7 Questions Agencies Never Want You To Ask In The Sales Process
Columnist David Rodnitzky discusses some common queries and why they are (and aren't) fair to ask.
I’ve probably taken close to 500 sales calls with potential clients in my nearly seven years in the agency space, and no two calls are ever the same. There are a ton of questions potential clients ask that I love to answer, like “What makes you guys great?” or “Can I talk to your references?”
Some questions, however, can make me cringe. And it’s not always because they are unfair questions; there are some very reasonable questions that are almost Catch-22s for any agency to answer. Here’s a list of my favorite questions your agency might prefer not to answer!
1. Will My Account Management Team Remain The Same For The Entire Engagement?
Why It’s Fair: Clients are rightfully concerned about “bait and switch” sales processes, where the agency trots out an all-star cast of team members for the pitch but then quickly replaces them with junior resources once the deal is signed.
Why It’s Not Fair: Agencies, by nature, are a shared resource, meaning that no one team member is generally allocated to just one client. As such, sometimes team members needed to be shifted from one account to another, either because an account suddenly needs more support, or the team member simply isn’t profitable managing the account he/she is currently servicing. Moreover, team members leave agencies all the time despite the agencies’ best efforts at retention.
2. Who Was The Last Client You Lost And Why?
Why It’s Fair: As in sales process, the seller is going to highlight all the good stuff about his business and try to avoid any of the warts. By asking about some of the agency’s failures, the client gets a chance to understand why they may not be a fit for this agency. For example, if the answer is “the client wanted us to work weekends and we refused,” a potential client who has this very expectation might avoid a bad relationship by ferreting this information out during the sales process.
Why It’s Not Fair: It always feels a little dirty telling stories about failed relationships because generally the blame is on both parties. As such, by explaining a failed client relationship, it can feel like you are partially throwing a client under the bus, which never feels good.
3. Will You Give Me The “A Team”?
Why It’s Fair: Success with an agency is largely driven by the people on your account team, so asking for the best people just makes sense. Moreover, asking this sort of question may drive some honesty from the agency about the relative importance of your business vis-à-vis other deals. In other words, if the agency isn’t willing to give you the A team (and they admit to it), you may be too small or not the right fit.
Why It’s Not Fair: First off, most agencies don’t just have one “A team”; they have a lot of A teams. Second, this question is going to have little impact on an aggressive sales person who of course is going to answer with a promise to deliver the cream of the crop!
4. Will You Match Your Competitors’ Prices?
Why It’s Fair: Price matters, and saving 10% or 20% on your agency costs can often be the difference between a profitable and unprofitable campaign. Moreover, if you don’t ask, you’ll never know if the agency would be willing to give you a lower rate.
Why It’s Not Fair: The question basically assumes that all agencies are created equally, and that is certainly not the case. The adage “you get what you pay for” is generally true with agencies. If you simply choose the agency who will give you the lowest price, you will likely get very amateurish service. If you think an expert is expensive, wait until you see what an amateur will cost you!
5. Do You Do Performance Deals?
Why It’s Fair: Contracts that pay agencies based on how much incremental revenue (or leads, or whatever the key metric is) to a client align incentives between the client and agency. As such, the agency will act like they are spending their own money when they make decisions for clients. And some agencies actually prefer this sort of relationship.
Why It’s Not Fair: Agencies have fixed costs like any other business, so expecting them to take most or all of the risk in a relationship means that the agency may end up losing money if performance isn’t what was anticipated in negotiations. And performance gains or losses are not always black or white; market conditions, competitor behavior, and publisher changes can all impact performance. While there are some agencies that exclusively do performance deals, expecting every agency — even ones that have built their business on an entirely different model — to do them is not fair.
6. What Happens If I Want To Hire One Of Your Team Members Working On My Account?
Why It’s Fair: People frequently leave agencies to go in-house, and going to a client is not uncommon. Many agencies have clauses in their contracts that require the client to pay a fee in the event that they “poach” someone from their account team.
Why It’s Not Fair: The question arouses suspicion at the agency, because it could suggest that the client does not have an interest in building a long-term relationship, but rather wants to use the agency as a transition to an in-house solution. Agencies generally don’t make a profit in the first few months of a relationship, so a client who plans to hire away talent and then terminate the agency relationship is a contract into which most agencies wouldn’t knowingly enter.
7. Will You Sign A Non-Compete?
Why It’s Fair: Clients have proprietary information, and they are concerned about an agency taking on the competition as a client and then using their information to benefit the competition. Moreover, clients want their agencies to be fighting alongside them against the competition; it’s hard for a client to feel that way when the agency is working with the competition at the same time!
Why It’s Not Fair: Agencies, like any business, are always looking to grow, and that generally means taking on new clients. Accepting a non-compete whenever a client asks for one can stifle the agency’s ability to take on new business. Sometimes, agencies will sign non-competes, especially if the client is going to be a significant portion of the agency’s revenue and the client is willing to sign a long-term, iron-clad relationship. But a client that only wants to sign a small contract for a short time period is probably asking too much to expect 100% exclusivity. Also, agencies have developed numerous techniques to protect competitive information, like “Chinese Walls” that keep teams working on competitive clients separated from each other.
The Agency-Client Relationship
Ultimately, an agency-client relationship is about partnership: both sides should trust each other, both sides should make money as a result of the deal, and both sides should be excited to work together.
Asking the right questions during the sales process is vital to ensuring that you are entering into a true partnership. As long as you come into the discussion with a spirit of transparency and fairness, it is totally reasonable to make at least some of the questions above part of your agency selection process — whether we like it or not!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.