Most agencies look to their client services staff to fill the majority of business development duties in addition to their account management responsibilities. But a subtle re-assignment of these duties can often bring a surprising performance increase, not just in client acquisition, but also in account services and ultimately in the quality of client relationships. By freeing account people of the duties for which they have little training or interest, they are allowed to focus on and thrive in the role for which they were hired.
There are three basic functions in business development. They are: prospecting & nurturing, closing, and maintenance. Below is an explanation of all three, followed by the role your account people should play in each.
PROSPECTING & NURTURING
Prospecting and nurturing covers the group of tasks at the very front of the business development cycle. There are four of them:
1. The identification of prospects
2. The qualification of those prospects (determining how close they are to buying)
3. The nurturing of early stage prospects
4. The handing off of late-stage prospects to the closers
The first dedicated business development hire should almost always be a business development specialist responsible for prospecting and nurturing. It is their job to qualify, hand-off, and nurture. In all but the smallest agencies, this is a full time job, but it is a job that can be done by someone more junior than a six-figure vice president. Most account people are uninterested in the role, but some organized, systematic people thrive in it. Logical, linear thinkers who appreciate systems and like to measure success in terms of day-to-day achievement excel in this role, especially when they have a system from which to work.
Of the four aspects of prospecting and nurturing, your account people should be asked to contribute only to one: the identification of prospects. Their responsibility ends there. Once identified, it is up to the prospector/nurturer to qualify the prospect then determine the next course of action.
Closing, the middle of the three functions of business development is the act of getting the account. It includes the final presentation and obtaining a commitment from the client in the form of a signature and a check. Most agencies have no shortage of volunteers for the closing role because closing is pitching, something we are all comfortable with, but prospecting and nurturing is selling, something most account people do not relish. Although you will have many volunteers for the closing role, it should almost always go to the CEO first. Other closers may include department heads, the chief strategist, or other senior people who show an affinity for it, but it is the agency CEO who is ultimately responsible for the growth of the agency.
As your personnel changes, your sales process and closing efficiency should not change with them. Too many successful agencies have imploded after the departure of a senior employee who was almost solely responsible for closing accounts. There is room for a senior business development officer in many large agencies, but it should rarely be at the expense of the CEO being the chief closer.
Maintenance is the job of turning your clients into advocates, ensuring their satisfaction, loyalty, and profitability. Of the six stages in the buying cycle, stage five is Sold & Serving, but the goal of your business development efforts does not stop at stage five. The end purpose is to move your stage five clients to stage six – Advocacy. Advocates repurchase from you, buy from nobody else, and refer business to you that can usually be closed without a pitch. The ultimate irony of selling may be that once you’re good at it, you rarely have to do it. Get your advocacy base to 70% – 80% and you’ll fully appreciate this statement.
Most agencies experience periods of organic growth where clients rarely leave and business just walks in the door. This usually happens early in the agency’s life, when it is clearly differentiated and more focused on current clients than on adding new ones. The small client base appreciates the agency’s expertise, pays for it, and benefits from the attention they receive. In exchange, they refer business to the agency. This is advocacy at work. When growth becomes the focus, and the path to it includes the watering down of the agency’s point of difference in exchange for a broader relevance to more potential clients, then margins drop, client satisfaction follows, relationships becomes pressured and break, and agencies, in need of cash flow, find themselves taking low margin business or clients that are a poor fit.
While inspiring clients to advocates is a shared responsibility, it is one that your account services people bear more than other employees. This is what they were hired to do – take care of the client, add value to the relationship, and encourage repeat purchasing and referrals. When you free your account people from their other business development responsibilities, their ability to turn clients into advocates greatly increases.
THREE STEPS TO BETTER ACCOUNT PEOPLE
Most account people were never trained in selling and as a result breathe a huge sigh when they are relieved of the bulk of their business development duties. Take these three steps to improving your business development results and your client services performance:
1. Assign the role of prospecting and nurturing to one person – a business development specialist who will qualify all leads, nurture early stage prospects, and hand off late stage prospects to the closers.
2. As CEO, take back and keep responsibility for final closing, if possible.
3. Free your account people from the need to qualify, nurture, and close, and get them focused on turning clients into advocates.