How you sell can be a massive point of difference, so why do most agencies follow the same generic and outdated playbook?

Cast your mind back to when you were buying something – a house, a gift or even just a coffee – and the person selling behaved in a way that made it clear they had your back.

Maybe they really listened to you. Or invested time to better understand your needs and explain your options. Perhaps they proactively offered you a less expensive option.

If you were anxious – perhaps needing to choose the right school or the right engagement ring – no doubt these behaviours made you feel a whole lot better. And I bet you went ahead and purchased.

Funny how it stuck in your mind, right? Well, not really. First, it’s rare. Second, feeling taken care of is an extremely powerful experience.

So how well do agencies deploy this kind of personalised, client-centric approach? 

Following ‘the rules’

In short, not very well. Our collective delusion of powerlessness has created a herd mentality. Most agencies fearfully follow ‘the rules’ – despite them being unwritten. 

The client requests a ‘creds meeting’, so you prepare a deck and turn up in broadcast mode. They stipulate an all-agency pitch briefing, so you hold back your most insightful questions. They demand to know your profit margins, so you dutifully share them. 120 day payment terms? Oh, go on then.

Even the language we use is riddled with shoulder shrugging. The ritualised gifting of ideas is the ‘lifeblood of the agency’. Clients holding all the cards is ‘just the way it is’. And for a four-way pitch, we only credit ourselves with an oddly cautious ‘25% chance of winning’.

The reality is that following ‘the rules’ actively hampers your chances of winning and the client’s ability to choose the right agency. 

Underselling your uniqueness

Thankfully for both parties, zigging while the competition zags gives you a massive opportunity to stand out. Step one is appreciating what’s at stake. 

All too often, you expect all your uniqueness to be conveyed by some pithy strapline. And if you’ve made it into the room, then it must have succeeded, right? Job done, box ticked – initiate standard meeting mode and pitch process. 

That’s crazy. It’s like Unliever launching a high profile new toothpaste without considering what it tastes like. The experience needs to match the promise. 

How you come across face-to-face is the critical proof-point. And yet, like a manky tasting toothpaste, generic selling undermines your hard-earned credibility – especially when you show up needy. 

Imagine you’ve got an acute ailment. You carefully research a world-class surgeon. Their hefty fee and waiting list all scream ‘best of the best’. So how would you feel if you were met by an oily desperado, over-thanking you for choosing them and offering you a discount on anaesthetic if you commit there and then? You’d run a mile. 

Meetings are your opportunity to really stand out. That requires a change in mindset. 

Consult don’t persuade

Firing yourself from the job of ‘persuader’ addresses your unhelpful fears and conventions. Rather than ‘how do we convince the client we’re right for them?’, refocus on ‘how can we be sure we’re a good fit?’.

From initial chats (can we not call them ‘creds meetings’ anymore?), pitch briefings and final presentations, through to conversations with existing clients, your hard sell is getting in the way. Instead, your role is to consult – to listen, learn and diagnose. 

How would clients react if the experience of meeting you was completely different to how 99% of agencies treat them? No jazz hands, no brown-nosing, no over claiming. Just a team of smart, curious professionals, diligently unpacking their problems and making an honest assessment of whether you’re best placed to help.

They’d react the same way you did when your seller showed up for you – by relaxing, trusting and buying.

Deepen your differentiation

When it comes to growth, nailing lead generation is often seen as the priority. But converting leads – with existing clients, as well as with prospects – is literally where the money is. And when it comes to selling, agencies cling to convention like a comfort blanket.

The reality is that ‘best practice’ pitching is a ridiculous concept. It’s like ‘best practice’ sex – you can’t exemplify a subjective experience and if everyone did it the same way, then the world would be a pretty insipid place.

Being different is your commercial advantage. But creating an ownable proposition is just the start. In fact, differentiation is a daily practice. And the experience of meeting you is the ultimate moment of truth – it’s where the client’s positive perceptions are deepened or destroyed. 

Your opportunity is to develop a bespoke way of selling – a different process, posing different questions with different priorities; all designed to create value and demonstrate your unique expertise to your ideal clients. 

This is the antidote to antiquated selling. Instead of saying you’re different, you’re being it. You’ll win more, command a premium and consistently set the expectation of long-term, peer-to-peer relationships.


Image: Akhilesh Sharma