Agency Business Development Challenges & Solutions

Kathryn Neal OdellThis is a guest post by Kathryn Neal Odell (@sales_onsite), managing partner for Sales-Onsite. Seeing how agencies struggled with their own sales and marketing efforts, Kathryn started Sales-Onsite in 2003 to build a comprehensive sales and marketing structure for those who “don’t have time to do for themselves what they do for their own clients.” She has a 20-year background in sales, operations and HR for companies like Quest Diagnostics, CNA Insurance and Manpower.

How do you fix “the agency business development problem?” We went to the source and asked some marketing agency executives and business development managers about the challenges they face and how they overcome them. Below, we curate their thoughts on the topic; what would you add?

Note: Feedback is anonymous so that executives could share candid thoughts on the issue. All respondents work at small- to mid-size agencies.

The Business Development Landscape

The agency execs’ perspective:

Financial commitment. “We always have uncertainty if the added expense of hiring a business development exec will generate revenue. For an agency under 10-20M revenue, it’s a huge commitment to hire a 100K person. Or do we just teach a less experienced person at 40K because ‘anything is better than nothing’?”

Skill set. “There are a lot of different ingredients that make up a successful business development exec. In my agency, I’ve been the best salesperson. I’ve had a couple different people that had different sales strengths, but not the complete package.”

The business development executives had some thoughts:

Resources. “I met with the directors and aligned a clear vision. But acting on the plan? They couldn’t do it. There was no budget allocated against sales, but they had lofty goals. They focused on client work first so new business development took second, third or even fourth place but with the same revenue outcome expectations!”

Team support. “At the larger agency, I was an integral part of the team and got a lot of support: marketing, sales collateral and access to dedicated team members. At the smaller agency, there was zero support. It was just me. There was no team behind me and I struggled to get everything I needed to make sales happen.”

Metrics. “They gave me data on the profile of a ‘successful opportunity.’ They are always trying to get better at knowing what it takes from an organizational viewpoint to win a deal and they share that with me so that I can win deals.”

Expectations. “I wasn’t told I needed revenue at the 6-month mark, but I assumed that. Even the account-side people were held to metrics.”

Feedback. “I don’t want to be in an environment where I don’t know where I stand. I expect myself to perform. You need ongoing open and transparent feedback with management. That way, I don’t have to guess: I’m either rocking or looking for a job on the side.”

Trust. “In a small agency, you expect to have a voice of what you need to be successful for them. Where it falls apart is when the owners think they know better. They listen but no actions are taken so there is an implicit distrust in you. Then, I know that they will only be evaluating me based on numbers.”

How to Overcome Business Development Challenges

Fixing it? The business development execs had some ideas:

Define the agency brand. “Invest in your brand. Agencies are the worst culprits. Eat your own dog food. Clients will choose you if they recognize your brand.”

Put your agency higher on the priority list. “You are your own best client. Sales and new business development have to have a main focus.”

Be what you offer. “You have to have a social presence. A genuine one. Every client is trying to grow through social so if you don’t have this presence, they won’t trust you can do that for them.”

Create agency awareness. “Build awareness that you are a player that stays. Go to conferences. Get speaking engagements.”

Do they know how you’re different? “Clients want to know how you are different from other agencies. Your marketing efforts have to be aligned with your sales efforts and present a unique value proposition (UVP).”

The agency executives had some suggestions:

Performance based compensation. “I just hired someone who had run his own agency in the past so he was entrepreneurial and able to think on his feet. He wanted to build something so he was willing to work on a performance basis. I gave him a formula for ownership.”

Shared services model. “How long do you commit to waiting for them to generate revenue? Agencies under 20M in revenue should explore sharing the expense of one business development exec with other agencies of similar size and culture if the agency models are compatible but not competitive.”

What can we learn from this? The solution requires a dialogue. Build trust by setting clear mutual expectations out of the gate and maintain close communication throughout the relationship.

P.S. Before you hire your next business development executive, check out the five skills they need and how to find out if they have them.

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