Inbound marketing agency owners, welcome to one of the most challenging aspects of agency life. You need new customers to drive the agency growth but if you take everyone who comes along, you’ll be working with clients who never appreciate what you do, who never let you execute a profitable engagement, who never refer you and who consistently drive your team crazy.
It becomes a very difficult decision. Do you walk away from someone who wants to hire your inbound agency? Or do we take them on and try to turn this into a referenceable engagement. The best way to manage this is to understand what to look for during the sales process so you can limit the risk associated with bringing on challenging clients.
To help you with that, I’m going back 14 years to give you a profile for what typically produces a great inbound marketing agency clients and what typically produces a very challenging non-referenceable client. By the way, if at the end of the engagement the client is not a reference, what’s the point? You should be striving to select ONLY inbound marketing clients who will be referenceable.
Here we go.
Warning Signs For Potentially Challenging Clients
We Needs Lead Immediately – It’s almost impossible to produce leads immediately. Even if the client has a great new website, plenty of content and budget for pay per click, it’s unlikely that any client will see results in the first month. Maybe in the second month but it’s not going to be a windfall to start, it’s more likely to be a slow trickle that turns into a steadier and more significant flow.
Layer on top of this the amount of strategy work that needs to be done during the first month or two. We’ve produced results for clients in short time frames, but when the client NEEDS results fast to keep them in business they make bad decisions and direct you to make bad decisions too. Inbound marketing is not a short-term fix for a lack of leads. It’s a long-term program that builds a machine to produce leads over time. New clients need to be on the same page with what you can do and what you can’t.
We Want To Test Inbound Marketing, We’re Not Sure About It - Inbound is not something you try out for 30 days and then decide if it’s for you. The strategy and build phases alone could take 90 to 120 days if the client is missing the key assets and messaging. Planning, building and optimizing their inbound marketing machine so it produces leads in a predictable, scalable and repeatable way takes a lot of hard work and time.
You can’t test inbound, you have to go all in. You have to plan it, build all the assets, deploy the assets, give them time to gain traction and then you have to optimize and manage their production. If your prospective client is not looking at inbound as their go to methodology, you’re going to be pushing up hill the entire time.
We Make Decisions By Committee - Technically, this isn’t that big a concern, except that it tends to keep clients in the planning and build phase much longer than they need to be. Then you’re looking at them wondering why nothing’s getting done. The answer, it takes a long time to get consensus on every single aspect of inbound. There are a lot of items that need quick decisions on. You’re going to want to get stuff live and then see how it works. Committee decision making provides challenges when it comes to optimization, prioritization and quick decision making—something very important to successful inbound deployment.
We Have A Tight Budget But Aggressive Goals - It’s hard for clients to set their business goals and then match their marketing budget to those goals. That’s not the issue. Smart clients let you work with them to assess their goals and make sure their budgets match but other clients are sure their goals are achievable even if their marketing budgets are too low.
This is a very big red flag for us. Clients should want to have your input on what you think their budget should be to hit or better yet, exceed their goals. There’s no reason to take a $3,000 a month engagement for clients who want to double revenue in 12 months. It’s going to be very challenging to do everything you need to do to double revenue on a low budget.
We’re Looking For A Vendor - This might be more relevant for us than you, but we’ve found that clients who are looking for a strategic partner and view us as that partner do much better. Clients who have a list of stuff they need done and they’re looking for a vendor to do stuff tend to try to drive the engagement and make it difficult for us to produce the results they expect because they’re setting the priorities with limited experience. Hot dog stands are vendors. Marketing companies should be strategic partners.
Positive Signs For What Will Be Referenceable Clients
We’re Looking At This Initiative As A Long Term Program (12 to 24 Month) - To dramatically impact a company’s lead generation, revenue acceleration and to really change their business you’re going to need one to two years to make that type of dramatic transformation. We see this over and over again. Clients who have been with us for a long time see amazing results.
They see 10x improvement in leads, they see revenue improvements, they see the million dollar deals they’ve been searching for and they see the connection between their long-term commitment to marketing and the results.
This is especially important when you’re talking about budgets and levels of investment. The short story, the more you invest, the faster you see results. It’s probably not going to surprise any of you but $20,000 a month can get results a lot faster than $5,000 a month. What’s worse is the lower level of investments typically come from the people who want the results the fastest and we’ve seen clients who become inpatient, pause their programs only to see the leads start to come in a few months after the program has been halted. Now what? Start again, admit they were wrong and what about the months of neglect for their program. It’s really a shame.
We Need A Partner Who Helps Us Understand How To Generate Results From Inbound - Inbound is extremely complicated, with a lot of moving parts, an abundance of data, work that has to be delivered daily, and one that needs testing to be front and center if results are an objective. That makes it a methodology that takes execution to perfect it. Companies starting inbound campaigns with no experience running any inbound campaigns previously are flying blind. They should want to learn from you. Learning how to execute inbound should be one of their major requirements when looking for an agency.
They should want to be heavily involved in the planning, they should be very interested in the optimization work and they should be extremely focused on understanding the testing aspect of the engagement. They should be asking questions about what’s working, why and how to make it work better. Clients who want to learn inbound as part of the engagement make wonderful partners and almost always get better results faster because they have a better understanding of what we’re doing for them, why we’re doing it and how we’re doing it.
We Want You To Help Us Create A Budget That Matches Our Goals - Another great cue that this is going to be a fantastic client. They don’t know how toset a budget for inbound, but they do know their goals and they want the two to match. Brilliant! How could they know about budgeting for an inbound program when this is their first pass at inbound? They are going to need help. How much is project management? How much is account management? How much does an inbound email campaign cost? How much work goes into writing, designing, optimizing and setting up all the assets for a new eBook? How would they know?
But they are interested in working with you to come up with that budget. We do this all the time. Tell us your goals and we’ll give you an idea of what your budget should be. Too high? No problem, let’s work together to lower your expectations on goals and results. We’ll actually take down the expectations around results to the level that matches their budget. Now they decided, can they increase their budget to increase their goals? Or not.
You’ll Work With The Executive Level Champion To Get Our Input On The Program Details - The more people you work with at a client, the longer it’s going to take to get results, the lower the results and the higher the investment. It’s that simple. When you have to get approval from big groups of constituents, inbound marketing gets very difficult. The pace slows down dramatically, the amount of back and forth drives up the cost and the results suffer.
But when you have a single point of content, a single point for feedback, a single point of decision making engagements run quickly, smoothly and results come much faster. The point of contact does have to be empowered to represent the company, so quite often our recommendation is an executive level decision maker. For example, marketing managers can be the single point of content, but if the CEO disagrees with decisions the marketing person has made and its four months into the engagement, you might be looking at starting over.
On the flip side, if the CEO or VP of Marketing has been making decisions all along, you have four months of very efficient program management and you have assets in the field generating leads and the program is already in the optimization phase. This is how you get results from inbound.
We Want You To Help Us Understand What To Expect And When - Embrace these people with both arms. People who want you to help them understand what to expect based on your experience are going to be wonderful clients. They’re not dictating to you what they want to see and what they want to pay, even when it’s not aligned. These people are asking you to help them. They want to understand the connection between investment and results. They want to see if they invest more in organic, will they see more visitors and how will that impact lead gen. If they invest more in their website, will they see more conversions, at what rate and how will that impact lead gen.
These people are thinking about inbound marketing strategically and looking at it as their methodology, not a quick fix that they’ll try for a few months to see what happens. They’re going to make better decisions, they’re going to invest properly, they’re going to follow your guidance and they’re going to get much better results.
Clearly this is only a short list of what we’ve seen over the past 14 years. We look back on every single engagement, those that are successful—meaning they produced results and referenceable clients and we look at those engagements that did not produce results and were not referenceable. There are some very clear commonalities between the great clients and the not so great clients. I’d recommend you do the same post mortems for all your engagements regardless of how they wrap up.
Start Today Tip – The best way to pick the right clients is to ask the right questions during the sales process. Start by building an inventory of questions that come up during your post mortems. When clients start telling you what to do and then blame you for lack of results, you’ll know the next time around how to investigate that during the sales process. How did you work with your last agency? What did you love about your last agency? What did you hate? What did you wish they did better? How would you describe the optimal relationship with your new agency? As you build out your questions, you’ll be able to better assess prospects before they become clients. Then you’ll have more happy clients, more referenceable clients and happier team members.
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