Sales gets a pretty bad rap in the creative industries and it is easy to see why.
If we imagine sales people, we tend to conjure up images of caustic Apprentice candidates, young and overconfident estate agents or the photocopier salesman of old. And then there are the telesales variety – no doubt we receive many of the same phone calls – from business directories, conference organisers, offshore SEO teams and the like, using poorly researched, arrogantly presumptive sales techniques. The gaping holes in subject understanding are plugged with the nonsense business speak, bad grammar and clichés that have us hanging up the phone in the first 30 seconds.
Yet new business revenue is the lifeblood of any agency – so how do we overcome our squeamishness and channel our inner salesperson to drive our businesses forward?
The good news is that whilst the sales stereotypes are very much alive and kicking, none of us have to behave in this way to win new clients. Here are my top tips for generating more opportunities, and winning more work
Think relationships, not projects
When we identify a new business shortfall in financial terms, there is a tendency to approach businesses and brands with a ‘sales’ mindset – what can we sell them, are they looking for a new identity, new website, new agency? Yes? No? Move on.
But let’s take a step back. For most of us, the majority of our business comes from recommendations, from our network, from existing clients. Those introductions tend to happen when there is already a business need and by being recommended, we come with a seal of approval from a trusted source. In short, we are fast tracking the relationship building process. It is no surprise then that ‘cold’ new business prospecting sees a far lower conversion rate than recommendations.
So, whilst we cannot rely on recommendations alone, it is worth changing our mindset about our cold prospecting activity. Instead of hoping to go from introduction to project opportunity to bottom line revenue in one fell swoop, imagine instead that we are simply adding to the network of people who know who we are and what we are capable of. It is the beginning of a relationship, so the pressure is off to ‘sell’ but by routinely meeting new people we start to build up a vibrant network of potential clients.
Anyone who has spent any time on Linked in over the past two years will have seen how it has transformed from being a simple ‘Facebook for Business” to a thought leadership platform. This trend is great news for small businesses. Without expending vast marketing budgets it is possible to pool agency thinking and build thought leadership campaigns which extend across a blog, Linked in, Medium, events or webinars. Regularly publishing new content gives our SEO a positive boost and keeping our growing network of contacts updated with news, views and invitations to events means we stay on their radar. Most importantly thought leadership means we stay authentic. As we will naturally write on the subjects we are passionate and knowledgeable about, potential clients are offered an insight into what it would be like to work with us.
Look for drivers of business change
The most effective sales weapon in our armoury is research. By understanding more about a prospect: the individual, the company, the competitors and the market, we can begin to have informed business conversations, rather than project discussions. Thanks to Google, research has never been easier and a few well-placed, informed questions will help uncover business challenges and initiate a far more interesting discussion than a simple sales pitch. To that end, where possible I would avoid a ‘creds meeting’, it implies a formulaic show and tell, which leaves little room for broader discussion. I’m reminded of a client/agency speed dating event I attended with the indomitable Richard Williams from Williams Murray Hamm. Whilst most agencies were juggling laptops and presentation boards, Richard, empty handed, simply fixed the clients in his gaze and asked one question: “So what’s keeping you up at night?” We won two new projects that day, no ‘selling’ necessary.
Lastly, and this is the boring bit – we need to add in a bit of process. The theory of new business is not rocket science, it really is just relationship building. But it does require time, energy and motivation. Without a plan, and a process for measuring our progress against that plan, we will just get busy with the business of looking after our existing clients. Put in place a simple plan, assign responsibilities then measure activity and results.
Take a business card and link in with everyone you meet. Ask more questions and find out about their challenges. Stay in touch, however interested or interesting they may appear at the time – If there is one thing I have learned, some of the best new business opportunities come from the people you least expect!
This article was first published in the Design Business Association newsletter.