9 sales observations learnt the hard way — by a ‘non-sales’ guy

My official sales experience is limited. Very limited.

When I was much younger, I pounded the tabs of a Goldmine database, then called up facilities management contacts at large companies. My never-ending quest was to set up appointments for the alpha male (they were all men) sales team — to visit and sell contract catering services.

Glamorous it wasn’t. Hard work it was. I was frequently yelled at and would leave dispirited at the end of the day.

Ever since, I’ve had a lot of respect for the sales people I’ve worked alongside, mainly in media. And I’ve spent the last seven years running Collective Content and trying to sell.

But the truth — one that I’ve only recently recognised — is that we’re a ‘non-sales’ company. That means we don’t have a dedicated sales team but all the core content creators are responsible for bringing in business.

This is good. Our clients like to deal with the people who will be producing their content and like not feeling sold to.

I learnt only recently this isn’t unique. I’ve seen all kinds of staff at all types of agencies responsible for bringing in new business. What I didn’t know is that some of these same agencies have made a point of saying they’re a ‘non-sales’ company.

So we’re not original but I think there’s something to this approach.

In the spirit of being authentically wet behind the ears in all things sales-y — for this is surely part of ‘non-sales’ — here’s some of what I’ve learnt, the hard way… and why it’s OK to be unsure:

(1) The best type of selling is… not selling. This could mean phoning up to ask how everything is going or how we might improve. It could mean going to an event with a client or dropping off a small present. Anything that means time together. It usually — if you’re any good — leads to other opportunities.

(2) Your best new clients are your existing clients. Cliché? If you’re in sales or run any kind of business, you know it’s true. The cost of acquiring new customers far outstrips doing more for your existing base. Unless you’re a charlatan with huge levels of churn, your existing clients will be more receptive. See (1) for how to approach this.

(3) One of your best contacts leaving a company can be catastrophic. More than once, we’ve seen major upheaval at a large company and been left wondering who’s dealing with us. If you get to that point, it’s likely no one is dealing with you, and it can be hard to get back in. This is why regularly mapping positions in large marketing departments is important for an agency. Again, see (1) above. As someone who isn’t experienced in selling, I too easily think I’m over-communicating. Good sales people are always checking in, and ideally know good timing.

(4) One of your best contacts leaving a company can be the best thing that happens. On the flip side to (3), our number one source of new business is someone leaving their old job, then picking up the phone to us on day one of their new job. Or maybe day two. We’re not just trusted but part of their network, and that’s part of what their new employer is buying when they hired them. (Thank you to all our contacts who have done this!)

(5) At a small company, people are buying YOU. Another cliché, right? Yes and no. Few people ever expect to deal with just me, or with just the one member of our agency who brought them in the door. But traditional sales usually means you get ‘passed to’ someone else, certainly not the higher-ups who pitched to you. Progressive, ‘non-sales’ agencies believe in transparency and introduce you to your day-to-day team before you sign on the dotted line.

(6) Learn from others. We had a lot of advantages coming into content agency land from journalism. These were mainly around the craft of writing and editing, and industry knowledge and contacts. But we didn’t know much about running an agency. So over the years we have hoovered up advice about processes, pricing, proving our worth or being easy to work with. If you don’t have good contacts at other agencies, you can Google templates for statements of work, invoicing, pitch decks and more.

(7) Onboarding can be a bitch. And even derail the best client wins. As a small business, we are often presented with the same onboarding process as multibillion-dollar tech suppliers. Many procurement departments have applied GDPR compliance as one size fits all. This can be frustrating. But we’ve found that this follows a decision-maker saying they want to work with us, and often those onboarding will work to help get us over the line — whether that involves questions about our employees, policies, insurance, past work or a dozen other areas.

(8) You’ll be ghosted. Just like on Tinder… kinda. This was one of my low points, especially about four years ago before our latest growth spurt. Everyone is used to contacts who don’t get back to them. We get it. People are busy. But sometimes we’ll be far into a pitch process when this happens. Maybe we’ve been told we haven’t got a project and the would-be client decides not to speak with us again, not even for 15 minutes of feedback on a call. And we have far worse stories to tell (another time). But this is one of those times to realise you probably dodged a bullet, and you probably need to note the people who’ve been less than ethical. This is like the opposite of (4). Also, see (9)…

(9) Don’t take your lows — or highs — personally. At a small business, it’s tempting to take everything personally. Founders talk about “the highs being higher and the lows being lower”. That rings true. But after a while, you realise it’s just business, especially in sales. Some of the people who ghost you or bring you in for your biggest contract don’t suddenly become bad or good people. Your business might be everything to you, but it’s just another cog to them — as their business and role is to others.

Being a non-sales type of company will only become more common as more people strike out on their own. It needn’t be a problem. But you’ll encounter some of the above, and end up with your own tips to share. Feel free to add to my limited learning by adding a comment below.


Follow me on Twitter — @tphallett — or my agency Collective Content — @ColContent .

Media, marketing, tech, b2b, London. Runs Collective Content (UK). Previously: CBS, CNET, Silicon, Japan.

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