And How To Ask It On The Very First Call
It’s the middle of June and most of the agencies I’ve talked to are doing surprisingly well. Some are so busy they don’t have time to think. Considering the alternative, this is very positive news.
However, with all this opportunity you still have to be careful about who you choose to work with. In some cases, the recent slew of lay-offs have forced many businesses to seek agencies because they no longer have any in-house marketing resources. All new business opportunities are not created equally.
I’m encouraging you to be more selective now than you might have been in the past. While you might want to say YES more than you say NO, consider this one question and the prospect’s answers as your guiding light on whether to pursue the business or not.
Have you worked with agencies in the past? When? How many? Why didn’t it work out? What did you like about them? What did you not like about working with them?
This question and its continued clarifications are going to uncover everything you need to decide if this is good business, business, or just bad business.
Have You Worked With Agencies In The Past?
It’s a simple question but the answer can be enlightening. If the answer is no, then be prepared to train them on what it’s like to work with an agency.
I’m making no judgment here. We’ve had clients who are new to agencies work out wonderfully and we’ve had clients who are new to working with agencies that were awful.
Make sure their expectations are aligned with yours and make sure everyone is on the same page with regard to the time required to work with you, the investment required to deliver the desired results and the timeline around those expectations.
You must be crystal clear on all of it.
If they have worked with agencies in the past, then the next set of questions becomes very important.
When, How Long Ago Was It? How Long Did You Work With Them?
If their answer was no, we haven’t worked with an agency before, then that takes you in one direction but if they have worked with an agency before, you’ll need to dig into this more.
How long ago was the experience? Weeks, months, or many years? This isn’t incredibly valuable, but it does put context around the experience. If they used an agency to build their first website 10 years ago, that’s going to give you different information than if they fired their last agency two weeks ago.
How long did you work with them? Again, this is for context. If they worked with their last agency for two years that’s a positive signal. If they worked with them for two weeks, that might be a negative signal worth asking about.
How Many Agencies Have You Worked With?
If they’ve worked with agencies before, then knowing how many becomes extremely relevant and for me, this is one of the most important conversations you can have with a prospect.
For example, if they’ve worked with three agencies over the past year that is a red flag for me.
If they’ve worked with three agencies over the past three years that’s a yellow flag for me.
If they’ve worked with two agencies over the past five or six years that would not be any kind of flag for me.
The next set of questions becomes extremely important, especially in the first two scenarios where they appear to be going through agencies very quickly.
Why Didn’t It Work Out?
Since the number of agencies and the length of time that they worked with these agencies is related, you want to know exactly why they’ve had so many agencies in such a short amount of time.
It’s possible that they simply had projects that needed to be executed or there could have been leadership changes that cycled agencies in and out. These are the answers that might make it feasible to continue.
But it's more than likely they can’t seem to find a way to work productively with an agency.
Their answers to this question are important.
It’s very likely they’ll blame the agencies. They couldn’t keep up. Their work was of low quality. They couldn’t write for us. They took too long to get stuff done.
But in reality, it's more likely that the company, the CEO or your main point of contact was the problem.
They never let the agency do what they do best.
They micromanaged the agencies.
They rewrote copy to tell the same story but in a different way.
They never really thought it was going to work so they self-sabotaged the agency.
The CEO changed their mind on a monthly basis making it impossible for the agency to get any traction.
They constantly inserted themselves into the process causing unnecessary changes, pivots, new starts, and unplanned stops.
They might have had a person responsible for working with the agency, but they were threatened by the agency and threw the agency under the bus whenever possible.
There might have been unrealistic expectations that were never agreed on.
They might have made it impossible to succeed because they only credited the agency with revenue from closed business generated when their sales cycle was over 12 months.
It might be difficult to uncover the exact reasons for the multi-agency turnover but you have to try and get to the bottom of the situation if you can.
What Did You Like About The Experience?
One way to try and uncover exactly what happened is to ask. Ask them what they liked about working with any of their past agencies.
Did they like their methodology? Did they like their people? Did they like the writing, design, or interactive deliverables?
Did they like the discipline to work regularly on marketing? Did they appreciate any insight into their sales process? Did the reporting help inform their action plans?
There are a lot of places where you can look for positive feedback and success.
What Didn’t You Like About The Experience?
But more importantly, you have to uncover what they didn’t like about the experience. Honestly, this is very easy for most prospective clients to share with you.
People are pretty happy to tell you what went wrong and what they didn’t like.
But you want to process this information quickly.
Here are a couple of examples.
“They couldn’t write as well as I do.” This is a big red flag. The agency is not there to write like they do or write better than they do but to create the content required to turn visitors into leads.
“They couldn’t keep up.” This might be a red flag if this means the company kept changing its strategy or changing its mind. If this behavior continues with your agency, you’ll never be able to get any traction or drive any meaningful success.
“We didn't get any results.” The most common complaint. This could be legit. If they were working for a year and saw no results, shame on the agency. But if they were fired after a month or two because of limited results, that’s not reasonable.
This is also relevant if they couldn’t get on the same page with the agency around expected results.
It could have been they under invested and didn’t get results. It could be that they changed directions frequently and didn’t get results. It could be that they told the agency what to do and didn’t get results.
All of these scenarios need to be uncovered if possible.
Asking The Difficult Questions
Now that we’ve uncovered the questions you need to ask prospects before you even consider getting them a proposal, let’s spend some time talking about how you go about asking these questions.
I find that agency owners almost always know what questions to ask but rarely ask them.
You might offend them. You might feel like you’re asking too many questions. You might feel like you’re digging up old and potentially negative feelings. Your questions might remind them why they fired the old agency. Your questions might make them feel like you’re going to be difficult to work with. Your questions are extending the process when you know they are in a hurry.
All of these might be true.
But it might also be true that your questions will have the opposite effect. They might find your level of questioning refreshing. They might feel like you’re taking extra time to get to know them. They might feel like you’re interested in why it didn’t work to ensure this time it works better. They should be more confident that you are taking your time so that your proposal and recommendations are thoughtful and accurate.
The bottom line here is that you can’t know what they’re thinking. If they’re thinking the worst, they’re the wrong client for you. If they’re thinking the best, they’re the perfect client for you.
What you will see is how they respond to your questions. If they’re nervous, anxious, short, or even terse with you and their answers—pass on the business. If they’re delighted that you are interested in their experiences and happy to share with you the pluses and minuses then you should proceed.
You see, it's all up to them. You ask the questions and they respond. But you have to ask the hard questions to get the responses you need to make the best decisions around whether you want to work with them or not.
There is NO reason to take a client if they’re not going to be referenceable. There is NO reason to put your team through a set of experiences that don’t produce positive outcomes.
It’s here in the sales process where you have to be the gatekeeper and only let through those people and those companies that are going to result in profitable, referenceable, happy clients and team members.
You’re all capable of having these challenging conversations.
Start Today Tip – Build these questions into your sales process. You can all benefit from a more elongated sales process. I still talk to agency owners who jump to proposals as soon as the prospect asks for one. I’d encourage you to slow down and elongate your sales process with a 90-minute meeting to ask questions like these above and talk through real issues that popped up with old agencies. Finally, I’d also encourage you to review your pipeline and marketing activities. If you don't have enough leads to pass on up to 50% of the opportunities, you don’t have enough leads. Double down on content creation, website experience, lead nurturing and social media promotion to make sure you get enough leads to be picky when it comes to who you actually provide proposals too. With a bit of practice, you’ll notice your client roster looking better and better over time.
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