Prospects. Ever thought about dating them?  Sounds odd I know but my podcast guest Robin Boehler has developed a matchmaking skill between clients and agencies that is bar none.

Robin is the co-founder of Mercer Island Group, a boutique marketing and management consultancy. Their analogy of the review process as a form of dating really helps agencies examine how they present themselves to prospective clients and then Robin and her team help them tweak that to differentiate themselves so they stand out from the crowd.

Most people want to date the stand out, not the wallflower. Come learn from Robin and I how to stand out by:

  • 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
  • Robin’s sales prospecting methodology
  • 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

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.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site ( 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!)

  1. How to Better Understand the Actual Sales Process
  2. Why it’s Important to Do as Much Sales Prospecting Research as Possible
  3. Why You Really Need to Do Your Homework on Sales Prospects
  4. When to Talk About the Agency in Presentations
  5. How to Talk to Prospects and Win their Business
  6. Why You Shouldn’t Focus on Your Competition in the Sales Pitch
  7. The Right Questions to Ask a Prospect in a Sales Pitch
  8. What Works Really Well for Agencies in the Sales Prospecting Process

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 a 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 sort of 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 Robin and her co-founder is her husband, Steve.  We also are doing a workshop together in January, which comes at the request of the people that we did a workshop for last January, who have asked us to do it again. So I’ll tell you more about 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 resources it takes on the part of an agency are huge. So when it happens, it’s most important to, and incredibly fulfilling for an agency, for it to be a long-standing relationship afterwards. And that happens if you do the upfront part right, and of course, then you deliver on the services later on and on the relationship. But getting it right at the beginning is critically important to the client and to the agency.

How to Better Understand the Actual Sales Process

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, you know, “We’re a full service marketing agency who 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 a coffee at a Panera, or it’s a full-on shootout with other agencies, and everywhere in between.

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 know, you said some really important things at the very beginning of this too, in talking about how the world sees agencies. You know, 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, and inevitably, when we interview clients and ask them, “Who … You know, are there any agencies you want to make sure we consider? Any agencies that, um, you want to make sure that, uh, we include when we’re looking at agencies for your company?” I would say, 99 out of 100 times, the client says, “Hmm. You know, I probably should know some.” But they can’t name a single agency.

Drew McLellan: Right, or they recognize the big, huge national agencies. Like, well, what about the people that do Nike or Burger King? Which is not the right fit for them anyway.

Robin Boehler: Well, they … Right, 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. So this, you know, 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 to, 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.

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’d 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?

Drew McLellan: Right. Right.

Robin Boehler: 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, as if …

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, etc., etc.? 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 so that I can, 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.

Why it’s Important to Do as Much Sales Prospecting Research as Possible

Drew McLellan: Right. So it starts, then, partially, though, by having a targeted list of people that you think are what, in AMI vernacular, is what your sweet spot customer is, right? 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, you know, 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, right? 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 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, 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, right? 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 Hoover’s, if you have access to Hoover’s. 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, kind of 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? Etc., etc. 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.

Why You Really Need to Do Your Homework on Sales Prospects

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 sort of 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 sort of astonishing, intellectually, you go, “Well, you know, duh.”

Robin Boehler: Right.

Drew McLellan: 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. But that’s not … 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. It’s 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 they, 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, and 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, “You know, 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. 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?”

Drew McLellan: Right. Right.

Robin Boehler: That’s when you get to talk about yourself.

When to Talk About the Agency in Presentations

Drew McLellan: So let’s … the talking about ourselves. I have a feeling we’ll go on for 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.

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 that, 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, they talk too much about themselves, and C, talk about themselves too often.

Is that your experience as well?

Robin Boehler: Absolutely my experience, and 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.”

Drew McLellan: Right.

Robin Boehler: 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 that’s, I would 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’s 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 see 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, “You know, let me tell you about myself,” and then I’m going to talk for a while and then say, “You know, 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. 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, to be honest, 100% honest. We were speaking to kind of the quote, unquote “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, right? So this isn’t agency-related, necessarily, but it’s us doing something, 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.”

Drew McLellan: Right.

Robin Boehler: So we talked about branding for a while and our philosophy of branding, and about nine, ten minutes in, he says, “So tell me again, who got … Tell me a little bit about your company.”

“Ah. Thank you so much. Happy to do that.” But notice where it happened. It happened after I had convinced him that we understood the subject. We asked him a bunch, and I learned a whole lot about his philosophy of branding, which will drive everything we do from here forward. Changed up a little bit about how we talked about ourselves, not that we said something that wasn’t true, but I definitely leaned into some places more than I would have, had we not had this conversation with him.

So it’s all about him first. So when you start with yourself, I actually believe you weaken your value proposition, because you bond with prospects and with customers on their problem, not on your solution. It’s illogical to begin with a solution when you haven’t had a chance to flesh out the problem.

Drew McLellan: Well, and when you talk about yourself in a vacuum, to your example, you may emphasize the wrong things. Again, it’s not about being truthful or not truthful. It’s just about where do you kind of put more spotlight, based on what you’ve learned from them? And if you haven’t learned anything yet, and you just dive in, then obviously, you could put the spotlight in the wrong spot.

Robin Boehler: Totally, and from their perspective, they have to conclude that, because I have a particular problem or issue that other alternatives don’t solve as effectively, I’m going to choose this solution provider. That’s what it is in their heads, right?

So from the agency’s perspective, they have to differentiate themselves by thinking, “Okay. Because my customer, or my prospect, has a problem or an issue or an opportunity that I don’t believe any other alternative can solve as effectively as my agency, that’s why we offer something different in terms of our solution.” Then the solution’s important, but you’ve got to land on … You’ve got to position it in relationship to whatever problem or issue or opportunity they’re trying to solve for.

How to Talk to Prospects and Win their Business

Drew McLellan: So when … So I’ve done my homework, I’ve highlighted news, I’ve done all of that, and I’ve got some questions that I want to ask this prospect, because I think I understand what their problem is, and I think if I’m correct about some of those assumptions, we can be super helpful, and we have relevant case studies that show what we’ve done that for other people.

How do I actually get to have that conversation with them? Because it’s not like I know where they hang out for breakfast, and I can just drop in. How do I get them, given how busy CMOs are, and most of them have gatekeepers, and they’re probably being bombarded by calls from other vendors and agencies and other folks like that, how do I actually figure out a way to worm my way in to be able to have, to ask those questions?

Robin Boehler: Yeah. So that, of course, is the holy grail, and there are a variety of different ways to do it. I do believe that the best way to ever do this is through networking and through existing relationships. Cold calling is ridiculously hard and has a very limited return on the investment. But there are ways to do it, which I’ll talk about in just a minute, but I do think it should always begin with the quote, unquote “old view of the Rolodex”, right?

We now have LinkedIn, which is a whole lot more robust than those old Rolodexes or little black books that people used to carry around, so begin with everyone you know, and Steven, my husband, my business partner and husband, often says, “Never eat alone.” And he’s actually far better at it than I am, making sure that he’s got lunches and breakfasts and coffees with as many people as he possibly can whenever we’re visiting a city, or even here in Seattle, just reminding people that you exist, and also trying to learn and understand what’s happening in their business or in related businesses, people who we know in common that might actually have something that we’re, it might be worth a conversation.

So this is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not like you’re going to send out 50 postcards, get 50 emails back saying, “Yeah, yeah. We want to meet with you.” This is a relationship play, I guess is the best way to say it. So starting with people that you know is most effective because when you send an email or leave a voicemail for someone, and you can say, “I’m calling because Drew McLellan suggested that we might meet,” that requires, then, that person on the other side to respond.

People respond to emails, to phone messages for one of two reasons: either out of a sense of obligation because they either know you, or they know someone in common with you, or they’re curious. One of two things. So the obligation is the easier one. So if you can figure out a way that you can get connected to someone through someone else, that’s the best way.

I don’t know how you are, but if I get an email from someone saying, “Hey, so-and-so suggested that I give you a call. Could, would you be willing to meet for coffee?” As much as I roll my eyes, I always say yes.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Robin Boehler: Because they, relationships are important, and if someone gave my name, I’m assuming they didn’t do it in a flippant way, and so we should have a meeting. So that works. That’s the best way.

The other curiosity, that one is more interesting and much harder, but it is worthwhile to think about. So and think about when you respond to emails or voicemails, or even a piece of printed mail that might come your way, it’s usually because there’s something in there that feels interesting to you. There’s curiosity in some way. So we recommend that people who are trying to sell on their services work hard to think about a legitimate reason to connect with a prospect, and to figure out a way to create curiosity to get that person to respond.

So if you have a longstanding relationship with someone, and you haven’t connected to them in a long time, thinking about a legitimate reason to email them or to call them still is important. And those people that you’ve never met before, curiosity matters.

So we tried this. Steve and I tried this with our company a while back, where we came up with a few prospects that we would love to be able to do some business with. We didn’t know if they’d heard of us or not, but we went to a conference, a B-to-B conference, where we spoke, and we came back from it, we had learned a whole lot of different things at that conference, besides making some great connections. And so, a bunch of the folks who were at the conference, we just went ahead, whether we’d met them or not, and we emailed them after the conference and said, “Hey, sorry we missed speaking to you at the,” whatever the name of the conference was, “We learned something really interesting while we were there, would, and if you’re interested, we’d love to share that with you.”

We learned something interesting about going to market as a B-to-B. I don’t remember the exact, but we came up with something that, where we kind of teased just a titch, and we got about a 70% response to our email, saying, “Sure, we-, sure, we’d love to know what it is you learned.”

And we actually did have something legitimate that we were going to talk about in terms of how B-to-B …

Drew McLellan: Right. You can’t bait and switch it, right?

Robin Boehler: No. You have to actually have something there, right? But it was just a really short email, maybe a sentence and a half, two sentences, and we got, like, a 70% response. And we ended up having meetings with just a few, but we got a response to those emails, and that’s what you want, right? Is some kind of response.

And out of that 70%, then comes a couple of actual phone meetings. In most cases, they’re phone meetings, for us, because we’re in Seattle, and many of our clients are all over the world. But for many agencies, it might even be in town.

So that’s how you get that initial meeting. You’ve got to have some insight into what matters to them, though, to be able to create that little teaser of curiosity.

Drew McLellan: Right. It’s too easy to say, “Thanks, no,” if it’s not relevant.

Robin Boehler: Well, and if it’s … Yeah. Exactly. If there’s, again, it’s back to the place where we started. It has to feel somewhat relevant to them. So if you learn about a company, and you see that they’re about to open new stores, or they’re about to have new locations. Maybe it’s a franchise owner in your area who’s got 10 Subways, and you just found out they’re going to open five more, sending an email saying, “I just heard you’re about to open five Subways. I had some thoughts about those openings. Let me know if you’d like to talk.” That creates some curiosity, because it’s relevant to them, and you haven’t given them the solution.

Where most agencies come in and say, “Oh, I understand you’re opening five stores. Let me tell you why we should be the agency you choose to be able to open those stores.” And then they just go on and on and on about themselves. So yes, at least they’ve gotten something that’s relevant, but now you’ve given me the whole enchilada before I’ve had a … I don’t have to talk to you or not now.

Drew McLellan: Well, and you’ve switched the topic from me, which I find fascinating, to you, which I’m not that interested in yet.

Robin Boehler: Exactly, and wouldn’t you rather do that on a phone call or in person?

Drew McLellan: Right.

Robin Boehler: Right? It’s going to be much more compelling. It can be back and forth. This is a one-way communication, so you don’t want your one-way communication to be all about you, because it’s too easy to turn off.

Why You Shouldn’t Focus on Your Competition in the Sales Pitch

Drew McLellan: So let’s say it’s a more formal process or a bigger business. I still have done my homework. I have my list of questions, but I know that I’m in a shootout with other agencies, and I hear a lot of agencies fret about asking the questions they want to ask, because the client has said, “We’re going to share all the questions and all the answers with whatever the five agencies or the 12 agencies, or how many of are in the pitch.”

So a lot of agencies are leary of asking those questions, because they think their question, number one, is the most brilliant question on the planet, and no one else has thought to ask it, and they don’t want to give away their competitive advantage to the other agencies by exposing the avenue that they’re about to explore. Do you have thoughts about that?

Robin Boehler: I have a lot of thoughts about that, and I …

Drew McLellan: I figured you would.

Robin Boehler: Yeah. So, you know, if you want the question answered, you’re going to have to ask it, and you don’t get to make the rules of the game. So if the rules of the game are, “We’re going to share everything,” well, then, that’s an even playing field, and that shouldn’t scare you.

Focus on you. Don’t focus on your competition. Focus on you and the client, your relationship with the client. So if you hold back a really smart question because you don’t want others to hear it, you just held back a really smart question and didn’t give the client the chance to hear your really smart question.

Questions are the key to everything in a new business development, because questions, number one, get you the answers to the questions, get you to the answers that you need. They make you smarter if you ask those questions, so you don’t want to lose the opportunity to do that. They also give you the chance to build credibility. Those questions, whoever asked that question, if it’s a really smart question, as smart as you think it is, it actually builds your credibility.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. You get credit for it, even if everybody else gets to hear the answer.

Robin Boehler: You’ll absolutely get credit for it, and the client hears that you’re the one that asked that, “Wow. They asked that really smart question.” They remember that. Yeah, everybody else gets the answer, but number one, you get the answer, which you wouldn’t have otherwise, and you get the credibility points for having asked that really smart question.

So yes, absolutely, in all cases, ask the questions that you have to ask. Focus on your relationship with the client, don’t … That noise around, those other agencies that are vying for this business, are just that. They are the noise.

So you’re focusing dead on, imagine this is dating, right? And you are sitting across the table from this person that you want to have this date with. Focus only on that client and on your agency, and what you need to be able to show them that you are indeed the right choice.

So always, always ask. And I say to agencies, most agencies don’t ask enough questions. Agencies get into a relationship or into a pitch with us, and they’ll get an RFI, and they won’t … I never hear from them. Like, you’re not going to ask any questions, really? Not a single one? Why? You’re 100% more likely to get the answer to a question you ask than one you don’t, so why guess? Why guess? If you’re have the chance to meet with someone or to be able to send in your quote, unquote “credentials”, find out as much as you can, and ask questions. The worst that happens is the pitch consultant or the client who’s running the pitch, or running the review, whatever it is, will say, “You know what? We’re not ready to, we’re not able to answer that question at this point in time.” Okay. So then you move on.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Robin Boehler: But ask questions.

The Right Questions to Ask a Prospect in a Sales Pitch

Drew McLellan: I know one of the things that you guys have talked about in the past is how surprised you are at how reticent agencies are to sort of engage at that level, and how they almost come across that as they are … They’re so anxious about getting the business that they don’t want to offend by asking questions or asking if they can meet with the prospect or whatever, and at the end, they come off being more reticent, perhaps, than they really are.

Robin Boehler: Well, it’s not just the reticence. It’s that you end up … That’s where agencies lose business that they should have had the chance to win, where they just didn’t take the time to learn things. We had an agency not too long ago that was local. So this was in the financial services industry. They were in a, I wouldn’t call it a small city, but a medium sized city, where everybody knew everybody in the city. So the client had just moved to this position and knew one of the agencies in town, and he asked us, because there were politics involved, he asked us to run the pitch.

There were some politics about which agency should we choose, and he absolutely wanted to include this local agency. He had a relationship with the owner of the agency, and you know, yeah, let’s include them. Well, the owner of the agency, who we also knew, they got their RFI, and they didn’t ask us a single question. And their RFI came in, and it was completely off the mark. They didn’t address any of the case studies that were asked to be addressed.

And so we had a conversation with them afterwards. They didn’t make it to the next round. They were shocked. And we said, “So what were you guys thinking?” And they said, “Well, we figured, you know what? We wouldn’t answer all the questions in the RFI now. We wanted to save some of it for the presentation.” And I said, “Why didn’t you ask about doing that?”

Drew McLellan: Right. Because you might not get the opportunity to do the presentation.

Robin Boehler: Right. First of all, always go all in on every part of whatever it is that you, at any chance you have to put yourself in front of a client, go all in on making that conversation the only conversation that matters, because it might be the last one you have. So and it also might be the only one that gets you to the next stage, or the next meeting, the next part of the pitch, whatever that looks like.

And he said, “Oh, well, you know, we figured we knew a lot about this client.” Okay. Okay. Well, if you figured you knew everything, you were wrong. And so it was really a shame, because they were so disappointed, and they probably would have been a very viable choice for this, but it just … Those are those times that I feel a little heartbroken, that it just didn’t have to go that way.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. It’s interesting. Everybody is so anxious to get new business, and yet we sort of … It’s oftentimes not that we didn’t get picked. It’s often that we made ourselves unattractive somehow.

Robin Boehler: Yeah. Yeah. And I also think that agencies listen, what I call it, with happy ears. This minute they hear something that they think they can sell against, they just go after it. So, “Oh, you’re opening new locations. You know, we do the best new store, new locations that we … You know, we do store openings better than anybody else.” And they stop asking questions as soon as they hear something that they feel like they can jump against.

Well, just the more surface it is, the more everybody else is going to jump at it, and it might not be the most important thing, so don’t go too fast, right? So if it’s new store openings, well now, before I jump in and tell you how I can do those better than anybody else, maybe I want to ask a deeper question, which is, “So okay, so obviously, new store openings are important. Besides the obvious goal of getting those new stores open, what specifically concerns you?” You might-

Drew McLellan: About this rapid growth, or whatever? Yeah.

Robin Boehler: Just about the store openings overall, they might say, “Well, actually, you know what? The store openings don’t concern us at all, but we’ve got something else that’s on our mind.” Well, wouldn’t that be good to know before you jump all the way in and off the diving board into what ends up being an empty pool, because they’re not worried about that. They’ve got it covered.

Drew McLellan: Right. Yeah.

Robin Boehler: Right? So, you know, “Oh, I hear you guys are doing that golf championship.” “Yeah, you know, well, we do those, but, well, no. That’s been planned for three years.” So you jump in too fast, you want to know what specifically it is on their minds. So take your time, ask lots of questions, lean in, and find out what the real issue is that’s driving this person to maybe need help or look for someone who can partner with them in terms of reaching their business goals.

What Works Really Well for Agencies in the Sales Prospecting Process

Drew McLellan: I know that the listeners will tar and feather me if I don’t ask this question, but is there anything that you guys see as you are sitting next to the clients, walking through the process, is there anything that you’ve seen that was like, “Holy buckets. Boy, did that get our attention.”? Is there … I think every agency is looking for the silver bullet, which I think we all know in our hearts doesn’t exist, but is there anything that you’ve seen lately that you’re like, “You know what? That really caught the client’s attention,” or, “That really made them the one to beat,” that other agencies could go, “Oh, I could figure out a way to do that.”?

Robin Boehler: You know, it’s not going to be really sexy, but it is … If the client that, if the agency that seems to be most interested in the client. Not in getting the business, although clients do want to know that the agencies really do want the business. I know that sounds obvious, but I’ve seen agencies that don’t ask for the business at the end of a meeting, and it’s like, really? Ask for the business. Tell them how important this would be and how honored you’d be to be their agency.

So that goes without … I’ll just say that goes without saying, but it’s … I’ve seen clients be so impressed that an agency is thoughtful about the business of the client. That seems to be the thing that gets an agency ahead, that and learning along the way. If an agency comes in early, let’s say you don’t have any experience in that industry, but you’ve solved the problem for others.

So let’s say, “You know what? Our brand needs to be refreshed, and we’re in the financial services space,” and you don’t have any financial services experience, but you have refreshed brands forever. And you’ve worked with their target audience too, because let’s say their target audience is wealthy investors, just for argument’s sake. And you’ve worked with wealthy investors before, because you’ve worked on luxury brands or something like that.

So I know your target audience, I’ve solved this problem for others, but I don’t necessarily know your space. So if you come in, and you can show that you’ve done your homework enough to feel like you can talk the language, and you lean in on the things that do connect, the same problems, the same target audience, and then second meeting, you’ve learned more, and the third meeting, you’ve learned even more, clients are very impressed with agencies that show growth.

Now I know that’s another duh, of course, but you’d be amazed at how many agencies don’t actually put in the work to grow and to respond to clients’ questions and concerns from meeting one to meeting two, so if you get that cherished first meeting, and the client says to you, “You know, we’re really going to need to understand your capabilities around X, Y, or Z in the next meeting,” if you don’t really deliver on the thing they asked for, and you just come back and make the same presentation again, they’re done with you. If they don’t see you continue to grow, you can’t be a partner for them.

Drew McLellan: As you’re talking, I’m thinking about … I’m a big baseball guy, and I think about how a team from spring training to the fall has to keep learning based on the opponents that they see every day, and they have to keep getting better.

Robin Boehler: That’s right.

Drew McLellan: And so it seems to me that agencies have to do the same thing. You can’t blow the whole wad in your very first presentation and not, whether it’s your answers to an RFI, or whatever it is, and then have nothing new to say to them every time you interact until the final conversation, where they’re going to make their decision.

Robin Boehler: No, I mean, imagine that, that you have one conversation with someone, and then the second time they come, you say the same things you said the first time.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Robin Boehler: You know, like, “What, what, now? Are you listening to me at all? Are we having a conversation, or are you just talking about yourself to me?” So by definition, if you listen to what they have to say after your first presentation or whatever it is, the first conversation, there will of course be more things to say the second time, different things, because you will have learned more if you asked questions.

Again, I go back to those questions. Questions are everything. They know more than you do about their business, and they always will. That’s the first thing that all agencies need to understand. The client is the expert on their business.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Robin Boehler: Always. Always. And you may know more about how to reach the target audience than they do, but they know their business. And so if you can’t learn something that helps you talk about their business differently from meeting one to meeting two, you didn’t ask enough questions, or you weren’t listening. It’s not hard to have a conversation with someone that evolves, if you’re actually in a conversation.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Robin Boehler: So I could have come on today-

Drew McLellan: Because then each conversation gets more interesting too, right?

Robin Boehler: Yes, right? So this conversation is a good example. So I had a bunch of bullets that I wanted to talk about today, and I covered the first two, and then you asked me other questions, and I am none of those other things that I thought we’d talk about today are on the, have I discussed, because you asked questions that went in a little bit of a different direction.

Now I could have still told you what I wanted to say before we got on the call, but that would not necessarily have been interesting to your listeners. I assume you know them better than I do.

Drew McLellan: Well …

Robin Boehler: So that makes it more relevant.

Drew McLellan: What I love is that sets us up for you to come back and for us to have another conversation.

Robin Boehler: I would love to.

Drew McLellan: That’s mean teasing for the listeners, but I promise I will have Robin back, and we will dive into those bullet points that she thinks you need to know about, because I assure that they are important.

So I want to pause and just for a second, and I never do this, you guys who are regular listeners I know, but I’ve got to tell you, the workshop that Robin and Stephen and I did, and when I say “I”, I’m like the color guy in the back of the room adding commentary every once in awhile. But the workshop we did in January was so spectacular that the attendees asked us during the workshop if we would do another workshop, obviously, different content, but around new business again. We have scheduled that for January of 2018, and over 50% of the people who were at the workshop this past January have already registered for the one in 2018.

That tells, you know how crazy busy you agency people are, so that tells you how spectacular that workshop was, and what we have in store for you in 2018. So if you have interest in that, and if you’ve enjoyed the conversation Robin and I have had, and I’m going to have her husband on shortly as well, feel free to check out on the AMI website,, under the workshops header, you can read more about that workshop, where it is, and when it is in January. You can jump straight to it here as well:

But that aside, Robin, I knew this would be a great conversation. Thank you for … One of the things I love about you guys is how generous you are with all of the things that you’ve learned and how, you know, I know you’re really great at your day job, but you’re great teachers. You are great coaches and mentors, and I am grateful that you made the time to be on the show and to share your expertise with the audience. Thank you.

Robin Boehler: My pleasure, and thank you for asking. It was fun to do.

Drew McLellan: So if folks want to learn more about Mercer Island Group and find out about the services you offer, either on the client side or the agency side, where is their best bet to track you guys down?

Robin Boehler: Well, we have a website. So I’m making sure that that’s right. As I’m sitting here thinking, I’m saying, I’m thinking, “Is that my website address?” because, of course, I never look at my own., so you can find us easily there, or you can feel free to reach out to us. Our office phone number is (206) 236-0447, and we would be thrilled to talk to anybody about …

And you know, even to go further on these subjects, or to talk about ways we could help your agency, there are lots of opportunities to … You know, I’m a big beli