sites like oDesk. To be fair, some advocate for it. But if you’re willing to stand your ground on price and forgo a few small projects, you can start your business with the right image—a successful firm that values its work and charges for quality.

Spend time with your peers

Put a little time aside to connect with your fellow web developers and designers. Attend meetups, ask for advice, and build a group of talented people who can pull each other in on projects where they need a bigger team. Connecting with peers can help with finding clients in two ways: first, you can build a network of people with complementary skillsets and share referrals. Second, you’ll be able to stay current on the state of the industry—part of growth as agency is constantly improving your craft.

#3: Email Marketing and Social Media

As an aspiring digital agency, your website and portfolio should already be impressive—it’s what you claim to do best. But if you still need to polish up your online presence, do it before you attempt any digital marketing. Wilson points out the importance of this:

This may seem obvious, but it's important for an agency to make their own website and brand image look incredibly crisp and polished. It's so easy for an agency to get busy with client work and not keep their own website and case studies up to date. That's a big mistake. A lot of potential clients will find you and judge you based on your own website and portfolio, so it must look great at all times.

When you’re confident in your own site, start actively pursuing clients with email and social media campaigns (we won’t even get into it in this post, but follow the rules). You can do this by:

  • Building opt-in email lists and sharing helpful resources and news with your subscribers

  • Sharing useful information and running paid ads on social media

  • Retweeting and posting (good) content created by influencers and potential clients in your industry

#4: Inbound Marketing and Content Creation

When you’re first getting started, you’ll need to spend more time reaching out than waiting for clients to come to you. But once you have a couple of projects in the works, putting effort into content can bolster your success.

"At 352 Inc., we attract many high quality leads through our own website because we invest in search engine optimization and digital marketing," Wilson says. You can do this on a small scale and increase your efforts as time permits. Follow the basics for SEO, putting an emphasis on creating relevant content and targeted web copy.

You’ll have to find your own balance between posting content and doing outreach. Do what absolutely has to be done first, then decide on one or two channels—like a blog or learning center—that will help people find you. Wilson notes:

Some agencies may say ‘our work sells itself’, but that's only really true if people find the work and discover your agency did the work. You can speed up that process by having good digital marketing of your own agency.

One caveat: never let content creation be a roadblock. When you’re starting out, you can only do so much. If you can’t keep a blog or social profile active and looking great, focus on building personal relationships with your prospects.

#5: Referrals from Happy Clients

Once you have a few projects completed, you can capitalize on your relationship with satisfied clients. Always ask if the client knows anyone else who could benefit from your expertise. It’s also perfectly acceptable to ask for a LinkedIn recommendation or a testimonial you can use to promote yourself. Over time, those satisfied customers can drive a lot of new and repeat business.

Finding new clients is an ongoing process. Ideally you’ll always have a few prospects in each stage of the cycle, from just discovering your brand to enjoying a finished product. You don’t have to be an expert salesperson to keep the clients coming, but you do have to put in the effort each day to make the connections that will drive your revenue stream in the early days.

Topics Agencies

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