Like most professional services purchases, outsourcing your inbound marketing is like hiring a senior employee. Many buyers evaluate hiring an inbound marketing agency in much the same way the would purchase computers. But purchasing professional services is much different.
Warren Wittreich wrote an article in the March 1966 (no, that's not a typo) entitled, "How To Buy/Sell Professional Services" that is every bit as valid today as it was 50 years ago. In the post below, I will identify the the three key concepts for Wittreich's article that both buyers and services should know about the professional services buying process and apply them to outsourcing inbound marketing. The concepts can be easily applied to finance, consulting or any other form of professional services.
Does the inbound agency minimize uncertainty in running your business?
Wittreich writes, "A professional service must make a direct contribution to the reduction of the uncertainties involved in managing a business. The proper assessment of a service, unlike tangible goods, usually must take into account the impact of its performance on the client’s business."
In the case of an inbound marketing agency, this involves minimizing uncertainty in the business development process. Many professional services firms are very good at what they do, but struggle with generating enough qualified sales leads to hit their growth goals. The first question to ask yourself when outsourcing inbound marketing is "Am I confident that this agency can reduce uncertainty in my business development process?"
Here are some things to consider when evaluating risk mitigation in business development.
Does the agency know how to quantify the elements of our business development process? What gets measured, get done. If an inbound agency doesn't know what to measure, it's unlikely that they will minimize uncertainty in your business development process. Starting with growth targets and lifetime customer values, the agency should work with you to develop SMART goals from the strategic level down to the tactical level.
Are your growth goals realistic? It's very important to know whether your growth goals are attainable or not. If not, all of the money you spend on that beautiful web site and creating that great content will be wasted. If your getting 1,000 website visitors per month now and you need 20,000 to hit your goals, something needs to change. You either need to change your goals, adjust your strategy or spend a lot more money on marketing than you had envisioned (or a combination of all three.) If your chasing unrealistic goals and don't know it, you'll end up like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
How will inbound marketing enhance your overall business development process? Inbound marketing, specifically content marketing, should be used to fuel other business development efforts like prospecting, referrals and cross-selling and improving your customer service experience. The inbound agency should have a plan to enhance all elements of your business development process.
These are all things that should be discussed before thinking about tactics and approaches. If you don't know what the target is, you don't know whether you need a shotgun or a rifle. These are also things that should help you minimize uncertainty in your business development process.
Does the inbound agency understand my problem(s)?
Again from Wittreich, "A professional service must come directly to grips with a fundamental problem of the business purchasing that service. The successful performance of the service, far more so than the successful production of a product, depends on an understanding of the client’s business."
This is why it's so important for SMB businesses to focus on target market niches. It's much better to be an expert in an industry than a generalist for precisely this reason. As the old saying goes, "jack of all trades, master of none."
Here are some things to help you evaluate if an inbound agency understands your unique problems.
- What experience does the agency principal have in my industry? started my inbound marketing agency five years ago after a 25 year career as a management consultant. When I first started my company, I chased anything that moved, regardless of the industry. But my first few clients were all in the professional services industry. When I asked them why they choose to do business with me, they all answered with a variation of "you knew my business." Although I was new to the industry and didn't have a roster of clients, I was able to demonstrate my knowledge of their business and how inbound marketing could specifically work for them.
- What experience does the agency have in my industry? This shouldn't come a surprise to you, but experience working in your industry should help an agency understand your problems. Not all businesses in an industry are the same, but there are common themes that can be applied across the industry and that serve as points of differentiation.
- Is the agency representative asking the right questions to understand my problems? A savvy inbound marketing professional should know the questions to ask to understand your business and your problems. Even though they may not have experience in your particular industry domain, they can apply their experience to understand your problems and work towards solving them.
Understanding your business and your problems is critical for any professional services business. This understanding of your business is necessary to communicate your unique value proposition - the answer to the question "why should a business buy from us, in light of all of the available alternatives (including doing nothing.)"
Is the person handling my business capable of successfully achieving results?
Wittreich addresses this criterion as follows, "A professional service can only be purchased meaningfully from someone who is capable of rendering the service. Selling ability and personality by themselves are meaningless."
How many times have your worked with a sales professional who understood your business and your problems, only to find out that they disappear after you sign on the dotted line? This is actually an area where a smaller inbound marketing agency (or other professional services business) has an advantage over larger competitors. We almost invariably recommend that SMBs compete on customer services.
It's more likely that an experienced person at a small agency will handle your account. For larger competitors to grow and function, they necessarily need to delegate responsibility to less experienced professionals.
This is where buying a professional services most closely resembles hiring a key employee. Here are some things to keep in mind.
- Who will be handling my account? Don't assume that the principal who has been so impressive in your meetings will be handling your account. They may assume an advisory role or disappear altogether. Find out who will be your day-to-day contact and interview them thoroughly (preferably alone.)
- How will you manage this project? Regardless of the capabilities of your account manager, they will fail if they don't have the requisite project management capabilities and tools. Project management is a fundamental service of all professional services and inbound marketing is no exception.
- Does the person have the intangible skills and qualities that you look for in internal hires? In the best professional service relationships, the people working with you are not all that different from your employees. Look for those qualities that you strive for in your business like dedication, curiosity, and pride in their work product.
This is a true distinction between purchasing goods and purchasing services and many professional services buyers get this one wrong.
If you're in the professional services business, this article applies both to hiring people to provide service to you as well as selling your own services. That's why an inbound marketing agency should be using this framework to help you market your company. In any event, keep these three criteria in mind when your considering options for outsourced inbound marketing.