Looking back over the two-hundred-plus deals I have worked on since starting in the new business role at Element Three, I’ve realized that the majority of work succeeds or fails based on how it starts. A messy, disorganized beginning often leads to a scrambled start where the team starts out working from behind. It’s kind of like giving up a kick return for a touchdown on the first play of a football game. On the flip side, having a great kickoff to an engagement harbors the energy and momentum and allows the work to launch in a way that creates excellent relationships and enthusiasm for the work—things we all want and need when we’re starting to work with an outside agency.
While much of the work necessary to create the latter starting scenario is intangible, there are a few steps that should be taken during the sales process to ensure you have a solid starting point with your agency. As a buyer, you share the responsibility of ensuring that you hire the right outside firm to work with you. I’ll dive into warning signs you can pick up on in conversation to clue you in on these steps not being followed by your potential agency.
The working team needs to be involved in the sales process
There was a time at Element Three when we did not include our consultant team in our sales process, I regret to say. In effect, the new business team would sell an idea, create a scope of work for that idea, and then show it to the people who would be responsible for doing the work and say, effectively, “have fun!” While not every deal that started this way was clumsy, it became obvious to us that the people doing the work should have a major role in creating the frameworks and plans to actually execute on the work.
Currently, our process is designed to align on the objectives that need to be accomplished, to identify the people on our team with the proper skill sets and experience, and to bring them into the conversation to allow them the access and opportunity to ask the right questions in order to design the program for the objectives.
Warning signs this isn’t happening
The biggest warning sign is that you receive a proposal without speaking to anyone who will actually do the work. While you may agree in principle to working together prior to meeting the people who will execute it, you will want an opportunity to evaluate whether or not the person ultimately responsible for the quality of the work is someone you want to work with on a near daily basis.
Remember, this person is an extension of your internal team, and the relationship matters as much for the work outcome as does their particular expertise. Unless the proper solution is an exploratory engagement to design the proper initiatives to reach your business goals, make sure you’re meeting the lead consultant for your work prior to agreeing to formally begin working together.
The agency maintains a single source of truth for your business
This may sound like a familiar story for you: you go through a sales conversation with one individual, and then upon being passed off to another individual from the company, you proceed to answer the same questions all over again. It’s almost like you’re having meeting deja vu.
Some repetition is actually useful; regardless of how well downloaded an expert may be, there are times when hearing you, the buyer, repeat the answer is extremely helpful. However, there should be a baseline understanding of what your business does, how you create revenue, and any initial thoughts that have been shared about where work may begin. It is the lead salesperson’s responsibility to ensure that the internal team understands those three areas at a minimum, as this allows the agency experts to ask more detailed questions and get a better understanding of the situation so that they can design the right solution.
At Element Three, we use HubSpot as our CRM and include multiple documents in each company profile to ensure our knowledge is being handled in one place. These documents include written notes from our conversations with prospects, a new client brief I create for each opportunity, and any company knowledge assets that our prospects have sent. Following the kickoff of a new client, our consultant team also creates and consistently updates an onboarding document so that any time a new team member begins working on the account, they have background information to learn from. We of course also take time to meet with our team throughout the entire sales process and to do a full download on the business and the individual we are selling to. Some things simply are not captured well on paper.
Warning signs this isn’t happening
If you immediately get the feeling that the individual who has just entered into the sales process heard of your business approximately 3 minutes ago, something is wrong. In this situation, you should simply ask whether or not they’ve been downloaded on the first conversation.
If they haven’t, it could be something as simple as they were out of office and didn’t have a chance to get caught up—or something more serious, like the agency doesn’t have any process in place to make sure people entering into the engagement have a working understanding of the business. For the second case, you’re going to want to tread carefully because you’ll probably experience a poorly informed team at kickoff and throughout the work, as well.
The agency maintains ownership of the process and keeps you informed
The reality should be that the agency knows how to begin an engagement better than anyone outside of their proverbial four walls\. Ideally there is a defined sales process that works to align on the objectives, design the solution to solve those objectives, and identify the team necessary to do that work, as I outlined above.
At Element Three, we are also always working to make sure that we can repeat your challenge back to you in our own words, demonstrate expertise in solving that problem, and give you clarity about how our approach will leverage the expertise to solve your problem.
In order to get all of that accomplished in a sales process, we have to maintain control over what happens in each stage. One of the key objectives of my role, in fact, is to consistently be double-checking with both our team and our prospects about whether or not we are getting those goals checked off. If we’re not, it either means we skipped a step or we turned over control to a prospect. Either way, the outcome is going to be the same: we cannot begin working together because there isn’t alignment across the board and no one truly knows what will happen next. It’s the blind leading the blind.
Warning signs this isn’t happening
This is the easiest one to sniff out as a buyer. At the end of every call, evaluate what happens. Did the agency representative ask you what happens next and wait? Or do they define the next steps for you? Of course there is nuance and space for you, as a buyer, to ask additional questions and help guide the process, but if you can tell they’ve never thought through a sales process before, that should make you suspicious about their ability to execute a clean handoff to the working team and to generate the important momentum at the beginning of an engagement.
Doing the work really isn’t the hardest part
Our CEO, Tiffany Sauder, often says that the work isn’t what fails, the relationship is. It isn’t that your marketing partner cannot execute on the project you’ve both agreed is necessary to reach your objectives. It is far more likely that somewhere along the way, communication failed, it became tough for your team to work with your outside vendor’s team, and now you’re wondering how you made another mistake in hiring a consultant.
The beginning of a business relationship is one of the most important things that will determine whether or not it’s a success. Don’t botch the kickoff and start from behind.