Ep027: Scale Agency Sales Beyond the Referral

Ready to scale your agency sales beyond referrals? Most agencies grow from existing contacts, networking, and referrals. But that’s not a viable way to scale. In this episode, I’ll tell you what it takes to scale your agency sales.

Mentioned in this episode:

Book a call with Liston


Full Episode Transcription:

Hello and welcome to the Liston.io Show, I’m Liston, and I want to help you build a better consulting business. Now in today’s episode, I’m going to be talking about what to do, how to think about scaling up your sales for your agency. Now, it has a lot of different parts. I’m going to get into all the intricacies of that, and I’m going to give you the five components that you really need in place in order for that to happen effectively. Now, I’m going to ask two things of you today.

Number one, and this is really quick, if you’re enjoying this podcast, if you’re getting something out of it, tell someone. Just send them to Liston.io/podcast. They can get this episode and other episodes there. You can go there to ask a question. And, if you are looking for help scaling up your sales at your consulting firm or your agency, I’d be happy to chat about that in a 60 minute call. I can help you diagnose exactly what’s going on, clarify your goals, and then maybe also tell you how I might be able to help you, if that’s appropriate. All you have to do is go to Liston.io/strategy. Again, that’s Liston, L-I-S-T-O-N dot IO slash strategy.

If your agency is like most agencies out there, you are, if not 100%, let’s say 90% or more reliant on referrals, and usually, not everybody, but usually, that also means you’re waiting for referrals to come your way. You don’t have a proactive strategy. Now either way, no matter how your referrals are coming in, whether you’re proactive about it or you’re passive about it, the problem with referrals is that they’re just not that reliable until they hit a certain threshold and scale. Most people never quite get there, and so what I’ve been hearing a lot of people ask is, “How can an agency scale up their sales in order to do away with the unreliable referrals, even though referrals are great, of course, but in order to have something more predictable, therefore more scalable and more repeatable in place, and in today’s episode, I’m going to be talking about all of that. And really, the solution has five different components. It’s a system, a scalable system.

So the one thing that I want to really drive home before I get into the individual components, is that sales is one piece of your business, a very, very important piece, right. My friend Mark Butler, he says that a business has three parts: marketing, sales, and fulfillment. I’m going to get a little bit more specific than that, I’m going to give you a five part model, but essentially what I want you to take away from this is that you can’t only address your sales. You can’t address that in a vacuum, because as you’ll see in a second, it’s reliant on other aspects of your business, other decisions, other systems that need to be in place in order to really drive it. So, here we go.

Number one, first thing you need in place in order to scale up your sales is a target, a clear target. Now, military metaphors are very popular in sales, not a big fan of them, but we can call it a target. We can call it a niche. We can call it an ideal client, whatever you want to call it. What we need to know is who do we want to go talk to and show our offer? Who needs to know about this? Who are we trying to serve? So, it’s not going to be enough to say people with budget who are wonderful to work with and appreciate the work I do. Those are baseline conditions, right, your only going to want clients who meet that criteria. The thing I would challenge you to think about is if you were to have to go out and build a list of people that you wanted to target and to put your message in front of, who would be on that list? How would you find those people? And so, there needs to be a combination of a market that you want to go after.

So a market maybe like for me, it’s agencies, professional service firms, consulting firms. For you, it might be the health and wellness market, and then we want to get a little more specific than that. So, what titles are you targeting there? How big are the companies that you want to target? What current problems might they have going on? So, the more specific you can get on your target, the easier it’s going to be to find those people and to reach those people, because by definition you know who you’re not going to reach out to. You know which advertising dollars you don’t want to spend.

Let me put this targeting thing to you another way. Eventually, scaling means bringing more people on, bringing more resources to bear for a particular activity in your business, right? So, if you’re scaling sales, you’re going to either invest in tools or software or automation or people, and probably some combination of those things. So, when you bring someone on, let’s say you have your first sales hire. You hire an additional person tomorrow, what will you tell them on their first day? If they ask you, who should I go after to become a client, what will you tell them? You need to have a really clear answer for that in order to even have a chance at making a scalable system, because otherwise there aren’t enough limits on the system for them. So, if you said we work with small to medium businesses in the US, that’s not nearly enough, right, because essentially they have 27 million businesses to go after and that’s just sort of ridiculous.

So, what I would tell you is decide on you target. You can change it later. It doesn’t have to be permanent, you can even have phases where you go after different targets. This is a really common approach, a lot of companies do where they say, we think that the following three target markets will be a great place for us to sell our services. But the put all of their energy into one at a time, right. So, there’s lots of ways to slice up your targeting. A lot of sales organizations will do it by region. That’s another thing you can use. Like I said, you may do it by vertical, you may do it by company size. Whatever it is, you need to decide on a target in order to have a chance at scaling your sales up.

The second thing you need in place are growth channels, right. So, this is your marketing. Personally, my growth channels are this podcast, so thanks for listening, I appreciate it. LinkedIn is another where I have a combination of outreach and plus I publish content there on a regular basis that people can go consume, learn more about me. I also have search, which is very slow going, a very long term project for me. Search is actually something that I’ve invested in a lot more recently and I’m paying attention to a lot more on my website. That’s slow going, that’s a really long project. I also have email marketing, and a combination of automation and newsletters.

I have referral partnerships that I have set up and referral relationships, and I’m also working on scaled cold outreach and paid ads. The nice thing about both scaled outreach and paid ads, and by scaled outreach I mean kind of a combination of list building and then manually sending out emails at scale. The nice thing about that and paid ads is that they can be a little bit more predictable, right. So, I really believe in this podcast, and I’m investing a lot of money in this podcast, a lot of time in this podcast, and it’s also impacting other areas like LinkedIn and social media, like search, like email. But, the podcast does not yet bring in enough predictable leads in order to be that predictable lead source for me. So, that’s going to take some time to develop. It’s only been three months.

The question I have for you is what are your growth channels? So, I just listed off, what is it? Seven different things that I’m working on, and maybe you shouldn’t quite take my lead. But do you have one, two, three different marketing channels that you’re using consistently and maybe not attempting to optimize, but you’re pouring more activity into those so that you can look in the mirror and say, yes, I’m doing all I can in order to generate leads for my self and for my business. If you don’t have that under control and please don’t feel bad if you don’t, because like I said, most agencies are very reliant on referrals and aren’t doing a lot of proactive things. But if you don’t have that under control, the first thing I would ask you is, do you have an in-bound channel that you can invest in and an outbound channel that you can invest in?

So, outbound of course means “I’m pushing outward to the world, people aren’t asking to hear from me, but I’m going to go talk to them.” Now, this goes back to point number one. Who am I going to send an outbound message to if I don’t have a target in mind? The nice thing about outbound of course is that it can bring results to bear much faster than inbound on average. Inbound takes a long time, but the people that come to you and fill out your form or email you or call you directly, those people they already trust you. They already think that you can solve their problems. So, those are great. The nice thing about outbound is you get to choose who you want to talk to, and in next week’s podcast by the way if you’re interested in this topic of inbound versus outbound, I will be covering this, so go ahead and hit subscribe and I’ll be talking about it next week.

So, I would advocate for you to choose an inbound and an outbound strategy. My thoughts about marketing and growth channels is you should at all times be trying at least three things, and then maybe once a quarter evaluate what am I doing, what’s working, what’s not, and then eliminate the thing that’s not working and try something new, right. And then in three months, you get to do it all over again until you’ve vetted, hey, I’ve got two great growth channels, and now I’m just eliminating the third one every quarter until I find something else that works. And maybe as you scale up, you’re up to three, four, five different growth channels, but that’s what I would recommend that you do.

And what I would ask you to think about if you don’t have your growth channels in place already is where’s the audience you want to reach already going? Someone, many someones very likely, out in the world have already developed an audience that you want to reach, your target market. Go there. To talk to those people. That might help you choose your growth channels based on where your audience already exists. So just to recap really quickly, the number one thing you need is to have a target in mind, the number two thing you need to think about is how do you reach them, what are your growth channels?

And now the number three thing to think about is conversion. How will you make it easy for these people to raise their hands and ask for your help. Typically this means a form completion or some type of direct outreach, right. They’re chatting with a bot on your website. They’re booking a call. They’re requesting a meeting with you, they’re asking for a demo of our whatever amazing agency service you have. Like, whatever it is, they’re basically filling out a form and saying, I want to talk to you. There can be a whole host of different conversions that happen before that. So, once you nail getting your strategy calls or sales calls on the books, basically meetings on the calendar, once you start to figure that out, you would then work backwards in your funnel and start to ask questions like, okay, if someone’s not ready to talk to me now, what would represent maybe a softer level of commitment for them, but still I’d have chance to educate them, right.

So, this is where something like a webinar my come in, or something like an email course or an ebook or some other piece of thought leadership to demonstrate how you’re different and how you help people. Even before that, you have things like PDFs or little downloads that people can get off of your site, but what I would tell you is if you haven’t nailed targeting people, then using growth channels to get them to go and book meetings with you, if you haven’t nailed that quite yet, you’re not going to want to spend a lot of time on the earlier pieces. I would recommend you have one single download so that you can nurture people over time, but the main thing here is you’re going to want to convert people.

So, let’s go back to the initial question. If you wanted to scale up your sales, you need meetings on the calendar, right, there’s no two ways about that. And so, you need an optimized place typically on your website, maybe it’s also your LinkedIn page, where people can go and book a meeting with you. There’s no simpler way to think about this, and all you really need is some form technology and a simple website in order to make that happen. No matter what in this third component of your system, the conversion component, your highest level conversion always happens when you get on the phone with people. You’re not going to make a sale until someone has agreed to talk to you, and they of course must be interested in your and have some understanding and be prepared for that call.

You may also even want to qualify out the people who convert, maybe not qualify out. Let’s just say disqualify, I think that’s a better English way of saying it. You want to disqualify the people who either don’t fit the profile of someone that you want to help or maybe are a little bit too early in their journey, so they don’t have the budget or they don’t have the characteristics of someone that you want to help. You want to disqualify them, and there are some really easy ways to do that.

So just to recap, we’ve got our target, the people we want to go bring our message to, and let them know that we exist. We have our growth channels, those are the ways that we’re going to actually reach them. We have a conversion step, which is a way for them to book a meeting with us. And now of course, we’re going to get on the phone and we’re going to sell. Well, if you’re been listening to me for a while, then you know my advice. If you haven’t been listening, first of all, so glad you’re here.

But second of all, my advice is serve don’t sell. If you are in a consulting business, if you’re an agency, your services are very expensive. And so what I would encourage you to do is play the long game. Don’t be too pushy. Of course you’re going to want to run a process in such a way that it helps people make a decision as quickly as possible, but the goal of the sales step is only to get to a yes or a no. It’s not to push someone into doing something uncomfortable. It’s not to manipulate them what so ever. That’s not our goal, right, or at least if you buy into me, and if you agree with this, our goal is definitely not to twist someone’s arm into doing business with us. Scale your sales though.

Here’s my question for you, what is your sales process? If you hire a sales person, how are you going to coach them to duplicate a sales process if you don’t have one? And so I’ll tell you very plainly, if you don’t have a sales process, you’re not going to be effective at scaling your sales, because you’re making it up every time. If you intuitively know what to do, the other people you bring in now or later, they’re not you. They’re not going to know your way of doing it. They’re not going to be able to understand whatever shortcuts you’ve learned that help you create more clients. But they would greatly benefit from knowing what those things are, and so I really recommend you have a process, you have it documented. It’s reflected in your CRM, you have documentation. Basically, you have a sales playbook that you can show your team as a training resource, as an outline for how they operate, as a way for them to be successful.

So, let me take a second to define what a process is. This isn’t just a sales process, this is what is a process, period. A process is a series of action designed to predictably create a specific outcome. Those actions need to be executed sequentially. Sometimes they’re in parallel, sure, you can use a little bit of latitude in your sales process, that’s fine, but basically the process works like a recipe. If you wanted to bake a loaf of bread, you can go read a recipe and figure out how to do it. You don’t need to experiment from scratch in 2018 when this was recorded in order to learn yourself how to bake a loaf of bread. You wouldn’t do that. So that’s the kind of thing you’re going to want to have documented and proven as you start to think about scaling your sales.

Now, there is this element of scaling up while you’re figuring it out, I totally get that. That’s totally fine, and I’m an advocate of moving a little bit faster than you think is comfortable, just because it kind of takes you out of your comfort zone, obviously. But it also forces you to learn faster, to get better, to make more decisions, and to move. Everybody wants a steady state business, but really there’s nothing in life that’s steady state. Things are either growing or shrinking at all times, right? And essentially you’re line for growth won’t be completely predictable. There’s going to be some ups and downs along the way. You just want to hover as close to that line as you possibly can.

So, some other questions for yo to think about in the actual sales process, so this the process of the one-on-one conversations you’re having with people who’ve raised their hand and are sales opportunities. I’d also want to know from you what do people need to do to become a client? What actions do they need to take? What steps do they need to take? So, for you that may look like a typically agency. The actions would look like show up to an initial meeting, show up to a followup meeting where we dig into your goals the outcomes you want so we can start to develop value for our services around what the other person actually wants to achieve. Then we’d probably have some sort of offer presentation, often that includes a proposal. Something needs to be signed, we need to get paid.

So, maybe your process is more complicated than that, probably is. But there is a series of steps that need to happen. And so, I’ve heard some people say I’m a consultant, I do everything from scratch every time, and therefore I can’t have a sales process. To that, I would say maybe, but that’s not the way I would recommend doing it. But I would also say that there’s probably a much better way. And even if you think that everything you do is completely bespoke, it’s probably following some sort of outline or template, at least approximately 90% of the time. So, this is going to take some diligence, this is going to take some work, and the followup question I have for you is how are you connecting once step to the next?

So, give you an example. If the second step in your process is clarifying your client’s goals and establishing the value of your client achieving those goals and those outcomes, and the third step is presenting a proposal that elucidates for your client how you can help them achieve those goals and what it will cost to work with you and how that process will work. My question for you is how do you connect those two steps? How do you go from uncovering their goals, clarifying their goals, straight into any offer that you would make? And there’s got to be a way to do that, and I’ll give you a hint. The way is not whenever your client is ready for it. That’s not the way. You need to show leadership in the sales process.

The last thing I’ll say about the selling part of this system that you need in place in order to scale up your sales. The last thing I’ll say is you should really have an entry point for your clients. So, for any target client that you have, and ideally you only have one, you’re going to have an entry point, a thing that is going to set them up for success to work with you. It costs a little bit less. It’s a way for them to try you out, but still get a tremendous amount of value, and it’s a natural gateway into the other services that you provide. So, what is your entry point for your clients? And if you were to hire a sales person or you were to expand your sales team, you would want them to focus on a single entry point or maybe three entry points maximum. But an easy, simple fairly lower cost way for your clients to do business with you and try you out.

Once again, let’s recap. I want to make sure that you’re still with me. So, the question was what five components do you need in place in order to create a scalable system for your agency? Number one, you have a target, that’s who you’re going after. Number two, you have growth channels, how do you reach them? Number three, you have a conversion step, how can you allow them to raise their hand and say, “I’m ready to talk?” Number four, you have your sales process itself where you’re actually doing the one-on-one or one-to-few conversations if you’re working with teams or larger companies.

And finally, after someone buys from you, now you’re also going to expand what you can offer in fulfillment. So, if we’re starting with an entry point for our clients, of course our ultimate goal is to help them in a larger way so we can truly bring to bear the value that they’re looking for and the outcomes that they’re looking for. And by definition our entry project can’t do that, but our full suite of services can, and so you need a way, once again, a process to take someone from the entry point into a natural segue for your larger suite of services. Now, depending on your model, if you have dedicated sales people, it’s probably not going to be the job of your sales people, that’ll be the job of your account managers. Maybe that’ll be the job of your AEs, depending on how your set up, or even your creative directors, it really depends on how your company is set up.

But chances are if you have someone whose only job it is to get meetings for you, they’re not even going to be involved in the sales process necessarily, and certainly they won’t be involved in fulfillment so it wouldn’t make sense for them to transition your clients from entry point to full suite of services and/or especially, ideally some sort of subscription or recurring engagement or retainer, depending on your model.

So, those are the five steps. I am not saying you need to be perfect in any one of these areas. But the better the answers you have for each of these five areas, who’s your target, what are your growth channels, how are going to convert them, how will you sell, and how do you transition from entry point fulfillment to our long-term fulfillment strategy. The better your answer for those five different components, the more scalable your sales will look. The thing I want you to know is in order for something to be scalable, it doesn’t necessarily need to have geometric growth. So, there’s all this talk about growth hacking, and you’ve heard stories about Dropbox and Hotmail and other, Airbnb, other growth hacking kind of things.

You don’t really need that in your client services business. You don’t really need it in your agency, but what you do need is a way to reliably if I plug in one additional person, you should be able to say, if they do their job well, I will get between X and Y number of meetings booked every month. And you also need to say, if I get between X and Y meetings booked every month, I will bring on between A and B new clients. That’s what a scalable system starts to look like, and without some of these components in place, you’re never going to get there. Now, this shouldn’t be daunting, because there are ways, there’s processes, there’s I don’t want to say hacks, but maybe shortcuts, people have figured out a lot of these things, and so there are ways for you to build a scalable system if you’re looking to scale up your agency and scale up your sales in your agency.

I hope this was helpful. I know I covered a lot of ground, but I did give you as I promised those five components that you need in order to scale up your sales at your agency, and put a scalable system in place. Of course, if you haven’t any questions for me or you would like to have a call to discuss how this might work at your agency, all you have to do is go to Liston.io/strategy, fill out the application form to have a strategy call. I’d absolutely love to talk to you. Thanks so much for listening, and I hope you have a fantastic day. Bye.

Posted in

Liston Witherill

Hi, I’m Liston. I help freelancers and consultants sell with confidence. My vision is for every freelancer, consultant, and agency owner to sell with confidence.