Episode 98

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Robin Boehler is a co-founder of Mercer Island Group, a boutique Marketing and Management Consultancy, a pre-eminent agency search consultant to clients and growth advisors to agencies of all sizes in the world. She loves making matches between agencies and clients. She thinks of the review process as a form of dating and loves helping agencies put their best feet forward.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • Getting the agency-client relationship right from the very beginning
  • Why truly differentiating your agency is so crucial
  • The importance of doing your research on a prospect before ever speaking to them and how to do it well
  • Why you should never start out a pitch talking about your agency (and when is the right time to do so)
  • Why networking is the best way to get the opportunity to have quality conversations with prospects
  • How to spark curiosity in communication to prospects
  • Robin’s strategy for reaching out to connections that you haven’t spoken to in a while
  • Why you shouldn’t hold back a really smart question just because you don’t want a competing agency to hear it
  • Why each conversation you have with a prospect is the only one that matters
  • Why you must show true interest in a prospect’s business and then learn from what the prospect tells you

 

The Golden Nugget:

“The client does not pay attention until you start talking about them.” – @mig_robin Click To Tweet

 

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Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build A Better Agency Podcast presented by HubSpot. We’ll 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 experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Excited to be here with you today. And we’re going to talk about a topic that is always top of mind for agency owners, we’re going to talk about business development. And I have an awesome guest who has a depth of expertise in that. Let me tell you a little bit about her, and then we’re going to jump right into the conversation. So, Robin Boehler is the co-founder of Mercer Island Group, a boutique marketing and management consultancy.

They are one of the top agency search consultants in the country. And they work with lots of clients, matchmaking with them to help them find the best agency for their needs. They also serve as growth advisors to agencies of all sizes all over the world. They love making matches between agencies and clients. And they look at the review process as a form of dating. And I think we’ll probably end up using that analogy quite a bit, the whole idea of what part of the dating process are you in and how should you behave.

And they’re really awesome at helping agencies examine how they present themselves and how they hold themselves up and help them really tweak that to differentiate themselves and to stand out from the crowd. They are also … Robin, her co-founders, her husband, Steve, and we also are doing a workshop together in January, which comes at the request of the people that we did a workshop last January who have asked us to do it again. So I’ll tell you more about that at the end of the show. But in the meantime, Robin, welcome to the podcast.

Robin Boehler:

Thank you. And thank you for that lovely introduction.

Drew McLellan:

Well, you know what, I have witnessed firsthand the way you guys help your clients, both on the client side and on the agency side, make a match that really serves both parties. And at the end of the day, that’s what every agency wants. They want to find those right fit clients that they can serve and delight for a long time. And sometimes there’s an art to that, right?

Robin Boehler:

Absolutely. And the effort that goes into bringing on or finding a new client and getting a new client to actually do that marriage and say, yes, we want to work with you, the effort that it takes and the resource it takes on the part of an agency are huge. So when it happens, it’s most important and incredibly fulfilling for an agency for it to be a long standing relationship afterwards. And that happens if you do the upfront part. And of course, then you deliver on the services later on another relationship. But getting it right at the beginning is critically important to the client and to the agency.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. And I know one of the ways you guys work with agencies, and again, I’ve seen you do it with AMI agencies is really helping them look through the lens of how the world sees them and figure out how to position themselves in a way that doesn’t sound, we’re a full service marketing agency likes to partner with our clients, blah, blah, blah. And also teach them a different way to present themselves in a pitch situation, whether that pitch situation is sitting over coffee at a Panera or it’s a full on shootout with other agencies and everywhere in between.

And so, I know one of the things that you and Steve are big proponents of is understanding the actual sales process. And again, using your dating analogy of how to present yourself at different phases, and it starts with really understanding who the heck you’re talking to and why they’re sitting across the table from you in the first place, right?

Robin Boehler:

It does. And you said some really important things at the very beginning of this too, and talking about how the world sees agencies. It’s interesting because most agencies, and I always hate breaking the bubble on this and bursting the bubble, I should say, most agencies think …

Drew McLellan:

Brace yourself, everyone.

Robin Boehler:

Yeah, most agencies think that clients have a list of agencies that they want to work with and clients know all about the agency world. Inevitably, when we interview clients and ask them, are there any agencies you want to make sure we consider any agencies that you want to make sure that we include when we’re looking at agencies for your company? I would say 99 out of 100 times, the client says, hmm, I probably should know some, but they can’t name a single agency. So …

Drew McLellan:

Right. Or they recognize the big, huge national agencies that … Well, what about the people that do Nike or Burger King, which is not the right fit for them anyway.

Robin Boehler:

So they know brands that they think do good work in the marketplace. Startup brands always talk about Airbnb and they talk about Warby Parker. Startup brands always talk about Airbnb, and they talk about Warby Parker. So this, on the smaller side, but for the most part, clients don’t know agencies. So when you are an agency that is undifferentiated, you make it even that much harder for a client or a search consultant. I mean, it’s my job to know agencies, but in most cases, clients don’t use a search consultant.

They’re looking for an agency, or they don’t even know they need an agency, and they come across an agency, and then they have to figure out why it makes sense to have this conversation. And I think the challenge as a seller, for an advertising agency, or a media agency, or a digital agency, or whatever kind of agency you are, the challenge is that there’s so much noise in the marketplace, and it’s frustrating for the service provider, for the agency to figure out a way to break through that noise.

It’s what you do for your clients every day, but few agencies ever sit back and think about, “How do I do that for myself?” And in today’s world, prospective buyers are more standoffish than ever, because they’re worried that an agency or a service provider’s going to try to come in and just sell them stuff they don’t need. And …

Drew McLellan:

And their job is on the line, right? If they don’t get it right with their agency, while the agency gets fired, the CMO, they lose their job.

Robin Boehler:

Right. So whoever’s running marketing for any company, whether it’s a CMO or a vice president of marketing or a director, whoever gets tasked with finding the service provider, finding someone who can do this with us, their job is on the line in a couple of different ways. One is, they better find the right match. They better find somebody who actually can do this work and do it well, and they have actual business results that they’re held accountable for. So it’s not just about finding an agency that feels like, “Oh, wow.

We could be friends, and this feels like fun, and your shop’s really cool.” It’s, “Can you deliver, help me deliver on whatever it is the business goals are that I need to deliver on?” So the environment’s incredibly competitive right now. The business environment is competitive for the people working on the client side, and it’s especially competitive for the agencies. And what we find is that when agencies go out there to get found, and they make cold calls, let’s say, to prospective clients, they typically make a call or send an email, or they leave a voicemail that sounds like everybody else. And if you think about it, most people don’t really like to get sales calls.

Drew McLellan:

It’s why none of us answer our phone when we’re at our desk, right?

Robin Boehler:

Yeah. It’s why no one answers their cell phone if they don’t recognize the number too, right? But truly, if you think about it, customers don’t despise salespeople. They despise people that are irrelevant, and that take up their time and that break into their day and talk about things that are not relevant to them. So what agencies need to do is understand their customers better before they even meet them. So learning and understanding what’s going on in a business and figuring out where are the places where I think I might be able to help this business based on secondary research, if it’s local, if it’s a company that’s local to you, you actually may even know a lot about the company in terms of the health of the company. Is it growing? Is it changing?

Is it expanding? Is it suffering from lots and lots of new competition, et cetera, et cetera? Is there a change in leadership? All those things open the door for a conversation that matters to the customer, as opposed to, “I really want a meeting with this customer or this prospect so that I can tell them about me, because I can help them.” It can’t ever start with you. It has to start … Like you said earlier, we’ll talk about dating. Any date that talks all about you is not fun for the person you’re sitting across the table from. It’s got to be about them.

Drew McLellan:

So it starts then partially, though, by having a targeted list of people that you think are, in AMI vernacular, is what your sweet spot customer is. So here are people who are like the clients that we delight every day, that we know their industry or we know the specific problem they’re having. Once I’ve identified this list of targets, then what do I need to do? You talked about secondary research. What does that look like? Because I’m guessing that a lot of people who are listening are saying, oh yeah, we do that. We Google them. We blah blah blah. What kind of a dossier do you put together now in the dating vernacular? This seems weird, but what kind of a dossier do you put together on a prospect before you initiate any sort of conversation?

Robin Boehler:

Right. And it is a little creepy in the dating analogy, except that it’s relevant in terms of figuring out who you want to date. So while you wouldn’t go into the same kind of research in the dating situation, because you want to be able to figure out who are the right prospects for you, you’ve got to figure out who … We recommend to agencies that they look at a variety of different things. The first is, where do you want to grow? As an agency, are you looking to grow inside of a particular region? Are you looking to grow in a particular vertical?

Are you looking to grow in a certain kind of a capability set? What’s your business plan? So I know you spent lots of time with agencies, Drew, talking about business planning. Not something we’ll talk about today, but you’ve got to have a business plan before you do new business development.

Drew McLellan:

Amen.

Robin Boehler:

Because you’ve got to know what it is you’re … What are you trying to do with new business? So it’s not a free-for-all. Anybody who wants to hire us, we’re going to go try to get them. It’s more figuring out what does growth look like. So let’s just imagine for a moment that you’re a regional agency and there are certain categories that most regional agencies ought to have, and you look around and you’re thinking, wow, we don’t have any universities. We don’t have any, but we used to. So looking in that space might be the exact right place for you.

So you’ve got to figure out where do you want to fish, so figure that out. And then start to look at who the possible prospects are within that pond. So create the pond, and then begin to look at who those prospects are. And then, once you decide, okay, this is a group of possible clients for me, that’s when it comes time to actually do the real research, in terms of … I mean, the whole networking piece comes into play so that you know how you can reach out to these folks.

But figuring out, once you get close to a particular prospect that you actually might be able to get a meeting with, learning and understanding, and it’s not just Googling. It’s getting into looking at the recent news, looking at Hoovers, if you have access to Hoovers. There are a whole host of secondary research sources that you can use to really learn about the trends inside an organization or a company. And we recommend filling out what we call a business profile.

We have a template for this, that lists all the facts and figures, the name, rank, and serial number for everything about the organization that you can easily find. How big are they? How many locations do they have? What’s the leadership look like? What’s the history of the company? How was it founded? Is it public? Is it private, et cetera, et cetera? All that stuff that’s easily findable, and then looking at as much as you can regarding the recent news. Have they been in the news in any way, shape, or form? Has there been … United Airlines, right now, there’s lots about them.

Drew McLellan:

That’s for sure.

Robin Boehler:

So most companies have some kind of a history in the news, especially local news, if they’re a local company. So it can be a …

Drew McLellan:

Or even on their own website, they might have a news section, right?

Robin Boehler:

Absolutely. And you want to use their website, of course, as a great source, as well as some of the secondary sources you can find. And once you know about them, your job is to analyze, so what’s really going on here? Where we think what we have to offer might be able to help them in places where they need help or they have opportunities to be able to grow as a company or to stave off competition as a company, where can my services, where can the thinking in my organization, my agency actually help move the needle on their business?

And most customers, I’d say the customer’s not always right. They may think they don’t need advertising or marketing or media help, but they don’t always know everything about their needs in your space. That’s where your expertise comes in, to help show them that there might be a way that you could help them move the needle on their business. But coming in and simply saying, “Hey, we’re an advertising agency. We think you should know about us,” not compelling in most cases. Because most companies aren’t looking to spend money on marketing services or advertising. They’re looking to solve business problems. Your job is to figure out what those might be and where you can make that connection.

Drew McLellan:

One of the things that I thought was really insightful at the workshop we did in January was when you guys put up news from big companies, small companies, private companies, public companies, and you highlighted words that gave us clues as to what was going on, whether they were growing or they were closing stores, so they were having money and sales issues, or their reviews were dropping, so they were having loyalty and customer service issues. It was astonishing. Intellectually, you go, well, duh.

But actually seeing it and going, oh, I can totally see how I could use language that demonstrates that I really have done my homework. And I think a lot of agencies assume that all the other agencies out there do that kind of homework. Even in the big pitches that you do, with big recognizable brand names, that’s not always the case, is it?

Robin Boehler:

Not hardly. I wish it was. I wish it was. And it’s always a little heartbreaking to me when an agency that I think could really be a great partner for a client blows it by not doing their homework. Really, it’s just heartbreaking, is the only word I can use. Because you see an agency work really hard to get the attention of a client and then they get it, and then they blow it because they don’t do this background work. And they ask questions that the client thinks are, well, did you not research us at all?

It’s always amazing to me that after … And I know not all agencies actually are engaged in formal pitches, so think about this as you actually get a meeting with a client, whether it’s a formal pitch or not a formal pitch. At the end of that meeting, there’s always another meeting to say, “Well, what did we think as a client about that presentation, about that meeting, about the chance to sit with an agency?” And one of the things that always surprises, pleasantly surprises me about the client, is how impressed they are when an agency does their homework.

And to a client, they always say, “Wow. They really spent time getting to know us.” Now we’ll go back to the dating analogy. That is a compliment. People love to be complimented. So if you spent time getting to know me before you came to spend time with me and you spent time thinking about and talking about things that are of interest to me, I actually feel appreciative. And that’s how clients feel. So it’s not just about doing the homework so that you sound smarter, which you do, it’s also because the client will notice. The prospect will notice.

If you come in and you have to ask them, “So how many locations do you have?” And they’re thinking, really? You don’t even know that? You’re wasting my time in a meeting today? You’re done. You’re done before you begin. There’s plenty of stuff out there that can make you know the kind of the base level of knowledge, what I would call table stakes, and then it’s all out there, as you were just mentioning, Drew, it’s all out there to actually sound even smarter.

So if I do my homework on a company that’s expanding and I learn online, or within my research or phone calls, I have with other people that know this company, I learn that they’re about to open 25 new locations, and I say, “I just recently heard that you guys are about to open 25 new locations. Is that right?” And the person says, “Well, actually, it’s 30,” or they say, “Yeah.” What they’re thinking is, okay, they know about us. So you start to develop credibility immediately. And that’s what you need.

You also begin to say, the client says to themselves, wow. These people actually know what’s important in our business. Store openings or whatever the thing might be that you learn, to find out that they’ve turned around their sales. You used to be losing money. Now they’re starting to make money again. If you know that, that makes you sound smart, knowledgeable, credible. All of those things have the client lean in, the prospect lean in to say, “So who are you guys again?” That’s when you get to talk about yourself.

Drew McLellan:

The talking about ourselves. I have a feeling we’ll go on around that for a couple minutes. So let’s take a quick break, and then we’ll come right back and dive into, when is the appropriate time to talk about ourselves? We’ll be right back, guys. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast and you find that you’re nodding your head and taking some notes and maybe even taking some action based on some of the things we talked about, you might be interested in doing a deeper dive. One of the options you have is the AMI remote coaching.

So that’s a monthly phone call with homework in between. We start off by setting some goals and prioritizing those goals and we just work together to get through them. It’s a little bit of coaching, it’s a little bit of best practice teaching and sharing. It’s a little bit of cheerleading. Sometimes on occasion, you’re going to feel our boot on your rear end, whatever it takes to help you make sure that you hit the goals that you set. If you would like more information about that, check out agencymanagementinstitute.com\coaching. Okay, let’s get back to the show.

All right. I am back with Robin Boehler from Mercer Island Group, and we’re talking about Biz Dev. So before we took the break, we were talking about … Well, we hadn’t said it yet, but I think it’s common knowledge that agencies, one of the places where they really trip over themselves in new business presentations, again, formal to informal, is they, A, talk too much, and B, talk too much about themselves, and C, talk about themselves too often. Is that your experience as well?

Robin Boehler:

Absolutely my experience. I can’t tell you how many presentations I’ve sat in where the agency comes in and they spend the first 20 minutes of a precious 75 minutes. They spend 20 precious minutes talking about themselves when … And then they say, “Well, enough about us.” And I’m thinking, that was enough about you about 15 minutes ago. So because the client wants to hear about themselves. They want to understand you. A seller offers no value until prospects have a need.

So if you can’t talk about the need with some kind of authority, some kind of credibility, you offer no value. And I have just put a big period after that and take a breath. So you have to be able to show that you can either solve a problem or improve the client’s existing condition. Those are the two categories I would put all of the possibilities in. So either they’ve got a problem to solve or there’s something that you can improve in terms of their existing condition. So what comes first, you might ask.

Should I be talking about myself so I can show you how much I can solve your problem? Or should I develop those needs so I understand what the problem really is? And I think the answer is obvious. You’ve got to develop the needs. You’ve got to be able to talk about the needs of the client, get more information than you ever got before so that you can position your value against those needs. Otherwise, you sound just like everybody else, because you offer no value until you can connect that to their need.

Most agencies, in my view, start out with their own selling proposition. We are the greatest agency that ever existed. Now let’s talk about you. What’s your problem? And now let’s talk about why you should choose us. So you start, and we end with the agency. And somewhere in the middle, we talk about the client, but the client’s not paying attention until you get to them, in every case. Which, if you think about it, is how most people shop in their real lives.

I mean, if you go into Best Buy to buy a refrigerator and someone comes in and tells you all about the merits of a particular refrigerator, you’re thinking, it doesn’t fit in my space. It’s not the color I want. It’s not the size I want. I want two doors. It only has one. If the salesperson doesn’t take the time to understand what your need is, they just seem like a big pain in the butt. And that’s the same thing for an agency that comes in and just talks about the most important thing to them, which, of course, is their agency. So you’ve got to have the patience and the wisdom to hold back.

Drew McLellan:

And starts off the conversation talking about themselves. So I know one of the things you guys recommend is that, if you’re going to talk about your agency at all, you do it at the tail end or towards the tail end, and you weave it into case studies or things so they can … It’s not just, hey, let me tell you about us, but let me show you how we solve problems like you’re having for other people. But you sure as heck don’t kick off the conversation with let me tell you about myself and then I’m going to talk for a while and then say, “Enough about me. So why don’t you tell me what you think about me?”

Robin Boehler:

Right. There’s always a natural place if you just are willing to wait for it, and then it feels natural and it doesn’t feel like you’ve stepped in. So I was up having a conversation with a new client of ours. I don’t think we were actually hired till after this call, 100% honest. We were speaking to the “decision maker” in this company. And we’re going to be doing some work with this company on developing their brand throughout the entire organization.

So this isn’t agency-related necessarily, but it’s us doing what some agencies do, although an agency will actually follow us and do the brand housework and all of that. So we’re just trying to get these people to understand what about branding is important throughout an organization. So we are talking to decision maker and the first thing he says is, “Yeah, so what I … ” We started out by saying, “Hey, we’re so happy to have this conversation with you. I’ve got a whole agenda here, but I’d love to start out and ask you what would you like to get out of our call today?”

And he said, “Well, the first thing I’d like to know is what’s your philosophy on branding?” Now think of the difference if I would have started and said, “Let me tell you a little bit about us.” So we talked about branding for a while and our philosophy of branding, and about 9, 10 minutes in, he says, “Tell me a little b