Lead generation was a topic of discussion on a recent coaching call with one of my clients, the CEO of a small B2B agency in the South. He was thinking about hiring a new lead gen firm.

This isn’t his first. He’s worked with others in the past, each with a slightly different approach and each with mixed results.

I typically don’t do lead gen for my clients. That wasn’t the case when first I started The Sutter Company. In fact, lead generation was my core service. But I quickly learned an important lesson.

While my agency clients were enticed by the idea of someone else generating leads for them (a task that they disliked and avoided if at all possible), most weren’t ready to be successful with a lead gen campaign. They had difficulty articulating in a persuasive way what they do, why it matters, and how it makes a difference in their clients’ business. Further, they weren’t adequately prepared to consistently close business when leads came their way.

More often than not, my lead generation assignments would start by building a basic foundation. We’d figure out what they sell (and why), whom they serve (and the results they get), and how they sell it (the tools and systems that lead to consistent action). This was partly self-preservation. I knew that if I wasn’t starting from this foundation, I would fail—and that wasn’t good for business.

After a year or two I decided to leave lead generation to a handful of other firms out there that are much better equipped to provide it. Instead, I decided to focus on developing new business strategy and systems that would let my clients to take control of their new business destiny. When that destiny included an outsourced lead generation expert, we’d bring a team in.

This brings me back to my B2B agency client.

To prepare for this latest effort, the lead gen firm had sent him an extensive questionnaire. Its purpose was to gather enough information about the agency for the lead gen firm to create a persuasive set of sales messages. It included questions you’d expect: How do you describe your ideal client? What makes your agency different from competitors? Why do you do what you do?

My client asked me for my advice. Would I assess this firm and tell him what I thought of the questionnaire?

My feedback was that there was nothing wrong with the questionnaire. The question I had for him: Was he was happy with his answers? And, should the lead generator bring him quality leads, did he believe he was prepared to close the business?

I wanted him to avoid the mistake many agency leaders make: just because you’re outsourcing to an expert a job that you dislike and avoid doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful.

Lead generation is only one leg of a three-legged stool. For it to pay off, you must start with a persuasive value proposition and end with the skills and confidence to usher the deal to a close. Only then will you be setting your lead gen team up to succeed.

Here’s the advice I gave my client. If you’re considering outsourcing lead generation, then it might be good advice for you too. 

Before you start your lead generation effort:

This is so unoriginal and unsurprising that I can hardly stand to write it, nevertheless…:

Have a go-to-market positioning.

You should be able to fill in the blanks in the following statement with speed and ease:

We solve this kind of problem for these kinds of businesses and here are the results.

Your finished version should sound persuasive to your ideal client.

Not ready to commit to a specific niche? It’s OK to think of this lead gen effort as an isolated campaign. Target a specific audience or focus on one part of your service offering for this initiative and see what happens. It doesn’t require you to leave your generalist approach behind (yet).

Prepare case studies that support that positioning

Make them short and easy to digest and be sure they support the goals of the campaign. Remember that you’re trying to entice a prospect to seek more information from you. You don’t have to anticipate all their questions in advance (in fact, it’s better not to).

Offer original value-added content

This is optional but highly recommended, and it doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive.

For example, create a check list or a set of best practices in an area you’ve mastered and with which your clients tend to struggle. If you have a strong point of view, find a content vehicle to support it like a white paper or even a book, if time and resources allow.

If you’re sitting on compelling proprietary research, or have the means to gather it, package it up and turn it into a report. Here’s a great example of a research report from one of my clients that’s beautifully aligned with the agency’s mission.

Line up some client testimonials

We’re in a services business. Services are abstract and the outcomes can be subjective or their impact lost without a larger context. Client testimonials are a great way to offset that weakness.

Set expectations early with your clients that you will be asking for a testimonial if your work meets its KPIs. Then, make sure you follow through and solicit a testimonial at the end of a campaign or project. Given them an easy format to follow that also elicits feedback that’s specific.

When the leads start coming in:

Make it easy to schedule a meeting

Have an easy, resistance-free method for scheduling a meeting. Some lead gen companies will do this for you. If you take this task on yourself, don’t underestimate the time and effort required to coordinate schedules. This is where good intentions go to die. Your interested prospect will lose interest quickly if you don’t respond fast enough or provide enough options.

Set a strategy to vet the client

A good lead gen firm will ask you for a set of selection criteria that, if it’s strong, will weed out unqualified prospects. But usually further qualification is required. Have a set of questions to ask the client at the outset. Determine what’s important for you to know. There’s obvious stuff like business challenges, budget and approval process, but also questions around the client’s work culture or the level of respect they show you and the work you do.

Have something to offer them

Most agencies I work with offer custom services based on a client’s need. There’s nothing wrong with this approach but, as you’re no doubt aware, it takes a lot of time to put together a custom scope of work and fee. You may want to explore having an intro package, like a discovery phase, that’s attractively priced while still profitable for you. A discovery phase lets you both test-drive the relationship and even allows you to show some quick wins for the client.

Outsourcing lead generation is a great option for many small agencies (make sure you select one that specializes in agency services—contact me if you’d like to find out who I use). But it’s not a “set it and forget it” service. Think of it like hiring a new team member. It would be foolish to waste the salary on someone you weren’t prepared to train and support. The same goes for outsourcing lead generation—or any kind of specialty service. Be prepared to set you and your provider up for success.