“I hate selling.”

I hear that so often from agency owners and agency leaders. I especially hear it from junior agency staffers. I think the key to solving this problem is moving away from “I hate selling” and moving toward “I love helping others succeed.”

My years of agency experience have taught me that the most successful agencies have a specific mindset. They have embraced the art of being the very best at understanding their clients and have a deep desire to make their lives easier and better. The agency business is a relationship business; it’s about putting the needs of your client front and center. Your success is based on their success. Their good days are your good days; and conversely, their bad days are your bad days.

So, if agency success is about building great relationships, I would pose to you that for agencies, executing on strategic selling is very much like dating.

If that’s the case, then imagine thinking of the prospect the same way you think about a prospective date – that person you’ve wanted to date for oh, so long.

As you get ready to make the ask… what’s first?

The answer: the first thing is understanding the prospect.

Strategic Selling Requires Understanding the Prospect

First and foremost, remember that you must think about this from their viewpoint – the viewpoint of the prospect. What’s on her mind and how has the landscape changed since the last time she looked for agency services?

  • Budget and headcount pressures are enormous in most companies today
  • There are heightened expectations that marketing supports sales – it’s no longer enough to simply produce great creative
  • Sales and revenue are typically the top marketing success measures
  • Data and analytics are now critical, daily challenges
  • Digital is now table stakes

The result of these changes is that today, marketers don’t want to “buy” marketing services; they have business issues they need help addressing.

To be able to address these issues, agency execs need to change their perspective from “I can show them how I can help them” to “I need to learn as much as I can about them, so I know how I can help them.”

It’s a nuanced difference, but a difference indeed.

It’s the difference between telling your prospective date where you will take her versus finding out what she likes to do and what kind of food she likes to eat – BEFORE you make a reservation.

This moment in the strategic selling process is critical. It is a high-risk moment and the asker typically has a lot of fear of rejection. This is the part of the process that often plays to the “I hate selling” narrative. The risk feels like it may outweigh the reward.

If we can all agree that reducing the risk is a good goal here, then let’s also agree that more information reduces your risk.

Now, how do we get people to want to hear us? Because the truth is, this is our job: not to get them to hear us, but to get them to WANT to hear us.

Strategic Selling is About Their Business Issues, Not Your Solutions

So, how do you get the info you need – the critical information that arms you to be able to make the prospect WANT to hear from you? Obviously, homework is important. Know everything you can before you show up to have that first conversation.

Additionally, before you show up, know what you’re going to ask. This will do a couple of things. First, this will help you stay on track to keep the conversation focused on learning about them and not slipping into your “sales pitch”; and second, it will help you design intelligent questions that go from very non-threatening questions to deeper questions as the prospect warms up to you.

Start with questions that the prospect can answer simply with one or two words and not a lot of thinking. Questions like, “I understand you’ve launched two new products in the last year, is that correct?” or “I believe you’ve opened 10 new retail locations this year, is that number accurate?”

These kinds of questions increase your credibility with the prospect (wow, she really did her homework!), are non-threatening (easy to answer), help you gather valuable information (it’s good to know if you have the right info), and most importantly, give you permission to proceed to the more intimate questions that help you bond with this prospect in a conversation.

After a handful of these Level One questions, it’s time to get in a little deeper by asking questions like: “So, with several new products in the market, how important is awareness of those new products to the success of the business overall?” or “With the significant number of new locations, have you changed or enhanced your grand opening strategies?”

Notice that here we are using the early questions (which we were prepared to ask before showing up) to leverage the opportunity to get a little deeper. These Level Two questions will start to result in longer answers and allow your conversation to really get off and running, while helping you learn all about them and their business.

As you get deeper and deeper into understanding their business and what occupies their mental energy, keep reminding yourself that this is still dating. Don’t propose marriage too early – or you’ll be perceived as pushy and creepy. Take your cues from your prospect and go at her pace. You’ll be amazed when she finally turns to you and says – “Tell me a little about you and your agency”.

Then, you’re off to the races.

You May Hate Selling – But You’ll Love Dating

If you can change the tape playing in your head from “I need to make the sale” to “focus on enjoying the process of building the relationship”, you can enjoy the dating game with new business prospects– and be more successful at the relationship building that will bring you those sales.