Playing Whack-a-Mole with Prospects

One of the most significant marketing blunders that marketing agencies make is deciding who they want to marry after they fall in love with someone. In other words, they bend the criteria for what makes a qualified client, either because their sales techniques are weak or because they find themselves with far less opportunity than capacity. No part of the marketing mix is exempt, either: you find it with internet marketing services, public relations firms, marketing agencies, and design firms.

All this points to the worst time waster in new business activity. It's not preparing a direct mail marketing campaign, an email marketing blast, or some flaw in even the best marketing strategy that firms can employ. No, the worse time waster is chasing prospects who have no intention of buying. Worse yet is traveling to those prospects to find that out, or developing an extensive RFP that goes no where.

I believe that when there is a fit between your firm and the marketing prospect, there is very little that you can do to kill the opportunity. The key, there, is finding that fit. And the good news is that you can determine that from afar, by phone.

I recently developed a comprehensive list of prospect criteria for a client, and I want to share it with you here. But first I want to explain the two things that I want you to do with it. First, I want the small business owner or sales person to present this list when they first talk about the prospect internally. That is to say, there's a check mark next to each quality that applies, and there's a stratagy to overcome the area(s) where they don't fit. The second thing I'd like you to do is to reframe these and publish them on your website.

Why? The prospect is notably more honest in seeing the extent of the fit than you are. You are plagued with the propensity to "fit" the prospect by shoving them in your box and saying something like: "as soon as they see our good work, everything will be great."

So here is the list that should be part of your business strategy and your sales management process--develop a question for each one, and check them off during the conversation without it sounding like you are using a checklist:

  • Are they capable of spending at least 5% of your AGI (preferably 10%)? They won't likely trust you with that entire budget ouf of the gate, but if all goes well, there should be that much money that you can effectively spend on their behalf. That will allow you to both make money on the account and get deeply into it in such a way that you can move the needle. If they won't give you a figure, just ask about the kinds of things they typically do in a given year.
  • They are comfortable with spending at least $xx,000 on the first project that you undertake for them. There's no scientific number for that, but for most firms, it's $30,000-$60,000.
  • They should not be spending their own money (like a developer or restaurant). People are too tight with their own money.
  • They should, however, have budget authority over that money.
  • Along that same line of thinking, they are ideally forthright about the budget. You can't always get a straight answer on this one, but it's a very telling characteristic of a qualified client. They think like this: "I have $120,000 to spend for this endeavor. What cool and effective things could we get for that money?" On the other hand, the client who doesn't trust you (because a former relationship destroyed that trust) says: "I need these things--what will they cost." Even if you can't get a straight answer, at least find out if the funds have been allocated. That's an important word.
  • They don't insist that a principal be the day to day contact. The principal should bounce in and out of the relationship, but their role should be to provide strategy and not account service. Most principals (defined in this case as eager to take risks) do not have the patience or the availability to function well in an account service role. Besides, when they do that, they are neglecting tasks that are much more important to the agency's health, like business development, financial management, and mentoring the next level down.
  • They are willing and even eager to listen to your insightful advice. One of the best means of verifying this on the phone is to pick something (like from their website or from what you know of their reputation on the street) and push back a little. How do they respond? Do they acknowledge it or are they defensive?
  • They respect personal boundaries. Primarily that means that don't expect you to consistently work late nights, especially if they've not turned around approvals on a timely basis or simply create false emergencies on a consistent basis.
  • They are appreciative/grateful, and they express it to your staff.
  • They agree to serve as the single point of contact, marshaling the various political factions within the organization so that you have clear direction and so that you can stay on schedule.
  • They pay on time. To take this even further, they give you the name of someone deep inside the financial department who can usher invoices through more expediently.
  • They are comfortable with you as an agency making money. In fact, I'd go beyond that and say that they want you to make money, primarily so that you can give them your best thinking and so that your operation is sustainable over the long term, giving them a long-lasting partnership with your firm. The key here is to talk about money very early in the process. There are respectful ways to do that, which I'm going to illustrate soon in a new podcast. Unfortunately, most firms feel like the new business process is fragile by nature, and they are afraid to bring up issues that might be perceived as negative, like money.
  • The work that you'll be doing for clients will make a difference in the world. Obviously it can't be evil, and often it can't be notoriously cause-based, but it should at least be in that large middle ground of selling products and services that people actually need, and doing so in an ethical manner.
  • What are their reasons for leaving the current ad agency? Are they legitimate ones, or are they petty ones? How will you feel if they later leave you for the same reasons?
  • Closely related to the previous point, why have they chosen you to participate as a possible partner? Is it location? Expertise? Relationship-based? The only great reason is expertise.

What do you do if they have the right answers to nearly all the questions but don't seem like a fit in one or two areas? Be honest with them about that, and tell them how you think that might unfold in the relationship. Stress again that you are looking for a good fit, both for you and for them, and they'd need to carefully ponder whether they should proceed. That's what I mean by Whack-a-Mole. Hit the opportunity on the head and see if it surfaces again. Always suggest good competitors to them, too, so that they can explore all their options. If you aren't willing to do that, you're just paranoid and not very confident in your expertise.

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