In the recently published Benchpress agency survey, 38% of agencies stated that winning business was their biggest challenge.

Whilst the specific reasons were not cited, I have a theory.

The challenge lies not so much in winning business, per se, but in winning the ‘right’ business. ‘Right’ is a subtle but strategically important distinction to make. The ‘wrong’ business impacts the longevity of client relationships, staff morale and ultimately, the success, or otherwise, of the agency. 

Whilst a certain amount of client churn is inevitable in the hyper-competitive digital space, agencies don’t help themselves when they fail to treat business development, from positioning through to pitching, as an ‘experience’. It is a function of the agency that is rarely approached with the same level of intent or purpose as service delivery or account management, for example.

So, what does a well-designed approach to business development look like? And how does it help an agency win the ‘right’ business? 

In my experience, you win business ‘by design’ when…

1. Positioning drives your new business strategy 

When business development is designed, positioning sets the agenda. Agencies that are clear in their purpose and have a current (or attainable) advantage over the competition, will probably find business development more straightforward than a ‘generalist’. 

Why? Because they have greater clarity on who they want to work with and how they make a difference to the people, businesses and markets they serve. They worry less about the work they’ll miss out on and instead concentrate their efforts on what can be gained by ‘narrowing their focus’ (to steal an expression from Tim Williams).

Focus helps avoid a ‘spray and prey’ approach to lead generation. Decision making on the right blend of inbound and outbound tactics is made significantly easier.

2. You put business development at the heart of the agency

Agencies that approach business development with purpose do so collaboratively. Accountability and good internal communication rule. Successes are celebrated for what they are – a team effort - and losses commiserated likewise.

This often means breaking down barriers and putting aside misconceptions. People only shy away from business development because they don’t understand it. Yet, when you look at the breadth of skills and behaviours required to win business, everyone in the agency can (and should) play a role. As such, when the agency hires a business development manager they are considered part of the solution, not THE solution.  

3. You say ‘no’ just as often as you say ‘yes’

If you think of qualifying as a series of ‘filters’, positioning communicates who the agency is best equipped to work with and why. It should therefore help to attract on-profile prospects and (hopefully) disqualify others. 

But that doesn’t mean every organisation in your chosen market is right. When business development is designed, agencies profile their ‘ideal client’ in terms of company attributes and the type of people they want to work with (attitudes and behaviours, for example).

This second filter is used to efficiently disqualify prospects when they don’t meet the grade. Even when the pipeline isn’t looking too rosy, the agency stays true to themselves, taking the long view over any short term, financial benefit.

4. You make things happen

Your dream client is unlikely to just land in your lap. In my agency days, we might have received one or two leads per year that were absolutely ‘on the money’.

Otherwise, it was initiative, resourcefulness, motivation and a dose of patience that opened doors to the brands we really wanted to talk to. 

A well-designed approach to business development is evident when an agency knows their audience inside and out; the roles they are targeting; the challenges they are likely to be facing; where they spend their time and how they tend to digest content, for example.

Lead generation is therefore not overly reliant on one channel or a mystical ‘silver-bullet’. Perhaps most importantly, plans and processes ensure lead generation activity is ‘always on’, rather than a reaction to an empty looking pipeline.

5. You’re in control 

Agencies too often allow the prospect to set the terms of engagement during a pitch process. From unrealistic deadlines to full-on design concepts, expectations are often unrealistic and unfair. 

Agencies with a well-designed approach to information gathering and qualifying seek to own the process as far as they possibly can. They do not bow to every request and whim.

They identify red flags early, such as the prospect failing to give up their time, share insight, be challenged in their thinking or demonstrating a willingness to change.

Agencies that approach business development with intent don’t take the bait or end up as ‘pitch candy’.

6. You don’t try and sell anything…

…not during the early stages of the relationship anyway.

Agencies with a well-designed approach to prospecting don’t try to sell anything over email. And having landed an appointment, they don’t walk into a room, get their laptop out and present their creds (unless they are specifically asked to).

Instead, they put the prospect first. Email is used to share relevant and timely insights. Meetings lead with interesting, often challenging questions that seek to uncover where the prospect is trying to get to, the challenges they are facing and what success looks like.

Only once this information has been gathered do they try and sell their solutions, ideas or their agency.

7. You know your numbers

It is said that business development is a numbers game. This is both right and wrong depending on the context. Firing out a thousand generic emails and hoping for the best? That’s not a numbers game, it’s a fools' game (even more so, with GDPR around the corner).

Setting SMART objectives (and ensuring there is adequate resource in place to meet them) is a numbers game. 

Tracking leads, qualified opportunities, pitches and conversion rate, is a numbers game. 

Understanding the value of your pipeline, having in place a system to ‘weight’ opportunities and using this insight to plan resource, is a numbers game.

When business development is designed, the accuracy of data, reporting and regular reviews ensure an agency can easily identity any failings and focus their efforts accordingly.

8. You don’t rest on your laurels

I speak to a lot of agencies who mistake a winning streak for a winning approach to business development. They’ve won a few clients in a short space of time, they’re busy and all is good in the world. They’ve got this business development thing licked.

But a few months later, the work dries up, the pipeline is looking thin and they’re back at square one. 

When business development is designed, the ‘machine’ never stops. Business development is never ‘nailed’. There is a continuous cycle of review, learn and improve.

Maybe I’m wrong?

You might be reading this and thinking ‘we don’t tick these boxes and we still win our fair share of new clients, you’re talking rubbish’ (it has been known).

There are of course scenarios where some of this goes out the window, exceptions to the rule if you like.

But think about it. Do you and your team really enjoy the work you are doing? Are your relationships based on what really matters to the client, not what you perceive to matter in their monthly stats reports? Are you impossible to replace? Do you have a high retention rate…of clients and staff?

Business development impacts all these things, and more. Answering ‘no’ to any of these questions are all symptoms of a poorly designed approach to new business.

So, ask yourself the question again – do you win business by accident or design?

For more on agencies, readers can check out Econsultancy's Top 100 Digital Agencies report.

Ben Potter

Published 12 April, 2018 by Ben Potter

Ben Potter is the former Commercial Director at Leapfrogg and now a new business mentor to aspiring digital agencies. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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