Jackie teaches us the art of being “picky”, the benefits of pickiness, and the ramifications for not being picky. It can be hard to say no, agencies should be selective in the clients they bring in, in the services they offer, and in the hires they make.
In this episode of Agency Unfiltered we sit down with Jackie Hermes. Owner and CEO of Accelity Marketing. Accelity is a Milwaukee based B2B inbound marketing agency and a gold of a partner. Jackie and I discussed the art of being picky. Agencies should be picky in their clients that they bring in. The services that they offer and the hires that they make. In the true Unfiltered spirit, Jackie pulls back the curtain and shares her lessons learned when Accelity wasn't as picky as they should have been. Being strategically picky will build a more efficient sales process. A more effective team and drive better results for your clients. But don't take my word for it. Let's jump in.
KD: Jackie, obviously there's all of these tips and tricks and hacks for agencies to find growth. And there's these strategies and buzz words and things. But I think what's really interesting from your perspective or from what I've heard you talk about. Is agencies should be picky. So explain what that means? Picky in what way would you say?
JH: Yeah I think that the biggest thing to be picky about is when you're bringing on new clients. Especially when you're first getting started. We did this lab where all money seems like good money. It's like any project and anyone that will pay us seems like it's money in the door.
KD: How could you say no?
JH: Right, right, right, right. And I think a lot of agencies can fall into that trap. And one it hurts them because they just become an agency that serves everyone. And then when you serve everyone you really serve no one. And two, when you're not vetting for mindset and making sure that they really trust you. And that they want to work with you and they trust the process. It can hurt you internally. Actually we've lost clients and employees over not making the right choices bringing in clients.
KD: It's interesting. So when you say okay, picky in regards to what your clients mindset. How do you source that information? How do you find that info or in what questions do you ask to find that out so you can be picky?
JH: Yeah I think really it's not as much in grilling someone and asking them questions. As it is going through and having a really set sales process. Going through that process and really feeling out and understanding. Looking back, every client that we brought on that hasn't been a super good fit. I knew during the sales process.
KD: So it's like a gut feeling a well. The warning signs were there would you say?
JH: Yeah and I think a lot of agencies think that you're gonna be able to sell someone after you know. So maybe if you get them 50% of the way there and you believe they're bought into your process. And then you can get them the other 50% after you bring them on. And they'll start to trust you. But really those that really want to work with you and that are good fit clients should trust you from the beginning. Because they've seen your work and they have talked to references. And whatever process you put them through. So I think that shortening the sales process or cutting the sales process short is such a mistake. And it's a mistake that I've made. If someone says yes early on in the sales process, I'm like yes. New clients but you have to get through that whole process and make sure the expectations are set.
KD: Sure, it's interesting you mentioned that if they can get 50% of the way there, and then that’s actually when we start delivering. Now when you're trying to find the fit. Is there a hard line? Are there any non negotiables or are there some things that you're okay with sacrificing as a means of good fit? Does that question make sense?
JH: I think that it's all about attitude and mindset. Which can be really, I don't know. It seems a little woo woo. Like my business coach started talking to me about this and I was like okay. How do I vet people for their mindset? But if people don't have a really great attitude or they seem potentially aggressive. People who try to really aggressively negotiate with me in the sales process. To me that is a clear indicator of what working with them is gonna be like. And that's something that I've had to learn over time. So there's little kind of red flags and attitude and just how you treat other people too. Like you go out for coffee. How they treat the person that's getting them coffee or if you're getting lunch, how they treat the server. That is a huge indicator that maybe I would have ignored at the beginning. But I would never do it again.
KD: Are they just a cool person? Are they okay, are they a nice person? And then you're saying that that could impact just the relationship obviously that they're gonna have with your team.
JH: And we bring people on that we want to be friends with and that sounds weird. And I think in business a lot of people are like, ahhhh. You know there's the line but we actually are very friendly or friends with most of our clients.
KD: So if I'm an agency listening in, that all sounds great. I'm still in that place where I am just gonna say yes or I'm gonna take anybody that's willing to pay me for my services. So with that painting any kind of horror stories or like what are the negative impacts? How bad can it get if you do just say yes to the wrong client?
JH: We brought on a client that wanted to white label and resell our services. This was at the end of last year. And I said no, the margin wasn't right. The fit wasn't right. And they were like okay. Well can you help us with lead gen. And we were like sure, I think we can do that. We signed them on to a year long contract. Four months into the contract we found out that they were basically. Not taking our processes but I think that they were learning from us so that they could launch their own arm of the business. And they were like well, we told you that we wanted to white label.
KD: Let's see how they do it and then we'll just go do it.
JH: And I was like okay. If they were clear up front on the intent of the relationship. Then we certainly wouldn't have signed them. But then we had to end the contract in a very painful way. And one, it's local. It was someone in Milwaukee. We have a lot of the same circles. We call Milwaukee small Waukee. It's a small community and the business circles are not. We all kind of hang out together.
KD: Now it's this frictional relationship every time you see them and yeah.
JH: It's hard and we have a lot of mutual friends too. So that makes it even more difficult. But we had another client that was a website project which we actually don't do websites anymore. Just because they're constantly going out of scope and the client seems like they're not happy a lot of the time.
KD: I find that with the website projects too. They tend to focus on the wrong things right. And you get a lot of time energy bang trying to tweak and update these things. In the long run doesn't seem like they're gonna be super impactful.
JH: Yeah and we took on a project that was a lot bigger than we had ever done before. And we were like okay. I think we can do this. It was a stretch for us and it ended up being a really painful project. And I think at the end they were happy with the result but we probably put twice the time that we quoted into it. And so at that point it looked like a great project. It's a $30, $40,000 website but when we're putting enough time into it that we're making $30 an hour. It doesn't make sense for us as an agency. So I found that every time I've taken on those clients that maybe weren't quite the right fit. We end up not making as much money. Our margin isn't very good. The client isn't happy. Our team isn't happy. And every time it's like, well that wasn't worth it.
KD: Yeah right, exactly. And so, prospects go through our sales process, and at some point we determine this isn't gonna be a good fit. How do you approach that conversation? How do you turn away a customer because you just don't think they're gonna mesh with your team?
JH: So it's very interesting, this last year I've been tracking all of our opportunities. And who's said no to what meeting. Like what stage in the sales process and why. Whether it was them saying that they didn't want to move forward or it was us. And I found that we actually are saying no to a lot of second and third meetings that we don't think are a fit. And a lot of times what I've done is built a great database of resources. If the client is just, I think they're great but they are not a fit for our services. Then I'll just refer them to someone else. Here's a freelancer that has a better rate that I think is gonna be a better fit for you. Or here's an agency that does really great design and branding work which is something that we just don't really do. So if you can have those referrals in place that you can send them somewhere else. But the really hard ones are when you maybe don't think they're a good fit to work with anyone. You don't want to send them on to anyone.
KD: So you don't want to sacrifice your referral partnership, you know what I mean. You don't want to hurt that relationship.
JH: Yeah that just happened to me. Oh god, I don't even remember how I handled it. I met this guy who was basically saying that he was very proud that he'd gotten all of his resources to get his company off the ground without paying anyone. And I was like ohhh, red flag. Red flag! I just told him that I didn't think it was a fit to work together and I wish him the best of luck. And if he wanted my advice or opinion on a thing or two in the future. I'd be happy to help him but I couldn't sign him on to anyone. It was a hard conversation. It was a family friend too.
KD: Really, that's another layer of complexity.
JH: So much harder I know. But you know what? I think that if I see him in a coffee shop we'll be totally good. As long as you handle the conversation professionally and that can be hard right. And it can be scary to say no. And I think a lot of people think that if they say no that it'll ruin the relationship. Or it'll have a negative impact on them. But as long as it's done professionally I think it's okay.
KD: Professionally but it also sounds like there's a positive spin to it too. You don't frame it as we don't think you're gonna be a good fit. It's like hey, those are just services or things that you need that I think somebody else might be better equipped. So the positive spin seems to ease the situation.
KD: And then I think the other point you were making there too is it sounds like kind of your qualification of good fit versus bad fit happens at the first call or way early in the process. That seems to have worked for you. Have you had anybody go all the way, like 90% to the finish line and you had to turn them away at that point?
JH: Yeah, yeah that actually. It's happened a few times. And it sucks but whenever you see the red flags you have to stop the process. And I think especially me as an owner it's easier for me to do this because I know it starts and stops with me. So I can make the decision to not bring them on. I know what the financial impact will be. I know what we need to do to fill the revenue that we would have gotten. I think when you have a sales person it can be harder and they need to be trained further on that.
KD: Yeah, do you have any tips for training?
JH: We have an inside sales person who does a lot of the beginning qualification. And then my main job now is selling.
KD: Which I think is probably similar in a lot of agencies.
JH: Our agency has nine employees so I think that is. Agencies of our size that's typically. And people like to be sold to by the owner of the company. So if you can do it then I think you should.
KD: Yeah, I agree. Going back to just this term picky right. So obviously you want to be picky on the clients you bring in. I think we were talking earlier too about and you were actually talking about this is actually a way to qualify who's gonna be a good fit. But oh yeah, those are services we don't actually offer. So I find some partners say we don't offer that but they're open to giving it a shot. So where do you draw the line in pickiness in regards to what your services offerings are and what you deliver as an agency?
JH: We actually at the beginning of last year packaged all of our services. Published them and pricing on our website and that's what we offer. A lot of people warned me against doing that because they were like you're gonna miss a lot of opportunities. Every company thinks they need a really super custom package but really what we've done is taken our processes and we completely customized all of the content and everything to the client. But our processes are the same. And it helps us work with the smaller business too and work within their budget. So we try not to go outside of that. Now sometimes we have a client that's in a retainer with us and they're like we have a trade show. And we need help with this and we're like okay. If we're running a campaign for you how can we make this multi purpose? And how can we make it fit for your trade show and maybe some of the emails are post show follow up. And so we kind of like to tweak it a little bit. But if there are services like. We only work with B2B companies. B2B SAS or service companies. We get a lot of B2C referrals and at that point. Again, it could be money for us but we don't even know how to do that.
KD: You'd be doing a disservice.
JH: We're doing a disservice to our team because we don't know how to do it. And we're doing a disservice to them because we don't know what kind of results we're going to get because we. We don't really know how to do it. But again I see a lot of agencies that will take any client. And it's B2B or B2C and for us that's not a fit and I would really caution against that.
KD: To your point too about communicating out: here's our package and here's our pricing on our website. But there's still that custom element. It's just our processes the same. I would imagine that you just explained that in your sales process and it lands. Especially with some of these smaller businesses.
JH: It definitely does and those that are scared away by it are not a fit for us. And we've had to learn that. Right when we rolled out these packages and publish our pricing. It was a scary time and sales were a little bit slower than they typically were because we weren't just custom quoting everything. So we had to and especially I had to learn how to sell in this different productized model. But I think it's made our team a lot more efficient. We can handle more clients internally and we have a higher margin because we have everything running so well on the back end.
KD: Communicating, putting pricing on your website or packaging your services. Having it on there. It's one of those things, it's like a split in the agency community. Some do, some don't right. But I think to your point. Okay well, our processes are super scalable and it helps our profit margins. So you're very much in the camp of oh no. We've seen the benefits. We're pro pricing on our website.
JH: We work with a lot of funded startups and we're helping them launch a company. And so they and their investors, when you're working with investors, really like to see that you have such a great process. And it's not this big heavy creative thing. We're working with them more to get money. And generate those leads and help them get revenue in the door. Because one, you are spending investor money. That's what they really care about.
KD: Would you say, too, that just showing this structure adds a layer of legitimacy to what you're trying to do?
JH: We take a lot of our processes and I'll show people those processes at the end of our sales process. So they're our bottom of funnel content. Like hey — I think we're a good fit. We like each other, we want to work together. And here is under the covers, here's how we do it. And I think agencies can be scared to do that too because they don't want to show the secret sauce. But the odds that someone takes and replicates that are so low.
KD: So that's actually a pretty good segway. I'm always curious to hear what the tech stack looks like for agencies. So if you have a pretty well defined process. Would you be able to share what tools? What platforms, what do you use to have that all processed out?
JH: Yeah, we use Trello actually. Which a lot of our clients adapted and then use it within their company. And again, it's small like startups and so they're like oh cool. This is a free tool and we can use this for product development and for other things. We put all of our clients in Trello and we do all of our communication there. And it saves us time because they don't have to pick up the phone and call us and ask us the status of a project. We can just say go check in Trello. You can see our entire conversation there. We use Slack, we use HubSpot. For our tech stack, we don't have a lot. I've been seeing a lot of presentations. Especially during Partner Day and feel like — ah!! Here's all of the different technology. We're in the process of figuring out a few things. Some better reporting and stuff like that.
KD: Going back to your pricing page. Because again it's one of those things that some people are all about it. Some people are like oh no, we want to custom build proposals and not communicate pricing out. Do you have any data or any reporting around conversion around your pricing page? The traffic to your pricing page. Have you been able to attribute new leads or MQL's or SQL's or how ever you label your leads, from the pricing page in particular?
JH: No, it's part of our lead scoring process but I don't know we've done that far into it.
KD: But at least the surface folks have seen the page to the top of your list.
JH: Yeah yeah, absolutely. We haven't dug too far into the data because a lot of times people are coming into our sales process and I'm having that first conversation with them. And then I'm sending them to that page and saying you asked about pricing. Here are the ranges of what we offer. We can customize this for you a little bit but just to make sure we're on the same page. And that saves a lot. I have a lot of clients ask how we vet for budget. You can get to the end of however many hours of a sales process. And then they say okay we want to spend $1,000 a month. And you're like well, that's not a fit for us.
KD: I think there's a freelancer or something.
JH: Right, exactly. But I don't want to get five hours into a sales process and hear that. So doing that up front and just sending them in my first follow up email. Hey, here's our pricing page. Is this a fit for you?
KD: Again it's qualifying as early as you can so you don't put all the time, effort, work into the whole process. Get to the end and find out it's not a fit. So we’ve obviously talked about being picky. And we've talked about the type of clients you want to bring on. We've talked a little bit about services. But is there anything else agencies should be picky about?
JH: Yeah, hiring. I just published a post on LinkedIn about one of my first hiring mistakes. I got so many comments on it. I hired a freelancer that was a friend of a friend that I was like, okay I can trust this person. She was supposed to turn on this big project for one of my first clients when I was consulting on my own. And was calling and texting her all day the day before. And then she called me at 11:00 pm. No, she emailed me. It was like I don't want this project anymore. I never started it. I don't really like this work. And I was like oh my god. I stayed up all night. Did the work myself. Went to the client’s office and pitched it to them on zero hours sleep and took a nap in my car. And they saw me sleeping in my car. It's a story. They're still working with us which is great but it can be really easy to make those hiring mistakes. Especially at the beginning because you're like I need a resource. So it's like let's get someone in the door and get someone doing this work right away. Because as an agency it's really. It can be difficult to project when to hire. Cause if you hire too early, it costs money and the employee is bored. If you hire too late than it's a rush to get someone in the door. And you're maybe not making the right decision.
KD: Yeah, you sacrifice quality for availability I guess. We just need a headcount versus what actually kind of source these candidates right.
JH: Yeah, so now we kind of have a constant pipeline of potential candidates going. And we hire locally because we want people in our office which makes it another challenge. I've been talking to a lot of agency owners that are digital agencies.
KD: Yeah, big remote teams, sure.
JH: And then you have just a lot more talent to choose from versus Milwaukee is decent sized city but we really have to look and vet candidates pretty closely. One big thing that we've learned in the hiring process is not to just take their references and call them. We tell them who we want to talk to.
KD: Interesting. That's the first time I've heard that.
JH: Yeah, it's a cool process. So once we get through and go through their whole work history. We say we want to talk to your boss from this company. Can you connect us with them. What was their name again? Give us their contact information. We want to talk to this peer that you mentioned during the process. Can you give us their contact information? So we're selecting who we talk to and like when you're selling a new client. And of course any company that you send them to talk to is gonna give you rave reviews.
KD: You wouldn't connect them otherwise, right?
JH: Right and same thing for references right. It's a slanted process where it's like here are my five biggest fans. Call them and they'll tell you how great I am. But it really changes the process when you choose who you're calling. So the first interview for us is to ask five questions about every job in their work history. In the second interview you dig into core competencies of the job. And so if the core competencies are being detail oriented. We'll ask a series of questions around that. So it's a very set process that every candidate goes through every time. It's a lot more than I ever did. I think it's three or four interviews. But it's necessary.
KD: It's worth it on the back end. If you can extend and offer. I feel like too many agencies are just on a whim. Just like hey, just talk to me about what you did? Or they're not being very specific and like this is our process. Here are the questions that we want the answers we want.
JH: Yeah, we've actually just developed a test too to see how detail oriented you are because it's very easy to say “I’m detail oriented”.
KD: Like an exam or kind of like a practical exercise?
JH: It's a practicum. So it's like hey, here are the template boards that we use in Trello. And if we are selling a game plan, go set this up. So here are the directions and here's the template for it. Make a copy of it and set it up as if you're running a client. Because we want to see if they're actually getting all of the little details. Because it's very easy to roll into an interview and say I'm very detail oriented.
KD: Yeah sure, okay. Prove it, yeah right. What would you say is the weirdest part of just agency life? I guess besides sleeping in your car and getting caught by clients.
JH: Oh yeah, I do a lot of work in my car actually.
KD: Like laptop work?
JH: I'm always on the go, yeah. And if I pull up to a meeting 15 minutes early then I'll pull out my laptop and working all over the place. You have to be really really flexible as an agency owner. And just working in an agency in general. Working in a small business too is not a normal job. One of our team members just celebrated his birthday and we got him four hats. And it was like marketing, sales, IT, HR. And he literally puts the hat on for the role because he does a lot of those different roles. Because we all wear a million different hats. So I would say that's the craziest part and you have to find people that are willing to just jump in and do whatever it takes to make the agency successful. And we're there now and I'm super happy. The whole team is at Inbound right now. So yeah.
KD: Cool, well thanks for joining us.
JH: Yeah, thanks for having me.
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