I’m a pretty idealistic person. I’ve been known to put unicorns and rainbows in my presentations. And I like to sit back and fantasize about various pie-in-the-sky scenarios. In one such (recurring) “blue sky” daydream, I head to the office on my bike under dawn’s pink glow. As I enter the office, the sun is shooting rays of early morning light through the windows. A fresh gourd of yerba mate sits on my desk next to a bowl of glistening orange nectarines and red cherries. And a steaming plate of crisp bacon. Some sort of perfect music is on. It’s going to be a great day.
As I power up for the day’s work and gaze at my perfectly positioned, dual 27″ monitors, I feel at one with my work and surroundings. Then I realize the real reason why I feel so good. It’s not the dual monitors, the morning, the surroundings. Nope, it’s because in this fantasy I no longer need to create proposals, log time on discovery calls, give prospects yards of documents proving why my company is the one they should work with, and answer RFPs. Ah… what a dream!
The business of selling search
The reality is much different. You have to engage in the business of selling your services, regardless of industry. It’s the nature of the beast. Being in the service industry, we have a duty and obligation to play the game (and sometimes, the dance) of prospecting and business development.
In all honesty, I count myself lucky. My company doesn’t have a single salesperson. Our business development primarily consists of answering the phone and responding to the demand we’ve earned over the years. We have a completely reactive business development approach, aside from the marketing that conferences and speaking engagements naturally provide. But we still have the quandary of proposals, RFPs, discovery calls and on and on. The work of selling—regardless of any proactive cold-calling or prospecting—takes tons of time and money. It’s an expensive but necessary part of the business.
It’s not all bad. I actually enjoy the dance of competing on a proposal and the thrill of each discovery call, proposal review, business development meeting and coffee with potential clients. It’s invigorating, educational and can even be inspiring. It’s about the relationships and the thrill of pursuit and ultimately, triumph. We earn a company’s trust throughout the proposal process and if it’s a good fit, they earn ours. But it’s also hard work. The large search agencies are heavily armed to wage war on the prospecting battle field. These behemoths are often (sadly) long on sales and short on results, in the timeless words of Aaron Wall. Some of the larger search agencies employ massive sales teams and put the majority of their efforts into winning new business rather than servicing their clients.
Five rules for successfully selling search services
I’ve arrived over the years on five principles for business development that work well for us. These rules are ours alone; we don’t assume they apply to everyone. However, they might be useful for you and your company. Here they are:
Don’t give away your knowledge. Your expertise, your knowledge, your experiences, are valuable commodities that should be guarded closely. Have a potential client asking for lots of details, specifics and free advice? Tell them you’re not in the business of giving that away.
Give, then take. These immortal words are immortal because they’re based on fundamental truths. And they’re as accurate today as they’ve ever been, especially online. Don’t forget rule #1, but remember: you have to give in order to receive. Strike a smart balance.
Spinning wheels waste everyone’s time. There’s nothing worse than spending four hours putting together a document “proving” the value of your SEO tactic, when you know deep down no amount of documentation can guarantee a single thing. You can’t expect a potential client to give you ink based on faith. But you can expect them to respect your time and not make you jump through unnecessary hoops, exercises and last minute fire drills. Spinning wheels waste everyone’s time (unless they’re pinwheels–then they’re kinda cool).
Mutual respect is mandatory. You can’t get anywhere without respect. If you sense it’s not mutual, if you sense the prospect will treat you more like a “vendor” than a “partner,” then simply, professionally, move on.
Most RFPs have very poor ROI (for you, not necessarily your client). Unless you are staffed up to handle them, RFPs mostly waste everyone’s time. There are many reasons why this is true, such as the fact that many RFPs are simply a formality for marketing teams that already have an agency picked, but have a need to follow protocol or cover their butts. We have found that most RFPs (not all) return a poor ROI and are discriminating in which ones we respond to.
Until the magical day arrives where I no longer need to engage in proposals and business development, I’ll stick to my five rules above. But I would still like a steaming plate of crisp bacon on my desk…