Sales Strategies for Agencies

I’ve been a partner manager at Pantheon since July of 2015 and in this whole selling game for five years. My role is interesting because I’m focused on selling Pantheon to other sales professionals—small agencies and freelancers looking to grow their client base through offerings like ours.

Every day, I identify key strategic partners as well as higher value deals for the company, and do my best to accelerate them through our sales funnel. I constantly see mismatches between an agency’s growth goals and actual project flow, sales processes, and historical conversion rates. This often leads to unrealistic growth expectations and eventual frustration when revenue goals aren’t met.

I’ve taken some advice from Jay Z that’s particularly relevant to the freelancers and small digital agencies I work with: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” (or woman!). To achieve growth goals and more predictable income you need to be honest about your unique differentiators, focus only on qualified opportunities, and map your unique offerings to your buyer’s needs.

What I’ve Learned About Agencies

I recently talked to a guy who started freelancing and has had much less traction than he had hoped for. When I asked him what sort of projects he wanted to take on, he simply said “all of them.” He felt that he was either equipped to handle projects of any size or complexity himself, or he could simply subcontract work out that he was not capable of finishing. This led him to complex RFP processes that weren’t realistic or a good use of time. Plus, each project needed its own bespoke team, tools, and processes, which resulted in increased management complexities and no repeatable sales process.

One common pitfall small agencies and freelancers face is that they try to do everything. It’s better to be really good at a few things rather than mediocre at a lot of things. The first step of sales is to understand your service and what makes it unique. By identifying your key differentiators in the market, you will be able to focus exclusively on qualified prospects that are revenue drivers for your business, man (or woman!).

Questions to ask yourself to qualify your business and identify qualified prospects:

  • What is the mix of my work: new projects, support + maintenance, or both?

  • What % of revenue do I want to come from new projects vs. retainer fees?

  • What programming languages do I focus on? Which ones do I walk away from?

  • What is the average size of the project I want to take on?

  • What makes the way I do, or price, my services unique?

  • How long should new projects take?

  • What do my customers say about me to their friends, colleagues?

  • Why do clients return?

  • How do new people find me?

Sales Basics: The Funnel

A sales funnel is a system which describes the ‘ideal’ process you intend your customers to experience as they go from prospect to repeat buyer. Basically, you start with a simple, quantified growth goal, and work your way backwards from there to plan for potential client engagements. Where do you want to be at the end of this year? With $1MM in new business? With a 25% lift in the number of clients you manage? Start with a measurable goal, and then work backwards to understand the needs of your sales funnel.

For example, if your goal is $1MM in new business, you can use your average win rate and average deal size to determine how many qualified opportunities you need to pursue in order to achieve this. From there, you can work backwards to understand how many prospects you need to engage to fill your sales funnel with enough qualified opportunities.

Your sales funnel can be as simple or complex as you like. I suggest beginning with 3-5 stages. Once you have identified those unique points in the sales process, you can use qualification and discovery to accelerate those stages through your sales funnel. But first, a note on understanding value.

Understanding Your Value

I’m about to blow your mind with a profound statement: People spend money on things they value.

I know what you’re thinking—"Ben, you’re a genius"—but seriously, let’s break this down a little:

Prospects who find their way into the top of your sales funnel value different things. In that same respect, your agency provides unique values to clients, ones that may or may not be in line with what a prospect is looking for. To make a sale that keeps both clients and your team happy you need to understand what the buyer values and communicate the value you provide to meet their specific needs.

The hardest point in selling is not talking about how awesome and unique your service is, but aiming to understand your prospect’s needs instead. Remember, your unique differentiators shouldn’t change, what does change are the values a client is looking for to solve their problem. I use two specific tactics to accelerate leads through my sales funnel—qualification and discovery—with the goal of understanding a prospect’s needs. Then, and only then, I can map my unique services to explicitly what they are looking for.

Qualification: Does This Merit More of My Time?

One important thing to recognize is when I should, and shouldn’t, pursue an opportunity that comes across my desk. Disqualifying a new business prospect is just as important as qualifying them. Your time is money, so don’t waste it chasing a mismatched client when it could be better spent on billable work.

When someone enters your sales funnel (a ‘prospect’), hold a brief meeting where the explicit goal is to understand if engagement is worth the time spend of both parties. The most common qualification standard/mantra is BANT:

  • Budget: Does this prospect have enough budget to pay for my services?

  • Authority: Am I talking to the person who can write that check?

  • Need: Does this person truly need the services I provide?

  • Timeline: Is their timeline congruent with my agency’s timeline for project delivery?

If you say yes to at least three of these, this is a qualified prospect! From there, you can schedule a longer meeting for Discovery.

Discovery: Why It’s Important and How to Do It

Good discovery is hard to come by, but is the key to happy clients, employees and longer lasting client relationships. By the end of a successful discovery you should understand a potential client’s needs enough to connect where you can provide value. Get to this by finding out what their current pain points are and relate these to negative consequences that impact their business today. Ask them about goals for a better future state and connect these with better business outcomes. Use these discussions to pull out requirements your agency can fulfill to reach these better outcomes.  

Here are some tips to carry out a successful discovery conversation:

  1. Use open ended questions.

  2. Listen 75% of the time, talk 25%.  

  3. Resist the urge to talk about your value until the end.

In summary, your business can’t, and shouldn’t, be all things to all people. It’s important to know when and why you win, and to focus on opportunities within that scope when taking on new business. A smart agency stays aware of their sales goals and can quantify what they need in each stage of their sales funnel to get there. And what’s the best way to do all of this? With a good understanding of your value and a successful client qualification and discovery processes.

Remember, you’re not just a businessman, you’re a business, man.

Topics Agencies, Digital Agencies, Agency Partners