I was asked to tackle the following question recently during a guest appearance on Zach Hyder’s podcast, The Dendrocast:
“How should agencies build and maintain a new business pipeline?”
That’s a massive question, I thought. How would I answer this, among other questions, in the space of a forty-minute podcast?
To simplify it, both for myself and the audience, I carved up the answer into three parts:
Creating the infrastructure for your new business pipeline
Filling your pipeline
Using and maintaining your pipeline
Then, I focused on the most significant steps an agency must follow to start off on the right track. Here’s a summary of what I said. You’ll see there are no secret formulas revealed; my answer is based on common sense. Yet, it’s not uncommon to see an agency miss or neglect a step.
Which one do you tend to neglect?
Creating the infrastructure
Just like a physical pipeline that carries oil or water, your new business pipeline requires infrastructure.
You need a place to put the data and I recommend you invest in a good customer relationship management system to do that. There are dozens of CRM software tools available that will bring a sense of order and organization to your business development practice. And yet many agencies I work with are leery of using a CRM. I hear a range of excuses, usually around the hassles of integrating a new software tool. This bothers me because these same agencies readily embrace project management or accounting software despite similar hassles.
If you’re serious about building and maintaining a new business pipeline, you need an efficient way to track and manage your relationships with your customers. You need a CRM system.
If one of the excuses you use is that you don’t know which CRM software to choose, then I have a great resource for you.
Each year, RSW/US publishes a New Business Tools survey. Here’s a link to the most recent one, which also reports a significant increase in the number of agencies using a CRM. Your competitors seem to be catching on…
A final note for those of you who track the info in your pipeline using an Excel (or Google Sheets or the equivalent): a spreadsheet is not a CRM tool.
Still, I’d rather see you using a spreadsheet than nothing. Just give yourself a hard deadline for weaning yourself off it and migrating the data to a real CRM system.
Filling the new business pipeline
You’ve got the pipes set up; now where do you find the leads to put in them? You find them in two ways:
You seek them out proactively, usually through outbound selling
They find you, usually through an inbound marketing program
Ideally, you’ve got a plan for doing both (like I said, no secret formulas here). Most of us don’t conduct business in an ideal world, however, so you need to make some careful decisions about what you and your team are best equipped to do well (these decisions are easier when you know your new business personality).
For both outbound selling and inbound marketing, you need the basics in place, like an ideal client profile. Be sure to define your ideal clients in a manner that makes it easy to identify and find them, whether searching through Google or LinkedIn, or in trade publications and directories. A vague description of an ideal client like “fearless, collaborative marketer” does you no good.
Start simply by filling your pipeline with the most obvious: the opportunities you’re pitching now. Most of you will already have this list in some form. Maybe it’s a Word document or a spreadsheet (better, but not ideal) or rattling around in your head (definitely not ideal).
Get them entered into your CRM tool first thing. Be sure to capture all the information that goes with them. A CRM system will start to do magical things once you enter enough information to begin to see interrelationships between the data. If you neglect information or get lazy, it will let you down.
Next, look beyond what you’re pitching now to less-defined but no less valid leads. Sometimes I see agencies neglecting to fill these earlier stages of the pipeline. You don’t want to fill your pipeline with frivolous and unrealistic (or unreal) opportunities, but there’s a difference between unrealistic and undefined.
Using the new business pipeline
You have the infrastructure and the leads are beginning to fill the pipes. Now you must maintain the flow.
If you don’t already have an established new business operation (or the one you do have is haphazard and insufficient), this is the time to clean that up. A set of standard practices allows you to make critical decisions around how you pursue growth while also reducing the chaos and lack of clarity that are so often the hallmarks of agency business development.
These practices will regulate:
Who’s involved in new business activities and what they do—from the A-team presenters to admin support that work with the data and generate reports
How information is managed and distributed—from adding new data to the CRM tool to weekly status meetings
How you move leads through your pipeline—from marketing tactics that build your list to the criteria you use to decide whether to participate in a formal agency review
Strategies for keeping the team compliant in their use of new business tools and protocol
This last point can be a challenge, and I think it relates to how big a priority you make business development for your agency. If compliance with the use of accounting or project management protocols doesn’t pose the same kind of problems, then you may want to ask yourself what you need to do to foster a new business discipline that’s as strong as other disciplines at your agency.