When going through the sales process with a marketing agency, make sure to understand who you're talking to and what involvement you can expect them to have in your project.
Depending on the agency's size and structure, you could be talking to different people at the various stages of the sales process. Below, I've listed the positives and negatives you may face when talking with those in various roles at the agency.
WHO SHOULD YOU BE TALKING TO ON THE AGENCY SIDE?
Make sure to know the title and role of your primary contact in the sales process. This is often based on the size and structure of the agency you’re speaking with.
If you’re talking with an owner/partner, make sure the story they’re selling is backed up by reality. I’ve seen way too many owners begin to buy their own BS. When you pull back the covers, the actual work produced is weak, and their client relationships are chaotic. Ask questions about what, if any, role the owner will have with your account.
- POSITIVES - They can speak authoritatively about the company and make tough decisions on the spot. Ultimately the responsibility of ensuring your satisfaction is theirs, so it’s always good to have some relationship with someone at the top who you can talk with if something isn’t going right.
- NEGATIVES - Even if they aren’t the most knowledgeable person at the agency (which they may be), they likely are the most passionate and experienced in selling at the agency. If the owner’s passion and knowledge doesn’t also permeate through the agency, you may be buying into one thing and getting another.
DEDICATED BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT/SALES
The role of a dedicated business development resource can vary from agency to agency. They may be pure lead generators, pure closers, or a combination of the two. Sales people on the professional services side can hold a number of titles from VP of Business to Account Executive.
At S4, we’ve tried using dedicated sales people a few times and never really figured out the formula. Our experience saw very limited success in lead generation. On the sales/closing side, we felt that we were delivering a subpar experience for the prospective client to prevent the owners and subject area experts from being pulled off other tasks for the sales process. This isn’t unusual. We’re a small business, and it’s unrealistic to expect someone to come in and tell our story as well as the founders. I’ve seen other agencies try the same thing without success, with most sales roles lasting less than a year. In talking about this subject with other agency owners at conferences, I hear the same thing, and the horror stories far outweigh the successes. A few exceptions have involved agencies having sales compensation through pure salary, instead of heavily incentive/commission driven. In these cases, it’s usually a role promotion for someone who has worked at that agency for a few years and really knows their story and product.
When talking with an agency’s dedicated sales person, be sure to understand their role, background, and expertise. Salespeople are renowned for saying whatever is needed to make the sale, overpromising and underestimating, and talking beyond their expertise. Be on the lookout for these tendencies.
- POSITIVES - Managing the sales process is the salesperson’s primary job, and they are likely to give it and you their complete attention. If you’re talking to an owner or other employee who has other duties, they may view sales as secondary to their ‘real job’. A salesperson is more likely to take as much time as you need, accommodate your requests, and/or wine and dine you.
- NEGATIVES - Misalignment between sales and the rest of the company and leadership is common. This can lead to being sold on a different ‘product’ than the agency actually offers. A salesperson typically lacks technical expertise to answer detailed or tough questions. Eagerness to make the sale can create incentives to underbid and overpromise, resulting in problems on the backend. This can result in your expectations being unmet while, at the same time, the agency is actually losing money, which is just about the worst outcome for all involved.
The benefit of talking with an Account Manager or, say, the Director of Operations, is that they will likely be somewhat involved in backing up what they’ve sold.
- POSITIVES - You’ll get a better understanding of the ground-level game at the agency. Overpromising in the sales process is tempered by the sales contact being on the hook for execution.
- NEGATIVES - You might miss out on detailed technical conversations or consultative brainstorming that an owner or subject matter expert should be able to deliver in the sales process.
SUBJECT MATTER EXPERT
In some cases, especially with smaller agencies, your primary contact may be a subject matter expert with expertise in the area that you expressed interest in during the initial inquiry. This can sometimes make sense if your inquiry was specific and technical in nature. However, you may miss out on a wider understanding of what the agency offers.
- POSITIVES - Usually cuts to the chase and dives into the specifics of your problem or how their expertise could be leveraged to meet your goals. Almost always cuts through the standard sales BS as the SME isn’t trained in or, in some cases, used to sales.
- NEGATIVES - Can miss out on the big picture or be unable to apply the perspective of multiple disciplines in consulting with you. For example, if you have a dev-focused inquiry and meet with a Sr. Developer, it’s unlikely the conversation will veer into the market viability or UX challenges the application faces, even when it probably should.
In the end, it’s best to interact with as many people as possible from the agency before making a decision, so you understand their contribution in light of their role and future involvement with you if you do begin to work with them.