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How to prepare for a tougher agency sales environment in 2023? Sieve out the new business timewasters!

All the data we are faced with suggests that 2023 is going to be a year of austerity leading to a slowdown in the global economy. The consequence of this is a tougher agency sales environment with prospects taking longer to make decisions, to sign contracts and to part with cash.

The symptoms of tough times (let’s not use the ‘R’ word) manifest as a decrease in the number of quality leads; an increase in window shopping; and reluctance to disclose key information - chiefly budget.

And herein lies the problem. At a time when agencies are pushed to maximize capacity and to protect existing client relationships, false hopes created by poorly qualified prospects only serve to destabilize agency dynamics by taking valuable time away from both the clients that matter and from true, well qualified pitch opportunities.

The imperative therefore is to qualify every enquiry like never before. Smart sales techniques and rigorous processes must be employed to ruthlessly weed out the time wasters. It does seem counter intuitive to turn down invitations to pitch at a time when revenue is under pressure, however, it’s only by tightening the qualification process can agencies use the time and resource available in the most productive and ultimately profitable way.

The qualification step has long been recognised as crucial in the sales dance between agency and prospect. It is the responsibility of the agency to truly uncover the need that the prospect has for the services on offer. And often it’s at this point that the issues of decisions being delayed are created.

All too often, agencies are presented with a brief that is superficial in its detail and requirements. It’s only by digging deeper and by asking high quality questions, can a pitch team hope to uncover the true need that the client has. Using the medical analogy – what symptoms is the prospect presenting that could be causing the underlying condition that has led to the business seeking help?

Separating the discretionary from the necessary is the step that every pitch team must take. Is the brief asking for a discretionary solution – i.e. one that would be nice to have but which is not going to address the real underlying problem facing the business. Or is it a necessity without which the prospect is going to face identifiable consequences.

The ability to present a solution (the proposal) that addresses the specific pain points the prospect is seeking to overcome is critical to overcome decision inertia. Three techniques that can be used in this context are:

  1. Identifying the true pain being felt by the prospect, going beyond the superficial pain indicators, and digging into the real reasons for the problem and the impact it is having on the prospect – both personally and as a business.
  2. Costing out the financial impact of the problem. Showing the prospect hard evidence of the impact of doing nothing (or of delaying the decision) moves the decision to buy from discretionary to necessity. The ‘cost of doing nothing’ conversation is an important one to have with the prospect early in the qualification cycle.
  3. Ensure your pitch makes clear the impact your campaign will have on the true business issue the prospect is facing. This links to the cost of doing nothing and shows the prospect that you understand their wider business, not just their communication requirements

Moving too quickly through qualification and on into submitting the proposal is a false economy despite the natural tendency to want to pitch fast and often. Rigour, curiosity, and reductive thinking are the components of successful pitching in these tough times. Prepare to lose the sale or to have the decision put on ice if the pitch doesn’t truly address an identifiable business need. If being asked for a vanity project or nice to have discretionary campaign, think hard about whether the prospect will sign it off at the end of the day. Discretionary purchases get delayed. Necessity drives decisions.

Article written by Andy West, managing consultant, Westofcenter Ltd.

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