Furthermore, their needs are constantly evolving.

Cutting through the noise is a major challenge, especially for agencies who either cannot find, or cannot afford to invest in, a full-time business development manager.

In such instances, it is often down to the agency owners to manage new business (along with everything else!) but perhaps without the structure, processes and skills possessed by a seasoned professional.

If that sounds like you, or if you’re fairly new to the world of business development, I hope you’ll find this a useful read.

Here are a few things I’ve learnt after 14 years at the coalface.

1. Business development and selling are not the same

‘Sales’ and ‘selling’ are words that often conjure up images of pushy, door-to-door salesmen with ill-fitting suits and cheap briefcases trying every trick in the book to part you with your hard earned cash.

If this is how you sell digital, you’re either doing it wrong (without much success I imagine) or with a certain amount of callousness (as so often happens in the murky world of snake-oil SEO).

The rest of this article probably isn’t for you if you fall into the latter camp.

Business development on the other hand is the hard graft that comes way before you actually sell something.

It’s the research, prospecting, nurturing of a relationship, robustness in qualifying and role of trusted advisor.

These are the skills, attributes and processes that distinguish business development from selling.

I firmly believe that if you get these things right, the actual ‘sale’ will take care of itself.

2. Proposition me

There are around 20,000 digital agencies in the UK.

Pick 20 of those at random and you’ll probably struggle to find much difference between them with the same buzzwords popping up over and over.

Coming up with a genuine ‘point of difference’ is tough.

Your technology, people and processes are all interesting (to an extent) but do they really set you apart and, more importantly, is that what matters in the mind of your prospects?

Value proposition

Invest time in your value proposition.

Involve the whole team. Use tried and tested models to put yourself in the shoes of your target audience.

It will force you to stop talking about what you do (‘we are experts in SEO and PPC…’ yawn) and instead focus on why you exist and what you intend to make happen for your clients.

3. Process, process, process

Whilst it sounds a little dull, processes are the foundation of a successful business development strategy.

In the words of James Clear…

Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win.

Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.

Nothing could be truer of business development. Yes, you need to have a realistic objective to work to.

But meeting this objective is highly unlikely without robust and easily repeatable processes.

They are the building blocks to achieving consistent results.

4. Leads, we need more leads!

Let’s say new business performance is not meeting expectations.

The default solution will invariably be ‘we need more leads’. An entire industry gorges itself on this often misguided view.

Generating leads is a waste of time if you haven’t got the resource to service them, can’t qualify properly or if your pitch materials suck.

Of course, on-profile leads are the lifeblood of any agency. But ‘more leads’ is not always the answer to winning more business.

Properly scrutinising each stage of your business development cycle to identify the weak links will often reveal more pressing issues.

5. Patience is a virtue

Send 100 outbound emails and the chances of hitting even one person who happens to be thinking about hiring a new agency, buying a new piece of technology and so on, is virtually zero.

In most instances, your initial approach to a new contact opens the door, nothing more.

In this sense, outbound does work when executed well but it’s just one touchpoint of many (social media, events, referrals and so on).

In isolation, email is unlikely to yield an immediate return.

Pushy salesman

This means managing your own expectations and those working around you.

Building and nurturing relationships is a long game, which leads nicely on to…

6. Be useful, not annoying

Any communication you have with a prospect should add value.

Think about how many emails you receive and how many you actually read.

Do you want to be the agency sending badly-timed, irrelevant messages or the one seen as a trusted and useful resource, even when the prospect isn’t ready to buy?

This is where marketing automation can play a role but it’s not right for everyone.

In most cases, smaller agencies do not generate the volume of leads or create enough content to require a complex marketing automation platform.

I got by for many years by adopting the principles of marketing automation but with the use of a number of free or low cost tools that I ‘stitched’ together.

It wasn’t perfect but it was good enough.

7. Speak less, listen more

Some agencies like nothing more than talking about themselves. Bad news.

Most prospects couldn’t care less about your latest award win, team bonding trip to the Alps or office dog.

Why? Because none of this has any direct relevance on the one thing that a prospect ultimately cares about – how you are going to make their life easier. 

In most instances, this isn’t something that a prospect is simply going to volunteer (at the offset they may not necessarily know).

It requires you to ask questions. A lot of questions. And then listen.

It’s important to understand that you can demonstrate just as much expertise by asking challenging or interesting questions than you can by offering up all the answers straight away.

There will be an opportunity to talk about your brilliance but it generally comes much later in the process.

8. Always be qualifying

Amongst the many sales techniques taught back in the day, ABC – ‘always be closing’ – is one of the better known.

This is the principle that every action taken by a salesperson should be aggressively aimed at moving the prospect towards the point of close. Yuck.

Always be closing

A more recent build on that phrase, ‘always be qualifying’ is much more relevant in digital, especially when the sales cycle is long and complex.

Qualifying isn’t something you do once to ensure the prospect has a juicy budget and then move on.

Instead, it’s a continuous process with potentially hundreds of questions being asked, the aim of which is to get to the route of the business issue and the challenges faced by your contact.

Armed with this insight, you are much more likely to present a relevant solution.

In my opinion, qualifying is the most important aspect of business development, requiring great skill and attention to detail.

If you’ve ever lost a pitch and were left scratching your head as to why, it’s probably because you failed to properly qualify.

9. Personalise the pitch

I’m amazed at the number of times I hear reports of generic ‘cut and paste’ proposals submitted by agencies.

If you can’t be bothered to invest the time in creating a bespoke proposal or presentation, what does it say about your approach to actually servicing the client?

A proposal or presentation should be a demonstration of everything you have learnt about the prospect to this point; their background, challenges and needs should be front and centre.

Needs will differ from company to company and person to person, as will behaviours and language.

The more you can mirror these in your proposal, the greater success you’ll have at converting opportunities into clients.

As an aside, avoid writing proposals altogether if you can. Presenting your thoughts and ideas face to face wins hand down every time.

10. You can’t win them all

There isn’t an agency out there that wins every opportunity put before them. You’re going to lose sometimes (hopefully, not too often).

Feedback is not always forthcoming but try and insist on it. Urge the prospect to be as honest as they can.

Learn something from the experience and use the insight to make improvements.

And finally…

Business development is rarely talked about as an agency’s competitive advantage.

But it absolutely can be, allowing smaller agencies to triumph against their larger counterparts.

I’m a big fan of marginal gains, believing the theory perfectly lends itself to business development.

From how you define your agency’s proposition through to on-boarding, small improvements at every stage can translate into a significant uplift in new business performance,

The devil is in the detail.

For more on this topic, see Econsultancy’s Top 100 Digital Agencies Report.