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When to bring creatives into the selling process

There’s a certain comfort in having a Creative Director or Senior Developer sitting at your side when pitching to a client. I’ll be honest, even I, who can confidently discuss brand or development projects, often used my team to support me in meetings. Our less experienced sales team would have done so much more frequently. As a business, we understood and accepted this.

Yet, a hot topic in sales is whether or not employees with billable hours should stay far removed from the selling process or be included in it. The TLDR version is that there are no hard and fast rules for any business, but as you scale your agency and want to do so in a sustainable manner, you should reduce the involvement of any billable staff member from selling and let them get on with what they’re best at.

Lessons learned as a salesperson

I used to work for yell.com as a salesperson. They probably had some serious title for me, but I was in sales and it was my job to hit my target revenue and number of sales.  If I did nothing else only that, I would be rewarded for my effort. Before yell I’d worked predominantly in smaller family-owned businesses. When tasks outside your role were required, you took them on board and went out of your way to support the business. I learned my first corporate lesson in my second quarter of employment. I’d spent multiple days helping with some IT issues around the office and missed my sales target. When I referred this to the Sales Manager, I got the dressing down of a lifetime. Needless to say, I didn’t let it happen again. I quit shortly after.

It’s a lesson I’ll never forget. My job was solely to sell. Just like your designers are paid to design, and your developers are paid to develop. If everyone focused primarily on their roles, generally speaking, the business should run pretty smoothly and we could each be measured effectively on the outcome of our roles only.

Yet business is business and defined roles are never truly set in stone. Every business we work with is different and many of you reading this will be founders of agencies where you are the lead creative and the lead salesperson. In this article, we’ll look at when it’s the right move to bring creatives into the selling process and who you should bring in. Finally, we’ll discuss removing you the owner as lead creative and the primary salesperson.

When should you involve billable employees in the selling process?

In an ideal scenario, everyone in your sales team should be fully capable of completing a sale and gathering the appropriate level of information to successfully land and onboard a client. However, I operate in the real world and a sales team will use every tool at their disposal to give our businesses the best opportunity to land our ideal clients. 

Doing this must come with a few caveats:

  1. It will never be to the detriment of existing clients or projects
  2. There was a demonstratable need for additional support

The truth is that as an owner, we wear multiple hats on any given day. Our ability to understand different business functions and to pivot our focus in an instant is a core skill we must each grasp. We do it well because we have to, not always because we want to. Yet we measure our teams’ performance on the specific job description and primary activities they are tasked with. 

Sometimes in business, we need to deviate from plan, more often than not, we need to plan and allow for deviation.

Below are some of the core reasons you might need to include a billable employee in the selling process.

  1. You require expertise
  2. Scope of work
  3. Timeline of delivery
  4. Stakeholders involved

1. You require expertise

You and I don’t hold all the answers and smart business owner surrounds themselves with people who hold the skills they don’t possess. Many of your team will have worked on projects or within industries relevant to the client. They may engage in sports or activities that add relevance and understanding. They will often know the technical intricacies of the process at a far greater scale than your sales team.

Bringing experts to the table is wholly focused on building the trust of your prospective client.

2. Scope of work

Truthfully I tried not to bring any billable staff into my pitches. Their time was more often better spent completing design or development tasks. But there were times when this was unavoidable. Thinking back, this happened when the project was significant in its size or focused on multiple disciplines that we offered. Those billable team members often help to determine the true scope of work and to provide as accurate as possible cost to the business or technical understanding. 

Without exception, every team lead in the business preferred to be involved here. Their reasoning to me was that they’d rather fully understand the scope versus a misinterpretation of the actual project. The role of the sales team was always to ensure they had the correct information to support the sales process most efficiently.

3. Timeline of delivery

If you need to truncate the delivery of a project and there’s confidence in the project coming your way, bringing your billable team to the process can make sense.

Firstly the client will understand you’ve brought the team responsible for delivering the project and secondly, the team can begin the discovery and onboarding process by listening to the sales process and contributing with their questions.

4. Stakeholders involved

I once presented to a client for a branding project. Board-room style, on their side of the table they had several board members, a marketing manager, a marketing assistant, a finance director as well as external consultants. On their side of the table (and some of ours) they had 9 people attending. Would I have demonstrated the ability and experience of my agency better alone or as part of a team effort? The answer is that there’s safety in numbers. While I managed many questions, discipline-specific topics were answered by the team leader of that department. 

Sometimes the client just wants the comfort of knowledge that you have an experienced team to meet the scale of their requirements and a photo in a deck isn’t enough. Most of the time, they just want to make sure they like the people they are partnering with.

Who should be the sales engineer?

In smaller businesses, the sales engineer is often the lead creative or the lead developer. This happens primarily due to their experience and ability to understand the specific needs of the project and to communicate and respond to questions in the most effective manner.

However, this should be the most experienced team member, who has the lowest cost to the business.

As part of your team’s upskilling and training, removing the requirement of your most senior team to be present in pitches is critical. Spending time on your mid-level billable team members, and providing them with the knowledge, understanding and experience to confidently present to clients within the sales process is key to scaling sustainably.

  • Bring your billable team to sales meetings AND INCLUDE THEM IN THE PROCESS
  • Have them mock-pitch internally
  • Ask them for feedback on how your pitches could be better presented

At the same time, focus on ensuring your sales team has the opportunity to continuously learn and develop their selling skills in all disciplines your business operates in. This will ensure they become as self-sufficient as possible and less reliant on your billable team.

What if you are the creative lead and the main salesperson?

As is the case with many creative businesses, many of the founders are the lead billable resource and the primary salesperson. And being the “salesperson” isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind whenever you think of a creative or developer. Nor is it a task they likely relish above all else.

Ask yourself these questions

  1. What do you need to do for the business to succeed?
  2. What do you want to do?

Continue with the answer to question one, but build a plan to remove yourself from the activities you would rather not engage in.

Much like being a designer or a developer, there is a process to follow when it comes to sales. Documenting this and bringing in support where needed will slowly remove you from the function while still providing for the needs of the business. 

I often comment that designers make the best salespeople. Those who can speak with passion and experience gain the trust of their prospective clients. They sell without selling and this is one of the most effective ways to turn a maybe into a yes. Yet, as a creative or developer your primary skills are not always sales and knowing when to talk, when to listen, how to respond and ultimately how to ask for the sale isn’t a natural thought. It can of course be taught, but in such an instance would it be an opportunity to bring in a salesperson to support you with the sale? I think so.

If you think about it, logically, the salesperson can fulfil their duties in managing client expectations, sending quotes, following up on them, and ultimately processing all the information required for the sale. In a reverse scenario, you can educate them on the creative process, until such time that they can be standalone in their efforts.

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