You hustle hard to get business, win a big account, spend the next three months up to your ears in work, and then it’s all over and your pipeline is empty again. Sound familiar? It’s the feast or famine cycle of agency new business. It seems that we can counsel our clients about the importance of new business sales and the whole lead gen thing but somehow we can’t seem to get around to doing it for ourselves.
My podcast guest Dan Englander and his team at Sales Schema are the experts at solving the agency sales, lead gen, and new business problem. Dan and his team have a systemized process that they believe can put prospects into your pipeline and money into your pocket.
Dan and I will walk you through the important steps he takes when counseling agencies including:
- How Dan helps agencies fill their sales pipelines
- Why you can’t rely on referrals from your network for sales
- Why creating content is not a sales strategy
- Why you need to systematize pipeline work and why you need to allot daily time for working on your pipeline
- Honing in on a particular niche when generating quality leads
- Why driving prospects to your website is not what you want to be doing
- Why you need to have a follow-up plan in place for your cold emails
- Why you need to get on the phone with a lead as soon as possible
- How to word cold emails so they actually resonate with cold leads
- How Dan’s company helps agencies hone in on their niche
- Why cold emails have to come from a real person (and which person inside an agency they should come from)
- Why you need to get the right clients for your agency
- Why you shouldn’t overinvest in tools
- Some good tools that Dan likes
- Dan’s book: “Mastering Account Management”
Dan Englander is the founder of Sales Schema, where he helps marketing agencies grow by way of done-for-you lead generation and consulting. He’s the author of Mastering Account Management. Previously, as the first hire at the animation studio IdeaRocket, he brought the company from zero to seven figures, encompassing dozens of Fortune 500 clients.
To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/dan-englander/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.
If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:
Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)
- How Dan Got into the Business of Helping Agencies Grow
- How to Get Out of the Rut of Not Working on Your Pipeline
- What Dan Has Learned from Other Agencies
- Why Niching Your Agency is Vital to Your Pipeline
- Email Best Practices for Filling Your Sales Pipeline
- What Prevents Agencies from Pursuing Dan’s Pipeline Strategy
- Dan’s Secret Email Pipeline Formula
- How to Fill Your Sales Pipeline with Quality Leads & Why You Need to Stop Relying on Referrals
- Mistakes to Avoid When Testing this Pipeline Strategy
If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build A Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.
Drew: Hey there, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Today, my guest and I are gonna talk about agency sales, lead gen, and new business efforts. Let me tell you a little bit about him and then we’re gonna jump right into the conversation. Dan Englander is the founder of Sales Schema, where he helps marketing agencies grow by way of done-for-you lead generation and consulting. We’ll find out more about that. He’s also the author of Mastering Account Management.
Previously, he was the first hire at the animation studio, IdeaRocket, and he and the original partner brought that company from zero to seven figures, encompassing dozens of Fortune 500 clients and working with a lot of agencies. Now today, he’s turned his attention to helping agencies grow their business.
Dan, welcome to the podcast.
Dan: Thanks, Drew. Appreciate it.
How Dan Got into the Business of Helping Agencies Grow
Drew: What made you decide that this was a need and that you could fill that need?
Dan: Yeah, it’s a good question. Like you mentioned, I was at the studio called IdeaRocket for a while and struck out on my own doing consulting and sales coaching for different businesses. Since I was here in New York networking for so long, most of my friends and acquaintances were in the agency world, so they were naturally my first clients and other people I found through my book and so on.
I think it’s a need because the problem I kept coming across was agencies, more than almost any other business, I’ve noticed fall into this feast and famine rut where people hustle so hard to get business, they win these big accounts or these big projects, they spend the next three months up to their ears in work, and then it’s all over and the pipeline’s empty again.
Then rinse and repeat over and over again. I was consulting with different companies like this and I also had memories from working in the creative services company, feeding into agencies as an employee. I eventually just wanted to figure out a way to give them quality leads and to bulk up the pipelines without them having to do more work than they already had. That’s how I came upon this company that I’m running now.
Drew: When you engage with an agency, what are some of the new business and sales mistakes that they are typically making?
Dan: Yeah. I guess it’s harsh to call them mistakes per se, but I would say that most agencies are getting from zero to one on their personal networks and on referrals. Obviously, you should always push for referrals. They’re great and there’s nothing wrong with them, but it really leads to this growth ceiling problem. They go out and they go to networking groups, and they hustle even harder, but there’s really a finite limit on your personal network after a while. I think that’s the first thing.
The second thing, which I guess could be a mistake, is investing in different marketing strategies that are pretty speculative. There’s nothing wrong with treating them like an experiment, but they’re not gonna be guaranteed to bulk up your pipeline and create the opportunities that are gonna lead to business months from now.
To be specific, a lot of times people will invest in social media. “I’m gonna do a bunch of Facebook posts or tweets for my agency and that’s gonna get me business,” or, “I’m gonna write a bunch of content,” or, “I’m gonna host an event.” There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but you need to be generating the conversations in an ongoing manner in order to feel good about the future of your agency. I think that that’s the second thing.
Drew: I always think of the social media activity and the content, that’s really a credibility factor. Once you’re on someone’s radar and they go check you out, you want them to see good content, and that you’re active, and that you’re having interesting thought leadership type conversations.
I can’t imagine or I would hope that most agencies don’t think that prospects are trolling Facebook and looking at agency Facebook pages to try and find an agency. I think you’re right. I think it’s a good activity, but it’s not a pipeline-filling activity.
Dan: Yeah, and to be fair, it could be. You could rank for some awesome keywords like “best content agency for pharmaceutical startups” or whatever it may be and then get in leads that way, but the thing is, it’s gonna take a while to make that work, if it even works at all. In the meantime, you’ve got to be talking to your prospects and basically being a salesperson or else you’re going to find that pipeline running dry after that next big project is done. That’s my take on it anyway.
Drew: Yeah. I think you’re right. I think the biggest issue is the feast and famine, which is that they don’t spend a little bit of time every day working on the pipeline.
How to Get Out of the Rut of Not Working on Your Pipeline
Drew: Yeah. In your experience, when I roll back and I look at what you did when you were, in essence, selling at IdeaRocket before you launched out on your own, how did you not fall into that same rut?
Dan: To be honest, I probably did more times than not ‘because I was in a mixed role. It was just the founder and I at first, and then we got another person like me eventually. I was managing projects a lot of the time and I would find myself getting caught in the weeds and then that’s when we would start to slip and start to not have enough opportunities in the pipeline.
I think when I eventually did lock it in, the main thing is just being very systematized about it and allotting a certain amount of time, preferably in the mornings, to just work on the pipeline. During that time, you’re not letting fires bother you, you’re not checking your email. Although you might have to use email for sales, you’re not getting new messages from clients that are gonna pull you off course.
Just really making it systematized, responsiveness is really big in sales. If somebody wants to speak to you, you want to do it sooner rather than later. Otherwise, they might talk to somebody else, or they might just not have the attention next time you want to reach them. I think building that time into your day every day, even if business is amazing, even if business is mediocre or it’s bad, is the most important thing.
Drew: Honestly, I’ve always felt that the most important time to strengthen your new business activity and really flex that muscle is when you are super busy because that’s when you have the luxury of picking and choosing the clients that you want to work for.
So you’re gonna elevate the kind of clients you’re bringing into the agency because you’re not at the famine stage of the cycle. You and I have both seen lots of agencies take on clients that they know is not a good long-term fit or they know that they can’t really keep for a long time but they’ve got people sitting on their hands and it beats laying somebody off so they take the project or they underbid the project, or whatever it is. I think new business activity actually should be super active when you’re busy because that’s the best time to fill the pipeline.
Dan: Exactly. Cyclically, when you’re really busy there’s gonna be a slump. What comes up must come down a little bit and you want that slump to be a gentle slide and not a giant downward facing hockey stick. I think that’s the main thing. I definitely agree. When you’re really busy you’re gonna be thinking in terms of abundance and basically matching yourself up with the right people, which is what you should always be doing anyway. I definitely agree with that.
Drew: Yeah. The other thing I think about new business is, you’re right, there’s always the ebb and flow of business but if every time you have the ebb you have to let people go, or you have to cut people back in terms of their hours, or you have to send out the email saying, “We’re gonna tighten the belt, things are lean this month.”
Right now, agencies are struggling to find and keep good people and there’s a lot more jobs out there and opportunities than there are … If you want to retain your good people, one of the things you need to create is a culture of abundance where even if you do lose a client or a project wraps up, there’s always plenty of stuff in the pipeline coming behind it that reassures your people that there’s not gonna be a layoff around the corner.
Dan: Right, exactly. I think it takes thinking about which buyers are gonna be able to stick with you for the long-term and then proactively going after them to get conversations in order to do that. That can happen, like I said, through these inbound channels, but you have a lot more control if you can make it work through outbound. You can always go knock on doors when you need to, so to speak.
What Dan Has Learned from Other Agencies
Drew: Yep. I know that our listeners are gonna be curious and they’re gonna poke around on your website. I know you’ve spent a little bit of time in agencies but you’ve not worked for an agency and been driving new business sales for a long time.
What have you learned in other places, and how are agencies the same or not the same, and how do you have to tweak, for example, what you did at IdeaRocket where you were selling into agencies to help agencies sell into clients? How do you package up your experiences and make that align with agency life?
Dan: Right. The reason that I’ve gravitated towards agencies is, like you mentioned, that’s who we were focusing on most at IdeaRocket. It’s not unlike what a lot of agencies are selling. I think creative services, in a way, and agency work kind of has a lot of spillover. To me, it wasn’t like this radical foreign territory, working with agencies after I struck out on my own. Plus, working at an agency before IdeaRocket, although I wasn’t selling, was pretty helpful for that.
In terms of what I’ve learned elsewhere, I think it’s really honing your value proposition for a particular niche. I think when I say that it scares agencies ‘because they think they’re gonna have to blow up their company and reinvent it for XYZ industry or something like that, but that’s not really what it’s all about. It’s more figuring out what specific problem you’re solving for a particular group when you’re going out there to knock on doors and generate leads.
A lot of the times, I see a tendency for agency owners to really sing their own praises in terms of how creative they are and how they’re going to change everything in their clients’ companies and make the world a better place for them in every particular way, but I think that in the context of lead generation, it’s really about solving a specific problem.
I think that’s the biggest takeaway. You asked about bringing that to agencies from other areas. That’s really what direct response marketing is about in a lot of ways. I think that agency owners, especially if they’re focused on branding and that sort of thing, can benefit a lot from that.
Why Niching Your Agency is Vital to Your Pipeline
Drew: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think in a lot of ways it’s not so much about the specifics of agency life as it is about the consistency of behavior. Let’s go back to the whole idea of defining yourself in relation to how you can uniquely serve the client. Talk a little bit more about that because you’re right. There are two kinds of agencies.
Some agencies have really embraced the idea of niching and understanding that expertise in certain verticals makes them the brain surgeon versus the general practitioner. Then there are other agencies who really struggle with that and they really want to be a little bit of everything to everybody or maybe they’re in a second tier market and they feel like they can’t specialize because they have to serve the local butcher, baker, and candlestick maker.
Talk a little bit about your take on all of that.
Dan: Yeah. I think it’s really easy to get caught up in this idea of the cost of niching being much higher than it actually is. I think that you can keep it contained to the channel that you’re actually using. To be specific, with cold emails, a lot of the times we’re niching in the context of the people we’re going after and the service that we’re supporting or we’re touting with the email.
You might not be the best mid-size boutique branding shop in the world and you might not be the best agency for mid-size ecommerce companies, but when you combine those two things together, the middle of that Venn diagram is now kind of compelling. It’s probably enough to get a conversation, to say, “We specialize in mid-size ecommerce companies,” or “Doing branding projects to solve this problem for mid-size e-commerce companies.”
Now all the sudden, niching just becomes as simple as A, writing a cold email, and B, knowing who you’re going after and having at least just some minor track record there, enough to say, “We’ve created results in that field.” I think that’s the first thing to point out, is just the cost of doing it is not as high as people think.
You don’t have to blow up your agency and reinvent it again. From there, you can choose how fancy you want to get. Maybe it’s creating a landing page, maybe it’s creating an alternative proposal, whatever it may be, but I think that’s the main point.
Email Best Practices for Filling Your Sales Pipeline
Drew: I was just gonna ask you that. If I send an email out saying, “We are in this juxtaposition of branding shop,” and whatever the vertical is, and then they go to my website and my website is more of a generalist website, is that a problem? Do I need to drive them to case studies? What do you recommend in terms of the credibility needed to back that up before they pick up the phone or reply to that email?
Dan: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I think that there’s ways to build credibility beyond just your website. Sometimes when we send these campaigns, we don’t include any links at all. Maybe at the very last email, as a Hail Mary, we’ll send them a PDF or something.
What happens is if you direct people to your site when you’re doing campaigns like this, they go and they never come back. What you want is an agreement to a conversation. That’s really what we’re going for here.
Furthermore, it’s okay if your site’s not the best in the world ’cause chances are, this isn’t for mass market. You’re not trying to get somebody to buy a product right on your site. Yes, it should look good. Yes, it should speak well of what you’re doing, but it’s okay if it’s a little bit mysterious because ultimately, the people that you’re reaching out to are gonna be more attracted to the idea of this not being for everyone, of this being for people in their specific situation.
I don’t think the site has to address each and every group and each and every possibility of the niches you’re going for. Once you have success with niches, there’s plenty of examples of sites that say, “Industries we serve,” and so on, but I think that there’s plenty of consultants and agencies that have a one-page site that hasn’t been updated in 10 years and are just killing it.
Drew: What you’re saying is when you craft an email for your agency clients, there’s no link driving them back to the website, right? Is that my understanding?
Dan: Generally, yes.
Dan: For all intents and purposes.
Drew: But don’t you think that prospects are saying, “I see the URL at the back of that email address so I’m gonna go check them out?”
Dan: Yeah. That probably happens a lot of the time, but we don’t want that to happen, necessarily. We want them to agree to a conversation as the call to action.
Drew: For you, is the formula pretty much a direct sales email in terms of the language? I’m not trying to make you smarter, I’m not trying to give you insight into your industry or into marketing, I’m just telling you I’m good at this and do you want to talk?
Dan: Generally, yes. By the way, it’s not slight on that approach on teaching and giving insights, but I think that is reserved for marketing. That is reserved for people that have opted into your list and want to learn from you. The people you’re reaching out to are people you’re saying, “You’re special, you’re like our clients, we think you can benefit from what we’re doing, and we should chat.”
Drew: One of my experiences in watching agencies do this is that, and it doesn’t have to be an email, it could be a phone call, it could be snail mail, it could be an email, but they send a couple and then when they get no response, they think that’s a dry well and they move on.
What’s your experience in terms of frequency and quantity? How many is too many and how often is too often?
Dan: Yeah, it’s a great question. Generally for agencies, it’s a small batch thing. We’re sending for our clients usually 150, maybe 200 a week at most. You know you’re sending about 50 a day. Usually we’re focusing Tuesday through Thursday ’cause Monday, Friday, people are less responsive.
Dan: It’s definitely a small batch sort of thing. In terms of it not working, there’s a lot of reasons it might not be working, but the main thing is, is your value prop lining up with the people that you’re going after? It’s almost like two gears that have to latch together in order to get a response.
A lot of the times, the amount of time you have for it to click with people is very small. They need to understand what problem you’re solving within that one paragraph or so. That’s the main thing.
The other thing is just audiences. To be honest, some target audiences just aren’t good for cold email. If you’re going after very traditional, very hierarchical industries, it could be tough. If you’re going after construction, that could be hard. If you’re going after blue collar industries that are based outdoors, others that are not necessarily receptive to cold email.
I think that for the sort of industries that many agencies are going after or most agencies are going after nowadays, it can work pretty well ’cause most of us are used to interacting in a digital environment with people we might not know like the back of our hands, but there’s still industries that aren’t quite there yet.
Drew: And probably industries that have a real considered decision tree. So like anybody who’s normally gonna send out RFPs or who is regulated by a board of directors. I think about universities or hospitals, places like that, or state entities, this probably is not a great model for them either, right?
Dan: Generally not. Generally, those can be tougher but plenty of companies that feed into those industries could work. You have to think creatively. Maybe there’s health tech startups or consultants that they hire. There could be other ways in, but yeah. You want to stray more towards white collar, less hierarchical industries.
Drew: Yep. Let’s assume I’m a prospect on one of your client lists. I’m in that batch of 50 a day. If I don’t respond, what’s your best practice in terms of how many times will I hear from you? If I just don’t respond, how many times are you gonna ping me? If I don’t respond, how many times, and then what happens next?
Dan: Yeah, great question. Typically we’re doing these sequences because it’s the persistence that really makes the difference and really shows that you care enough to follow up. Usually we’re sending three or four emails spaced out over five days to a week or so between each one.
Oftentimes, we see much better response rates on the second or third email ‘because people have just said, “Yeah, I’ve been busy and you cared enough to follow up so I’m ready to chat now.” That happens all the time. Beyond that, if nobody responds, we leave them alone for a while.
Sometimes there’s other things you could do after that. Maybe you follow up with a different offering or you could then treat those dead leads like the ones on your inbound list. You might send them content, something helpful, kind of low commitment.
Drew: Okay. For you, is it always done by email? Do you recommend a combination of email, phone call, carrier pigeon? What’s the cadence for you? Is it all email?
Dan: That’s a good question. I’m a big believer in getting to the phone as soon as possible. The problem is I haven’t seen it work very well when people try to get a hired gun to do sales for them without putting in the time and energy it requires to get a new salesperson up to speed. It’s an offering we’ve toyed with adopting at Sales Schema, but it would just be a lot more to take on.
The problem we’re solving is basically turning these leads from cold to warm and then from there, we really want to work with clients that will get on the phone as soon as possible because there’s this gap that can be bridged with email and digital communications and it’s very turnkey, but beyond that it’s all about human empathy. It’s very hard to control, alter human empathy.
What Prevents Agencies from Pursuing Dan’s Pipeline Strategy
Drew: Yeah, that’s for sure. When you approach agencies, what is their pushback on this model? As you’re doing your sales strategy, why is it that agencies would not pursue this? What are the excuses they give you, anyway, for not pursuing it?
Dan: Yeah, I’d say there’s probably a few different camps. One is that, “This is new to us. We’ve never really sold beyond our personal networks before and we’re not sure if it’s gonna work,” and so on. It’s just more of a fear to be in sales in general. I’d say that’s one camp.
Another is, “We’ve worked with lead generation companies in the past but they’ve been sketchy, or they burned us, or they didn’t give us any results,” which is fair ’cause there’s lots of sketchy lead generation companies. I’d say, this isn’t a sales pitch for us, regardless, whoever you end up working with a lead generation capacity needs to be based on performance and performance in terms of actually generating leads for you.
That’s how we get over that. I’d say that’s the main two forms of pushback that we’re getting.
Drew: Okay. I want to dig into a little bit about your email formula in a second, but let’s take a quick break and then we’ll come right back.
Podcasts are a great way to learn and a great way to educate your staff. Another great way are live workshops and AMI offers many of them throughout the year. If you’d like to check out the schedule, go to agencymanagementinstitute.com/live. Okay, let’s get back to the show.
Alright, we are back with Dan Englander talking about new business sales and that whole lead gen thing that a lot of us sell to our clients but somehow can’t seem to get around to doing for ourselves. Dan, before the break we were talking a little bit about the objections that agencies have to hiring you and before that, we were talking about the cadence of the emails.
Dan’s Secret Email Pipeline Formula
Do you have a formula? When I look at what agencies send out to prospects, a lot of times super wordy, super long, feel like they have to shove five pounds into a one-pound bag. Do you have a recommendation for what those emails look like, and how long they are, and all of that?
Dan: Yeah. That problem you mentioned is not just with agencies. It’s basically 90% of the cold emails that I get and that most people get. That’s been a recurring thing, is that the bar is very low for sending a good email. That’s another better reason to do it, I guess.
I don’t know if there’s a golden length. I think they can go a little bit long if they’re on point and they’re relevant, which I know is a little big vague. Generally, to be specific, what I’m going for with these emails is they usually tend to be about two or three paragraphs, very short paragraphs.
The first one is generally personalized and the tone of the whole thing is making the recipient feel as if you’re in their world, almost as if you’re in their personal network, as if you went to a networking event or a cocktail party with them or something. That’s been super effective for us, is basically saying, “We’ve worked with similar clients to you, we’ve done similar projects, we tend to work with companies when they get to this stage that you’re in.” The more that you can do that, the more that you’re kind of latching onto this idea of community, this very powerful mental trigger. That’s basically what I’m going for with the whole email.
In terms of tone, it’s not self-serving at all. It’s very much in your prospect’s world, not in your world. It’s not, “Here’s a litany of things we do,” there’s no list. It’s basically about a specific problem that you’re solving and if you can, including verifiable results. We’ve helped grow traffic by X, we’ve helped solve this other problem by Y, and so on.
That’s the main thing, and then basically ending with a very simple and straightforward call to action, making sure that people don’t have to do a lot of work to figure out what you want them to do. I get those emails all the time. “Here’s a link to a webinar. Also, perhaps we should chat sometime. Also, can you go over here and like us on Facebook,” or whatever.
Drew: Right. I’ve buried three asks all in a paragraph, yeah.
Dan: Yeah, exactly. You want that one very poignant call-to-action at the end.
Drew: When you’re working with agencies, at some point in time there’s a handoff. For your company, do you guys put together the email plan, and I’m assuming help draft the emails and help them put together the target list, but at what point does the agency owner or the new business person have to step in and take the lead?
Dan: Yeah. Generally, we’re not sending them people that aren’t interested or that say, “Please take me off the list,” or whatever. Once we get genuine interest from somebody, then we forward it on to our clients and we’re sending it on behalf of the client themselves. They’re approving all the messaging to make sure it’s on brand with what they want to say.
Then from there, once somebody is good to go, we send it along and then they pick up the conversation from there. Usually what that is is, “Yes, I’m ready to chat.” Sometimes they might say, “Can you send me some more information first,” and then take up the conversation, but generally, once there’s interest, we encourage getting on the phone as soon as possible.
Drew: But you guys aren’t getting on the phone, you’re encouraging the client to.
Dan: Yeah, absolutely.
Drew: Yeah, okay. I would guess that one of the things that you run into is that when you’re talking to a prospect, they’re saying, “Yeah, maybe I want to do this,” and you start thinking about who their target is, do they know who their target is?
Dan: It’s a good question. I think that they do but it takes some discovery a lot of times to get it out of them because they say, “We’ve had success here, we’ve had success there, we’ve had success with this group.”
Then once you start asking, there’s usually a sort of client that they like to work with the most, that’s going to be the lowest hanging fruit, that’s going to be most receptive to the work they’ve done. That’s usually the group you want to go after, assuming we think we can get results there.
Drew: I’m picturing in my head as you’re talking kind of a bullseye or a target. Do you think most agencies stay in the outer rings and what you’re saying is they have to drill deeper into the smaller more centralized rings?
Dan: Yeah, I think so. I think that you covered this on the previous episode I was listening to. Basically, I think people get caught up in the day-to-day and