I never considered myself to be a salesman. As a Dutchman living in Northern Ireland, I’m often considered a blunt instrument; the combination of my typical Dutch bluntness with my atypical lack of a social filter ensures I sometimes come across as vulgar, arrogant, obnoxious, or just plain weird – none of which are conducive to generating sales for my agency.
Yet somehow I do find myself aiding the company’s sales process, with a rather pleasant degree of success. In my role as director of the digital side of the business, getting involved in that icky people stuff is unavoidable.
But, against my expectations, I find myself enjoying conversations with prospective customers. I think it’s because I don’t view those meetings as sales pitches. For me, the core focus of meeting with prospects is to educate them on the awesomeness that is digital marketing.
And I suspect that might just be the key to our success.
We have all learned to recognise salesmen, and many of us have developed an almost allergic reaction to their pitches. When we’re confronted with a slick narrative, an eagerness to please, and a boundless extolling of the product’s benefits, we tend to respond with skepticism and distrust.
It’s a healthy response, because it tends to save us money and disappointment. Too often those sorts of sales tactics tend to serve as a cover for inadequate products. And we’ve learned those lessons the hard way.
Which is why the best salesmen don’t use any of those tactics. The best salesmen are those that listen and ask questions, and try to understand the root of the prospect’s problem. Because only when armed with that knowledge can you engage with a prospect to help solve their real issue.
Because that’s the business we as digital marketers are really in – we’re problem solvers. We help businesses grow stronger online by solving the problems that prevent them from enjoying online success. Often those problems are solved by better tactical execution of their digital marketing plans, but sometimes we need to go to a higher level and solve the client’s strategic issues first.
So when I start talking to a prospective client, I come armed with a list of questions. The best initial pitch meetings are those where the client does most of the talking, and I’m the one taking plenty of notes. I learn how the client operates, what their target market is, and what their key issues are with regards to the digital realm.
Usually during that first meeting I barely mention what I can do for that client, because it’s more about what they really need. The moment you start to shoehorn a client in to your business model is the moment you lose sight of what the client really needs, as you start to focus on what the client can do for you as an agency.
And that’s the wrong approach, because you end up solving your own problem first, rather than solving the client’s problem. The former will likely lead to an unsuccessful retainer, whereas the latter serves as a foundation for a long term mutually beneficial relationship.
Armed with the knowledge of what a client really needs, a subsequent sales meeting is about educating the client. Often what a client asked you to pitch for and what really solves their problems are not perfectly aligned, so you need to shine a light on that discrepancy – even if that means steering the client towards a solution you might not necessarily be able to offer.
I genuinely believe that the key to long term agency success is by being honest to a client, and educating them on what will deliver the best value for their business regardless of what I’m offering.
If the client’s needs and your services do align, that’s when you get to sell. But once again you’re not trying to get the client to sign on the dotted line. If that’s your primary goal in the latter stages of the sales process, the client is likely to feel ‘being sold to’ and that aforementioned allergic reaction will again prop up.
A client doesn’t buy your product – they buy your passion. They buy your expertise and your love for what you do, and you need to make sure that shines through in your conversations.
I think that’s where the success rate of my sales meetings is decided – with me speaking passionately about what digital marketing done right can do for the client. Sometimes my account managers feel I give away too much at those latter stage meetings, but I disagree. I think it’s precisely because I speak about it with such passion and am as open and honest about it, they choose to engage with me instead of a competitor.
It’s also why I tend to be hesitant about responding to invitations to tender that only allow us to submit a written response. In those instances I don’t get to ask questions about what the client really needs, and I can’t show my passion for what I do.
And that means that often the agency with the slickest proposal document wins out. I’m not sure that always leads to the most successful project. In fact I’m almost sure it doesn’t, because the agency that wins it will have responded best to what the client feels are its key success factors – and as we all know, rare is the client that truly understands its own requirements when it comes to digital.
To summarise, I think they key to our increasingly successful sales process is to not try and sell to the client, but to first and foremost understand what they need. And if it’s something we can help them with, we show them just how passionate we are about what we do.
In the end I don’t think it comes down to what big name brands you can show in your portfolio. Those certainly help to open doors, but the closing of a sale comes down to the enthusiasm you have for what you do. If you can show that to a client, they’re buying in to you already.