If you want to build long-term agency success, you need a consistent, disciplined prospecting program. Unfortunately, prospecting has a bad rap because most people associate it with cold calling. But prospecting is about more than just calling strangers and hoping they won’t hang up on you. If I had to sum it up in one word, I would say that prospecting is about connecting.

There’s a saying in sales about prospecting: You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.

How to Build an Agency Prospecting Program

There are two things to remember about prospecting: First, keep in mind that most marketers don’t wake up with a desire to buy marketing services that day. So set your expectations for the long game. This is a process, not a single dice roll. Second, relevance is key. Make sure your work matches up with the prospect’s needs. Ask yourself these questions: 1) What work have you done in the prospect’s industry? 2) What problems have you solved? 3) What solutions have you provided?

Even the most successful agencies can use help with their new business program. A common pain point I find with agencies is poorly planned prospecting. Often, this results from a desperation-fueled patchwork project on the heels of losing a big client. Agencies tend to reach for a quick fix in their efforts to replace lost revenue.

The problem is prospecting is not a punctuated event. It’s a long-term play that requires time, strategy, and tending.

When building your prospecting program, remember these key things:

  1. Proper positioning and messaging for your agency are critical.
  1. Your website is your #1 sales tool. It must clearly display your positioning and industry expertise.
  1. Create prospect profiles for your targets. These should reflect your agency’s “sweet spot” for fees, areas of expertise, ideal client size, and sometimes geography.
  1. Consistency is important. Schedule time every day for prospecting. It may be five calls, five emails, or whatever activity you have committed to. Make it part of your daily routine.
  1. Don’t overlook metrics. Use a CRM to manage an active prospecting list. You should establish a total number of activities or “touches” on a weekly basis.
  1. Attitude is everything. This is hard work, and there will be setbacks. If you establish a solid plan, you will be able to power through any adversity.

The Key Prospecting Activities

After the upfront work is completed, the next step is to identify what activities will make up your prospecting program. Much is written about the virtues of one preferred tactic over another. We hear cold calling is dead, email open rates are low, all content has become white noise, social selling is limited, etc. If you were to believe everything you read, then you would do nothing. The best approach is one where you come from a position of strength, you are comfortable with, and can commit to and stick with over the long haul.

Some options to consider for your prospecting program mix:

  1. Referrals
  2. Social media (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.)
  3. Trade publications
  4. Trade shows, speaking engagements
  5. Blogs, white papers (demonstrating thought leadership)
  6. Webinars
  7. Targeted phone and email campaigns
  8. Direct mail, FedEx

See, it’s not all cold calling!

These are just a few examples. Obviously, there any many more activities you could include when building your program. The more you can do, the more you will increase your odds of success. Of course, your program will be limited by your time, manpower, and resources. Depending on your circumstances, you might choose three activities to establish a consistent program, and then layer on additional tactics as time goes on.

We recently set up a prospecting program for a small digital agency with expertise in several verticals. Despite having 25 full-time, talented employees, this agency lacked a dedicated new business person. Organizationally, it had a sales skill deficiency. They were in a situation where the agency had a few anchor clients and needed to bring in more business to build a more balanced client portfolio. After meeting and speaking with the agency leaders, it was readily apparent that a program consisting of proactive outbound emails and calls would not be the right approach for them. For this small agency -- and for many agencies -- a good place to start is by using the following elements to create your prospecting program.

An Example “Starter” Agency Prospecting Program

Activity #1: Update Your Website

Make the necessary changes to your website so it becomes more client-centric and showcases your industry specific work through case studies, testimonials, and content. Don’t make prospects who visit your site feel like they are on a scavenger hunt to find the information they need. Make the design and language accessible and user-friendly -- visitors don’t want to struggle through a bunch of “marketing speak” with slow-loading scripts and graphics. Create compelling offers tied to forms which will capture lead information, allowing for one-to-one conversations and lead nurturing.

Activity #2: Commit to a Prospecting Activity

If you aren’t great at sales calls, you can demonstrate thought leadership, for example, on your blog. For example, an agency CEO happens to be a very strong writer. He publishes a weekly blog and quarterly thought leadership pieces around technology and the challenges brands are facing amid the quickly evolving technological landscape. These pieces have provided a nice uptick in web traffic that the agency is capturing through its conversion-focused content offers and nurturing through an email campaign. The team has also implemented some very targeted “warm calling” to those who have spent time on their site and downloaded bottom-of-the-funnel content offers, as a supplement to their email campaigns.

Activity #3: Make Referrals a Part of Your Prospecting Program

To further strengthen the prospecting program, a formal referral program can provide a strong flow of leads. Many studies report a prospect is more likely to engage with an agency when referred by a trusted source. While agencies often touch on referrals, very few have a formal program, which likely means opportunities are being missed. One program I really like and which we often share with our clients is from Sandler Training, called RECON, which is a five-step meeting process.

RECON is often triggered by an update meeting or check-in with a client on your current performance (a quarterly reporting meeting would work well), which is the perfect time to implement a structured referral program.

Here is a quick overview of the steps you would follow:

  1. Remind the client how things were when you started the engagement.
  1. Evaluate how the relationship is going. Are you achieving the stated benchmarks and goals? Have the client team grade your performance thus far on a scale of 1-10. Please note: A six or below indicates you need to do some work and best not to proceed with a referral request.
  1. Are there any changes with the client? This could be a good indicator of more work to be pitched, new challenges to solve, new hires, and new relationships that need to be formed, etc. This is also a good time to tell them about any changes at your agency, perhaps a new product or service that might allow you to expand the relationship.
  1. Are there additional opportunities or work for your agency? This is also when you ask them if they would be comfortable introducing your agency to any other businesses that might be in need of your services. It is very important to make this a two-way street. You need to ask how you can help them or if there is someone you can introduce them to.
  1. What happens next? It is critical to establish what will be done and the timeframe in which it will happen. Set deadlines for those introductions.

Together, these activities employ what some may call a combined reactive-proactive approach. Most importantly, it consists of activities the people at the agency are comfortable with and can commit to doing to make this program successful. Note that with this particular activity mix, you can still make headway with prospecting by leveraging your marketing skills, even if your organization is weak on sales skills -- a fairly common situation for agencies.

Prospecting is the last thing most people want to do. But that may be due, in part, to a misunderstanding of what it looks like in practice. The truth is that consistently plugging away at prospecting will lead to growth for your agency. Some of the prospecting activities listed above may not fall under the label of "proactive," but if you can find something that you will do consistently and do well, that’s most important thing to start with.

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Originally published May 5, 2016 9:00:00 AM, updated August 17 2017

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Agency Prospecting Tips