Smartention & The Cautionary Tale Of Hunting Marlins

Editor’s Note: Ben Waymire is an account director at Volume Nine, a leading digital marketing agency in Denver, Colorado. This post is adapted from a presentation Ben gave to a group of marketing agency executives on how to align sales, marketing, and client services. We worked together on this post. If you’d like to submit a guest post on an agency-centric topic, please contact us.


 

When I first heard the term “smarketing” a few years ago, I was annoyed that there even needed to be a buzzword for a concept so simple: sales and marketing alignment. To me, that’s just good sales. Or marketing. Ugh.

Then, about a year ago we were working with a very large B2B consulting client that came to us in desperate need of a content marketing strategy. The client’s marketing team was busy evolving the company from a pure product and technology company into a “solutions” company. That’s no small feat for a massive B2B organization with a very established product suite. The problem was that somebody forgot to tell the sales team they were moving in that direction. Or at the very least, the teams weren’t aligned on when the organization was making the move, and there was no top-down mandate to that effect.

So our new client’s field sales folks are out in the field—business as usual—hitting their existing client base and lead prospects with the product sales pitches they know they can close within three months. The marketing team is telling those same clients and prospects “Hey, we’re a solutions company now!” And the customers are thinking, “Wait, do I want this product, or do I want a solution? What the hell is your solution? Why isn’t your product your solution?”

So the two teams are fighting with each other because they aren’t aligned on their new market direction, how they’re communicating with their clients, or in this particular case: what the hell they’re even selling. So yeah, their marketing and sales teams weren’t aligned with each other, and it cost them a ton of new sales opportunities.

But it also cost them something else: client retention. Interestingly enough, it also cost our agency from retaining them as a client. But I digress.

It got me thinking: it seems like everyone’s still talking about sales and marketing alignment these days. Don’t forget, there’s even a cutesy word for it. But nobody’s talking about how sales and marketing affect that critical third piece of the pie we care so much about as agencies: client retention. Or, as I assert: “smartention.”

Now we’re talkin’.

I’m going to walk through five concepts we at Volume Nine have consistently experienced in the context of aligning our core teams with retention.

Concept #1: Smartention

This isn’t rocket science. In my experience, most sales and marketing professionals in an agency agree that when their groups are aligned, they attract better clients and retain them longer.

In fact, aligned sales and marketing functions enjoy an average of 36% higher customer retention rates (MarketingProfs 2016).

So what’s the problem?

sales-marketing-meme-retention

Agency Culture

Up until recently, the benefits of sales and marketing collaboration for the purpose of retaining clients were not entirely recognized—and definitely not valued. Competition across most industries wasn’t nearly as fierce as it is today, so there was no urgency to align sales and marketing around specific retention goals. Teams without a mutual incentive to a greater business good will absolutely operate with their own goals in mind. It actually makes perfect sense.

Here’s how it breaks down in most agencies:

  • Marketing and sales are responsible for generating qualified leads and converting those leads into paying clients
  • Client services is responsible for retaining those paying clients and expanding the revenue opportunities within them

 

This sounds simple enough, but there’s something troubling that stands out here: marketing/sales and client services don’t want the same things.

For example:

What marketing and sales want:

marlin-water-hunting
This is a picture of a marlin

 

What client services wants:

whale-water-ocean
This is a picture of a whale

 

Okay, fine. Everyone’s going to say they want the “whale” client. But often the incentives for sales and marketing people aren’t lined up for “whale hunting.” They’re lined up for “marlin hunting.” In other words, it’s not uncommon for sales and marketing to rally around programs that sell quickly to small- and mid-sized businesses and grow the agency at a faster pace. Unfortunately, clients in the marlin category are often prioritizing cost over value, and that doesn’t lend itself to long-term retention for the agency.

A real-world example is watching an agency’s sales and marketing teams achieve 400% growth with a small- and medium-sized business (SMB) program, while at the same time the client services team is shouting, “but there’s no way in hell we will retain any of these clients!” If sales and marketing aren’t aligned with client services, you can’t grow your agency and enjoy high retention rates. More on that later.

Goals: Set Them Together, Achieve Them Together

Sing the Same Song

It’s important to set goals collaboratively. This is, of course, easier said than done. But it starts at the top. The agency’s sales, marketing, and client services teams should know—and be held accountable for—the business goals:

  • Revenue
  • Lead volume
  • Total number of clients
  • Average retainer per client

 

Whatever the specific goals end up being for the agency, everyone should be on board and asking the following types of questions.

  • What clients do we want?
  • What types of clients do we retain best and why?
  • When might we want one-time projects instead of ongoing retainers?
  • Where do we want to be in a year and are we on track right now? What is our revenue goal one year from now, and are we on track to reach it?
  • Is our competition doing better than we are?

Communicate & Meet Regularly

  • Consider a shared Slack channel.
  • Have marketing and client services attend weekly sales meetings to hear the sales perspective firsthand.
  • Invite sales and marketing to be a “fly on the wall” during a client meeting. This gives them the invaluable opportunity to hear directly from clients, pick up on themes and pain points, and identify new sales opportunities within the account.

Hold Everyone Accountable

Core agency teams are typically going to be measured differently:

  • Marketing: Measured on lead flow and volume (quality and quantity). This should grow every month.
  • Sales: Measured on leads worked plus close rate. If sales thinks the lead flow was light the past month, they can look at the actual numbers. If marketing thinks sales isn’t working their leads, they can get lead data that shows the percentage of leads worked and closed in a given month.
  • Client services (and production teams): Measured ultimately on client satisfaction and retention. Account teams should also be reporting back to sales and marketing on what’s working and not working.

 

While it’s perfectly fine for the teams to be measured differently, what we have learned at Volume Nine is that talking marketing strategy is NOT just a marketing conversation; it’s a marketing, sales, and client services conversation. And this ultimately gets us all on the same page: hunting whales.

Concept #2: Thoughtful Discovery

Include Sales, Marketing, & Client Services

The discovery process is a critical component to the overall success of the agency/client relationship. This occurs at the very beginning—before the engagement kicks off—in order to understand the information required to build a meaningful strategy. At Volume Nine, we include sales, marketing, and client services in our discovery process. Sales can add value by injecting what was heard during the pitch process:

  • Big-picture goals and KPIs
  • Revenue targets
  • Challenges (and the financial impacts of those challenges)
  • Competitors
  • What keeps the boss up at night
  • What can’t we see online about your business?

 

meme-questions-mr-bean

 

Marketing and client services can focus on strategies and programs that will drive real value for the client. All teams can collaborate on strategy and how to measure and be accountable for success and retention. Having everyone participate in client discovery provides a necessary diversity of insights that aren’t possible to gain from one team.

Concept #3: The “HiPPO” Effect

Let’s address that giant beast in the room we all know is there but none of us are talking about. It’s huge, it makes weird noises, and it’s obnoxious.

hippo-water-animal

 

I’m talking about the HiPPO: the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.

We have all dealt with these on the client side. They tend to come in later in the sales process, throw wrenches, make unreasonable demands, and generally want things.

HiPPOs on the client side can have a huge effect on retention and client relationships already, but from a sales and marketing standpoint, there are a few things you can do to mitigate an angry HiPPO stomping all over your team and causing early cancels.

We worked with a large brand in the financial space. A HiPPO in their organization regularly caused our team significant amounts of stress. In our case, it was the HiPPO demanding we use their own keywords (non-relevant, high search volume) and SEO tactics, and then proposing an impossible pay-for-performance engagement based on achieving specific keyword rankings. The tactical demands also required that we purchase links to boost rankings (despite this directly violating Google’s regulations).

With the HiPPO jumping into the driver’s seat of our “partnership,” we were doomed to a fiery crash. The engagement just got worse and worse until they finally cancelled.

How do you work with a HiPPO?

First of all, put yourself in the HiPPO’s shoes: they have to make 100 decisions every day, they don’t have the data they need, they’re not up to speed on what the team is doing, they didn’t help set goals, and it might even be their ass on the line if the partnership doesn’t drive results.

A few things to be aware of that can help keep HiPPOs more under-control:

  1. Fight fire with DATA. Leverage hard numbers and analytics to help the HiPPO understand the current state. If your strategy is sound, you should be doing this anyway.
  2. Get clear about realistic results, not tactics needed. HiPPOs generally have specific tactics in mind or specific results that may be unreasonable. Help ground them and their team in realistic results—don’t skirt the issue.
  3. Establish a line of communication for your HiPPOs with someone other than their day-to-day contact. This is probably a director-level-and-above type of person who can take the burden of resetting expectations and working through demands without further stressing the account team.
  4. Don’t take the easy money of bidding a self-diagnosis. If the HiPPO’s assessment of their challenges is spot-on, consider your team and the agency fortunate. But if they already know the solution, why do they need you? Don’t jump into an engagement that you know isn’t going to be successful for the client. It’s always better to walk away and save everyone the grief.
  5. Make short-term compromises to appease the HiPPO. For example, if they really want a blog post series about a specific topic, “bonus” that into the agreement versus the alternative—agreeing to a long-term demand (like a performance-based rankings program).
  6. You will probably never trump a HiPPO, but a third party consultant might. If you are up against a HiPPO in the sales process, introduce another member of the team as an expert to help provide candid advice about the things they are asking for or are most concerned about.

Concept #4: Go Small To Go Big

A lot of agencies want to cast a wide net. They’re scared that if they focus on a niche, they will lose opportunities. However, it’s important to consider that your agency’s success might benefit from narrowing—not expanding—its marketing focus.

tom-fisburne-demographic-target-cartoon

 

Volume Nine is really strong with tourism and lifestyle brands, as one example. We speak their language, understand their pain points, and we market to those verticals very effectively. Because of this, we often find ourselves ahead of the pack very early in the sales process. It’s also much easier to get our internal teams aligned quickly, and we tend to retain these clients longer.

Concept #5: Sales “Blitzes” Are Bad

We launched a program a few years ago when our numbers weren’t where we wanted them to be. The objective of the program was simple: get businesses into a baseline digital marketing program for 90 days that provides them with some critical foundational elements from which to build going forward.

A few examples of what the program included:

  • Technical recommendations
  • Key content optimization (SEO)
  • Social media and blog marketing calendars
  • Competitor review
  • Link profile review
  • Local SEO
  • Go-forward strategy

 

Our client services goal, of course, was to deliver amazing results and transition these projects into ongoing retainer clients. We were chasing that “hockey stick” revenue spike that would bring us unprecedented growth.

It was good because…

  1. It sold like hot cakes.
  2. It was a cost-effective program for the client.
  3. The client commitment was short: “give us 3 months and you’ll have everything you need.”
  4. It included an informed go-forward strategy that resonated with the client: “that 90 days allowed us to discover what your strategy should be moving forward.”
  5. After the initial program development, it didn’t require any customization or coordination with sales, marketing, client services, or production teams.
  6. It was designed to turn one-time projects into well-qualified retainers.

It was bad because…

  1. It sold like hot cakes.
  2. We weren’t sharing performance data internally so we could make informed decisions on how to evolve the program for long-term retention.
  3. We delivered more work than could be implemented in 90 days for the vast majority of those clients.
  4. Consequently, after 90 days, they were focused on implementing the work, NOT the go-forward strategy.
  5. After the initial 90 days, the revenue tanked: cancels are bad for both clients and employees.
  6. Our marketing, account, and production teams were taxed from all the program sales.

What did we learn?

  1. A sales blitz designed to rapidly make up for poor revenue numbers is a short-term plan, not one that addresses the fundamental problems in the agency’s sales and retention strategies.
  2. We were trying to solve the wrong problem anyway. We wanted to build a solid pipeline of opportunities, which ultimately means we had a lead generation problem. A sales blitz does not solve that.
  3. Real value-based selling includes sales, marketing, and client services—all parties.
  4. Build programs around long-term goals that will retain clients.
  5. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
  6. Hockey sticks are for hockey.
conceptual-graph-of-sales-over-time

 

Got a few smartention concepts of your own?

Reach out and connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter. I’d love to hear from you.

 

Ben Waymire

Ben Waymire is an account director at Volume Nine, a leading digital marketing agency in Denver, Colorado, and guest contributor on Verblio as an agency thought leader.

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