I don’t pretend this to be based on a scientific study or wide-ranging survey. Instead, it comes from observing, talking to and advising numerous agencies.

If any of these feel familiar, rest assured, you are not alone. But more importantly, as we kick off a new year, I hope you are spurred into action. After all, new business is the lifeblood of any agency.

1. Poorly defined positioning / proposition

If business development were a series of building blocks, positioning would be at its foundation. It is fundamental to the agency’s ability to set ‘SMART’ objectives and formulate a business development strategy to meet them; the markets targeted, the messages used, the tactics employed and so on. 

A clearly articulated proposition highlights the strengths of the agency or, better still, where they have an advantage over their competitors (a sector specialism, for example). It demonstrates an understanding of the problems faced by their target audience and the positive impact the agency’s work has on the people, businesses and markets they serve.

Yet all too often, agencies put their services front and centre (‘we are an award-winning, digital agency delivering SEO, PPC’…). Or they mistake hygiene factors for points of difference – ‘results-focussed’, ‘passionate’, ‘transparent’ – none of these things make an agency unique, they’ve been overused to the point of becoming virtually meaningless and, ultimately, they have little relevance to what the prospect is actually looking to buy (see point 3).  

When an agency has little or no idea what they stand for, who they are best equipped to work with and why, it makes them indistinguishable from thousands of others saying virtually the same thing. 

Where business development is concerned, it leads to indecision about who to proactively target and how (and therefore inaction).

Which leads nicely onto…

2. Overly reliant on referrals

Small agencies rarely have enough time or resource to proactively build relationships with prospects, certainly not with any degree of consistency anyway. When it does happen, it tends to be a reaction to a thin looking pipeline. 

Many agencies are wholly dependent on referrals, recommendations and whatever else happens to ‘come through the front door’. On the one hand, referrals are great. They are a sign the agency is doing a good job and the close rate tends to be high. But on the flip side, the quantity and quality will fluctuate significantly month to month. This makes forward planning with confidence nigh on impossible; there are simply too many variables outside of the agency’s control.

Inbound marketing is quite rightly heralded as the answer but, again, time (and money) can be a barrier for smaller agencies, especially where creating content is concerned. Fortunately, traditional methods of lead generation, such as prospecting emails, still have their place and are often quicker and easier to get off the ground. 

With an understanding of key principles and good practice, prospecting is not rocket science. It comes down to targeting the right businesses (see point 1), the quality of research, and the relevance and timeliness of communication. It’s about adding value, resourcefulness, consistency and patience. 

Even half an hour a day spent researching and reaching out to one new contact is better than nothing. But without the systems and processes that allow for this regular, proactive activity, the agency is simply waiting (and hoping) for something to happen, rather than taking control and making things happen. 

3. Failure to ask the right questions (or any questions at all)

When a lead comes in, there is a tendency for agencies to jump straight into ‘sales mode’, eagerly getting out the creds deck and boring the prospect to death with often irrelevant information about themselves.

This can come from a misconception of what selling is and involves (clue: it’s all about the prospect, not you!). A lack of process and inability to pose the right questions, at the right time, are also key factors. Whatever the reason, it means agencies waste too much of their precious time on leads they stand very little chance of winning and not enough time working the opportunities they do.

The early stages of the sales process should involve one thing and one thing only; information gathering. In other words, the agency posing questions that seek to understand where the prospect is trying to get to, the problems they are facing and what success looks like, as well as the needs, desires, motivations and concerns of the buyer.

This will differ every time and, in turn, should be reflected in the proposal. Failing to ask the right questions (or any questions at all) increases the likelihood that the ‘solution’ proposed will be the wrong one. Or, perhaps the solution is right, but it won’t be properly positioned. Or, the opportunity is missed to present a broader range of solutions perhaps not even considered by the prospect.

Result? A generic proposal that fails to resonate with the buyer, a firm ‘no’ and a great deal of frustration all round, with the agency often blaming the prospect. 

I firmly believe that the biggest advantage an agency can create in business development lies in asking the right questions, listening and empathising with the prospect. Only then can this insight be used to position the proposal based on the value that will be created by working together and thus avoid a scenario where price is the deciding factor. Because who wants to be the cheapest, right?

I’d love to hear your feedback. Do these challenges resonate? Is there anything else that holds you back when it comes to winning business? Please comment below.

Subscribers can download Econsultancy’s The Future of Agencies report.