3 Questions that Tell An Agency What to Close and When - A Framework

So, here's the setup.  An agency is at the point in the sales process where a good amount of work has been done. There has been an exploratory call and likely some goal setting (steps #4 and #5 in the Hubspot Advanced Sales Training Webinars). It is now the moment of moment of truth - the moment the prospect is looking for a recommendation from the agency on how best to move forward together.  

Pounce! It is the time to recommend a retainer, right?  Well, not so fast.  This is the perfect option if the right elements are in place, but if not, many a deal has been sabotaged by doing so. The agency attempting it is usually left with their proposal in hand or buried in their prospect's email files.

So how does an agency know whether to close a retainer, or what else to close instead to still advance the sale?  They should use the following 3 questions and the framework that follows as a guide. 

3 Questions that Tell An Agency Whether to Close a Retainer

Question #1: Does the Prospect Have Budget for Agency Services

Selling a $2K to $15K+/month retainer requires finding a prospect able and willing to pay for it.  Too many agencies are afraid to ask about budget early in the sales process. However, not doing so just leads to spending time with prospects that can't afford services. Some of my favorites questions to assess budget include:  


- "How big is your company" (a bigger company often equates to bigger marketing budget)


- "What type of marketing are you currently investing in?" (current and past investment can be a measure of future investment)


- "How much do you plan on investing in marketing to help you meet your goals?' (the straightforward approach)


- "Our services generally range between $2K and $8K a month depending on client goals and resources. How do you feel about that?" (the I'm going to put it right out there approach)


One thing to keep in mind is that a company with budget is not necessarily willing to spend it on services. They might have a preference for in-house staff or be highly risk averse. It is important to  find a company not just with budget, but with an openness to spending it on agency services.  

Question #2: What's the GPCT? 

If there are no real business goals/challenges to be solved, even a perfectly budget qualified prospect is not a good fit for a retainer. Sounds obvious, right?  However, many agencies spend a great deal of time proposing a solution and little time uncovering and ensuring there is a problem. To avoid this, an agency should diligently rate GPCTc:  


GPCTc 1 - the prospect has goals, but they usually lack specifics and are often focused on tactical rather than business objectives. There are plans, but typically without meaningful timeframes and milestones attached. There are few if any meaningful consequences associated with making or missing goals.

GPCTc 2 - the prospect has specific, measurable, and meaningful business goals. They have a plan, often well thought out, and with identified gaps and challenges that need to be overcome. There is specific timing and near term milestones that need to be achieved.  This drives meaningful urgency. 


GPCTc 3 - the prospect meets the criteria of GPCTc 2, but with the addition of real and meaningful consequences for meeting (or missing) goals, typically of both a business and personal nature.  


The stronger a prospect's GPCTc, the more likely it is to be a candidate for an agency's help and a retainer relationship. 


Questions #3: What is the Level of Trust and Confidence  Between the Agency and Prospect? 

Even if an agency is working with a budget qualified prospect and has done a great job uncovering strong GPCTc, there is one more element an agency must have before it is ready to sell a retainer. That element is trust and confidence from the prospect, something that is no small feat. High trust and confidence can be earned via an existing working relationship, a trusted referral, deep industry expertise, or a very well-known and  impressive track record. It can also be gained through rigorously following theconsultative sales process and challenging the prospect while helping them uncover GPCTc.  

Unfortunately, these are easy to write, but hard to do.  In fact, the reality is that many agencies simply won't have earned the level of trust and confidence necessary to propose a retainer after just a few meetings. While it is nothing to be ashamed about, it is also something an agency should diligently self examine for each of its prospects. Misjudging a prospect's confidence in your agency is a super quick way to blunder a sales process. 

If in doubt, an agency should ask a prospect straight out 'do you have confidence in our abilities to help you meet your goals'.  If the agency doesn't feel totally confident asking, or fears that the client might give anything other than a total affirmation, there is not enough trust/confidence to sell a retainer.  Fortunately, there are other recommendations an agency can make and still advance the sales process.   

What to Close - A Framework

With the answers to the three questions above in hand, an agency should use the framework below to know whether to close a retainer or not, and if not, what else to close. Don't get lost in the chart right away.  Skip below to see a description of the four quadrants and what an agency should do when it finds itself in each one.  

Inbound Agency Closing Options

Lower Right Quadrant - Close the Retainer

If an agency's prospect is budget-qualified for services, has a strong GPCTc (strong 2 or above), and there is mutual trust and confidence between the agency and prospect, congratulations are in order. The agency is about to sign a retainer. 

If a prospect fails to meet these criteria, the agency is not about to sign a retainer. Sorry. The quickest way to blow the deal now is to try. The agency should use the other quadrants as a guide for what to close instead. 

Upper Left and Lower Left Quadrants - Do it Themselves or Hybrid Do it Themselves

The two left-most quadrants, Do it Themselves and Hybrid Do it Themselves, describe the conditions when a prospect needs Inbound Marketing but should be driving it themselves. They don't have the budget for agency services or may have the budget but aren't willing to spend it.


In these situations, if the prospect is at least budget qualified for inbound marketing technology (i.e. Hubspot) the agency should look to Hubspot to help drive the sales process.  If the agency wants to invest additional time and effort and/or there is a good long term opportunity, they should continue to work with the prospect in a coaching and steering role (paid enough to make it worth their time), making this a Hybrid solution.  If the client sees results and wants to ramp up or alternatively goes off track and recognizes the need for additional resources, the agency will be perfectly positioned to offer up these services.  

Upper Right Quadrant - Other Options

This is the quadrant where it gets most interesting. The agency has gone through some depth in the sales process and the prospect is budget qualified for services, but there is simply not enough GPCTc and/or mutual trust and confidence to propose a retainer. So what should the agency do instead? 


To begin with, the agency should dig deeper on GPCTc.  While the prospect might not be immediately forthcoming on GPCTc, by asking tough questions and getting at real business goals and pain, the agency will build their own credibility and likely firm up the business case for inbound services. 


Secondly, the agency should consider a trial and/or an upfront inbound strategy project.


**An Inbound Marketing Trial

When a prospect has marketing assets in place such as good website traffic or a good marketing database, a Hubspot trial is a great option to build more trust and confidence with the prospect. For instance, I've seen a trial point out to a prospect what companies are visiting their website, what pages those companies are viewing, and whether those companies are converting into leads or not. From this alone, I've seen companies realize they need more content on their site, more ways to get visitors to convert, and more nurturing/automation - and realize they need help from an agency to execute on these needs.  


**An Upfront Inbound Marketing Strategy Project


If the prospect lacks a clear vision or plan, a paid upfront inbound strategy project is a great option to advance the sales process.  It can build a better business case for inbound marketing, sharply define an action plan, lower the risk for the client (versus committing to a full retainer right away), and allow an agency to get paid for its time spent pre-retainer.  


Such an upfront inbound strategy project might include defining personas, developing a content plan, analyzing competitors, diagnosing goals and resources, and more. Such a project is also a great potential bridge to a retainer. After all, if the prospect buys into the strategy, who else would they likely turn to but the agency, who has already learned the business and has the right resources in place, to help them execute.  An agency should just be careful not to burn strategy projects (even when paid) on prospects who are unlikely candidates for ongoing work. 


Some successful agencies actually embrace an upfront inbound strategy project as a part of every pre-retainer sales process, even for seemingly well qualified prospects. Besides the reasons listed above, they also use it to vet their prospects.  Trust and confidence is a two way street. If a client isn't good to work with during a strategy project, they probably won't be during a retainer either. 


Too many agencies lose out on solid retainers because they ask for it too early or without the right elements in place. This doesn't have to be case. Use the three questions above to determine when it is right to close a retainer, and if not, what to propose instead to still advance the sale. 


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