Sales meetings are usually the time and place for a marketing agency to put on their best show to convince a prospective client to give them a big, interesting project, along with bags of money. But a better use of time would be for both parties to treat the meeting as an opportunity to test out the relationship and start to build rapport with one another.
One of the best ways for companies to really get to know an agency is to ask a few uncomfortable questions. I’m not suggesting you grill someone like in an employment interview, but you definitely want to force the agency to go off script a little. I’m regularly surprised by the lack of incisive questions asked in sales meetings, so here’s a list of questions to ask the next time you’re in a sales meeting with a new agency.
How long have you been in business? What’s the history of the agency?
These are softball questions, but it’s good to start with the basics. Learning the history of the agency can be illuminating. You should ask where they started, and what services they grew into and so on. It’s also worth asking if the agency has grown or shrunk significantly in the last couple of years. In my opinion, it’s risky to work with an agency in either situation.
Who is your biggest client and what proportion of your revenue comes from them?
Agencies that are overleveraged on one or two clients put themselves in a dangerous position. They lose their main client and layoffs happen immediately. Often this means that the agency is forced to do whatever it takes to keep that client happy. This impacts your importance as a client, but also tends to foster a yes-man culture even beyond those working with their main client.
What services do you not offer?
This question forces the agency to talk outside of their positives and defend their specialization. Digging deeper into why they don’t offer a particular service can lead to a fruitful conversation about partners they have who offer those services. I recommend following that up with asking about their history with their partners and what projects they’ve worked on together.
What services do you outsource to contractors, in part or whole? How much do you outsource, to whom, and where are they? Do you have a policy of communicating to clients when you use a resource that is outside the agency?
Too many agencies will sell whatever they can in the belief that they can bring in contractors to fulfill the need right away. Most situations when a project or relationship explodes spectacularly occur because the agency sold a project they had no idea how to fulfill internally. Contractors can be used very successfully, but the client should be fully informed and on board about it. Make sure you trust your agency and that you will be notified, contractually, if they bring in outside resources.
Of the services you offer, which do you feel are your strongest? Your weakest?
Again, this question forces an agency to stop selling and provide an honest answer.
How often are your projects completed on time and on budget?
As the owner of an agency that has had a time and materials business model for the bulk of its existence, I am shocked I’ve only heard this question a few times during the sales process. Projects can go over budget because the scope has increased and the client is happy about the work. Many timelines aren’t met because of client delays. But this question forces the agency to defend themselves. If they say they always hit these targets, they’re probably not being direct. Look for a nuanced answer.
What are some of your most successful projects/relationships, and how did/do you measure success in these cases?
This allows the agency to brag on their awesome work … given they can back it up with data. Push on the measurement. Many projects seem successful because the client is happy, but the actual measurable result is unknown. If an agency throws out preliminary metrics (impressions, traffic, etc.), push to see if they connected their work with measurable revenue and ROI. Describe a project or relationship that wasn’t successful and its outcome. Super tough question. If they’re too direct, they’ll end up bad-mouthing a past client, which is as unprofessional as bad-mouthing your past employer in an interview. Go too soft, and you’re admitting your own inadequacies. The right answer recognizes that both parties could have fostered a better working relationship or involves the agency firing a client early when it was clear they were not a good fit.
Have you ever been in a legal dispute with a client or other party? Are you currently in any legal disputes? This is absolutely a question you should ask. Not only can legal issues indicate deeper problems in the agency, but current legal issues can take overriding precedence over all other concerns at an agency. At S4, we’ve never faced mediation, arbitration, or litigation, but I know agencies who have. As a prospective client you have the right to know.
Who would I be working with on a regular basis?
This isn’t always known early in the sales cycle but it’s a legitimate question to ask. You may love who you’re talking to, but they may hand you off to people you don’t like once the ink is dry. If possible, meet the team. Obviously, this could be a burden if you’re not bringing in a lot of work, but it’s important to get a sense of who you’ll be working with. Ask about their experience. Even if a company’s done amazing work, this doesn’t mean you won’t get assigned to an entry-level designer. If the company works in cross-functional teams, ask how the composistion of the team is determined. You don’t want the B-team.
How does the scope and size of the engagement we’re discussing stack up to your other clients and projects? If you’re bigger than most of their other clients, you’ll likely receive more attention but you may push their limits. If you’re smaller, you might get more attention but be relegated to the B-team depending on the agency’s structure.
How much turnover do you have on staff?
If there’s been turnover due to growth or shrinking, it might reveal something about the agency’s culture. A few of the struggles of running an agency are keeping clients happy, employees engaged, and the agency profitable. Sometimes, it seems like these three responsibilities are points on a triangle that run counter to one another. In a smoothly functioning agency, they shouldn’t.
These questions are just suggestions to use as you see fit. It’s also probably worth coming up with a few uncomfortable questions that directly relate to your specific project. Asking them and getting answers should help you start a real conversation that goes beyond the sales pitch. And you’ll have information you can use to make an educated decision about whether you want to work with them. If it went well, you’ll also have the beginnings of a solid working relationship that is set up to produce great work.