How to sell PR services and increase the revenue of your agency
You work in PR and find the right angle to pitch any story. That means you already know how to sell. So why should you spend time reading this guide on selling PR services?
In this guide we will explain a framework that allows you to use your sales skills in a structured way. By being more deliberate in your approach you will win more deals than ever before.
But more deals does not mean you should go for all deals. You want to win the right deals. And finding the right deals starts with qualification, which is what we will kick-off this guide with.
This is a long post and there is no need to read everything from start to finish. Feel free to skip around and go to the sections that most interest you.
Here is how we are going to break it all down:
- How to qualify PR clients.
- Are you speaking with the decision maker?
- Do your expertise and experience match with what the client is looking for?
- What results does the customer expect?
- Is there a budget?
- Would you enjoy working with this client?
- Do they work with other agencies?
- Using the qualification questions.
- The hidden bonus of disqualifying a possible PR client.
- Selling - it is time to shine!
How to qualify PR clients.
To make the best use of your time you want to avoid two types of deals. The first type are deals that will never convert. The second type is potentially worse - clients that are not a good match with your agency. To avoid these you have to filter all opportunities. Sales pros call that qualification.
Qualification starts with getting the right information. You then use this information to decide if you want to pursue the opportunity. Even if you have been on the customer acquisition side for a long time, there are probably a few factors that you never considered. Here is our list of essential questions to qualify clients for your PR agency.
Are you speaking with the decision maker?
Children often play the telephone game. A group sits in a circle and the first child whispers a word in the ear of the next child. It continues like that until the word has been passed around the circle. Without fail, the word that comes out on the other side is completely different from the starting word.
This “telephone game” principle will also apply to what you explain to a customer. What you tell your contact will be retold internally in a different way. And it goes both ways. Your contact will also brief you in a way that is informed by their own understanding.
For this reason you need direct access to the decision maker. It is the only way you can ensure you obtain the right information and that your message gets across.
The decision maker is probably a busy person. It is not necessary to involve them in every interaction. However, you do want a direct channel to whoever has final say. If you do not get that, think twice before putting in a lot of effort.
A good way to gain access is by asking for a quid pro quo. For example, you can ask for a meeting with the decision maker before investing a lot of time in a pitch.
Do your expertise and experience match with what the client is looking for?
Your chances of winning are slim when your expertise is not in the client industry. Even if you beat the odds and do win, it is unlikely that the project will be a success. Your unfamiliarity with the sector will make it more challenging to get results. For this reason, you will also have to invest more time than usual in the project.
A car manufacturer will not select your agency if you specialize in fashion. This example is obvious, but it could be more subtle. Perhaps you specialize in male fashion and the client makes clothes for teens. You need to have a clear sense of the type of projects you are willing to take on.
We are not saying you should never go for a deal if it is outside of your area of expertise. Everyone once started in a field without prior experience. But when you pursue a project outside your normal area, ensure it is a conscious decision and not because you were blinded by the prospect of working for a well-known brand.
What results does the customer expect?
Does the customer have realistic expectations and can you (over)deliver? Or do they expect to be on the cover of The New York Times by next week.
You do not want a project with someone who expects the impossible. It guarantees that you will have an unhappy customer, no matter what you achieve.
Gauge their expectations in the qualification phase. And when they are sky-high, see if you can adjust them to a reasonable level. A good starting point is asking what their ideas about results are based on.
Whether or not expected results are realistic also depends on what they will spend. The higher the available budget, the more time and resources you can invest. And that should lead to better results. This also leads us to the next question.
Is there a budget?
A budget indicates that the customer is serious. It means that they have thought about the project and their willingness to invest.
Having an assigned budget is especially important when you deal with a large organization. Big corporations are bureaucratic. Without a budget your contacts in the big corporate might want to move forward, but can be unable to do so unless funding has been assigned.
Usually customers do not want to disclose their budget for fear of weakening their negotiation position. But do not let that stop you and ask what their budget is anyway. It is an important thing to know. Budget size determines the amount and type of work you will be able to do.
Would you enjoy working with this client?
You will, of course, never know what it is like to work with someone until you actually experience it. But if you have a knee-jerk reaction at the mere thought of spending a significant amount of time with a client, it might be better to pass. No money will compensate for being frustrated every day.
This is not only a matter of intuition. You can take things as reporting requirements and how easy they are to deal with into account. Maybe the client wants you to fly around the world every month to report in-person and you are not willing to do that. Or it is an organization with a strict hierarchy, which makes it difficult to get things done.
Is there a time frame for making the decision?
It is frustrating to invest time in getting a deal with someone who takes forever to decide. The bad news is that it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of this happening. Things happen. Markets collapse, an influential advocate for the PR project who works at the client changes jobs, or the company is acquired.
The good news is that there is something you can do to minimize the chance of a deal dragging on forever. Get the client to commit to timelines and specifically a decision deadline.
A customer who does not give clarity is a warning sign that you are setting yourself up for a long process. Time frames with associated deadlines indicate seriousness, and that they are not only fishing for information.
Do they work with other agencies?
You will not disqualify anyone based on the answer to this question, but it is a good one to ask nonetheless. The answer gives an idea for what you can expect in the sales process.
When the customer is used to working with PR agencies, it is likely everything will go frictionless. They will have people experienced in dealing with agencies and processes are in place. The sale will also be easier to make. You do not have to sell them on the benefits of outsourcing PR, but can directly focus on why they should select your agency.
Using the qualification questions.
The best approach is to keep all qualification questions in the back of your mind, and mix them in the conversation. It is not necessary to ask them all. Some will already be answered in your research, while other information will be given spontaneously in the conversation.
The hidden bonus of disqualifying a possible PR client.
It can feel as a failure when you disqualify a lead after investing a lot of time. However, the opposite is true! Disqualifying a lead for the right reasons is a good thing. You saved everyone from wasting time and a potentially unsuccessful project.
Yes, you are foregoing revenue in the short term. But in the long term is best for both your agency and the customer. And there can be a hidden bonus. Did you know that rejecting a client can lead to great referrals?
Always explain why you think your agency is not the best match when you withdraw from a deal. In your explanation, position your offering by mentioning what client would be in your sweet spot and why.
Your honesty will be appreciated and generate trust. It can also bring people in the clients’ network to mind who are a great fit with your expertise. The trust generated by your honesty has just made it more likely that you will get a referral.
Your chances will further increase if you directly ask for a referral. End your explanation by asking: “Do you happen to know anyone for whom this would be a good fit?”
Hopefully you will have many opportunities that do qualify. And that brings us to the next phase: selling.
Selling - it is time to shine!
In essence selling is positioning your service in the best light for every potential client. By qualifying the lead you established that what the client is looking matches your offering. Now “all” that remains is convincing the client that you can indeed bring value.
The framework below allows you to do that in a way that maximizes your chance of getting the deal.
A sales framework
The following framework is based on SPIN selling and adapted so you can use it for selling PR services.
In every conversation you should ask questions to cover the following basic components:
Situation questions are to gather information. Think of these like questions to find out facts. For example, how many employees a company has, and if they have done any PR work in the past.
Do your research and only ask for things unavailable in public information. Inquiring about things you could have easily found yourself demonstrates a failure to prepare and shows a lack of interest.
Be careful with situation questions and never ask more than two in a row. Otherwise you turn what should be a conversation, into something that seems like an interrogation.
There is a trick to avoid the client feeling subjected to an endless barrage of questions. Look for confirmation instead of asking open ended questions. For example, “from looking at print and web publications I get the impression that you have recently changed your approach to PR, is that correct?”
This shows that you put in the effort, did research and have expertise. The fact that you put in the legwork builds trust, and will make it likely the customer will open up because they realize the conversation will be worth their time.
Problem questions are to identify challenges, difficulties or untapped opportunities the customer has. Do not limit yourself only to the things the client mentions. Those may not be the real issues and there could be other problems the client has not identified. It is your job to find them all.
What makes a good problem question is context specific. It depends both on your situation as well as that of the client. This is why you have to come up with new problem questions for every conversation.
Problem questions do have a similar structure. The following examples are a good starting point, and will give ideas you can base your own questions on:
- Our clients often tell us they struggle to generate enough leads to fill their pipeline. Is that also the case for you?
- How much effort would it take for you to identify the right outlets and influencers, get connected and convince them to mention your product?
- How do you currently attract new visitors to your website?
- Do you get many backlinks?
- Many of our clients mention that they do not have the time to reach out to journalists. Does that also apply to you?
Once a potential client identifies a problem, they will want to solve it. But time is limited and not all problems have the same importance. Multiple problems compete for the attention of management, and they have to select the most pressing ones.
This is where the implication questions come in. These questions serve to surface all implications of every problem. Many of the implications are often overlooked, and that leads to the problem not getting the priority it deserves.
For example, imagine a client who does not have an influencer network but is planning to do all outreach themselves anyway. Some of the implications are that it will take them a lot of time to find the right influencers, it is difficult to establish a relationship, they will get worse results from campaigns, and will probably overpay because of unfamiliarity with fees.
Asking the right questions ensures that the client will become aware of all implications a problem has.
Example questions you can use to derive your own ones of are:
- Will being featured in important tech publications help your next round of fundraising?
- What other value-added activities will you not have time for when you do your own PR?
- What were the results the last time a magazine published about your products?
- If you have been working with a client for a long time already: how long would it take you to train a new agency in your brand, messaging and product?
- What would it do for your sales if you moved up x places in search engine results thanks to more backlinks?
In this phase you demonstrate the value you can deliver. Based on everything you have learnt from the conversation, your instinct will be to conclude meetings by breaking everything down for the client in bite sized chunks. But you should do the opposite.
People remember a message when it is their own conclusion in their own words. And the only way that happens is if they summarize the conversation themselves. It forces them to reflect and internalize the reasoning. But how do you do that?
This is where the need-payoff questions come in. They are derived from the implications you identified in the previous phase and prompts for clients to draw their own conclusions.
- Do you think doing interviews will impact lead generation and conversion?
- Would a better ranking in search results impact your revenue?
- Would not having to spend time on media outreach be of value?
- Will being recognized as a thought leader influence recruiting?
Think of these questions in advance. It is hard to come up with the right need-payoff questions on the spot. Also be careful that the questions are not leading, but rather an invitation for the client to reflect on the conversation.
Using the framework: how to start sales meetings?
After the usual introductions your first priority is to find out the problem(s) the client wants to solve by hiring a PR agency. Remember that the real problems can be different from what they state.
To get the conversation going consider asking: “What is the reason you are looking into PR, and what generated your interest in our agency?”
The answer will help determine the best sales approach on different levels:
- It tells you what they think their needs are.
- Provides insight in what vocabulary you can use (technical, finance), the speed with which you should speak, and the level of detail you should provide. Engineers generally like detailed explanations. A CEO from a large company will appreciate getting to point quickly.
- Learn how they got to know your agency, and why they decided to approach you. This is also valuable information for marketing.
- You can confirm the context: what type of PR campaigns they have done previously, what the results were etc.
Follow-up by asking some quick questions to ensure you fully understand their situation.
Then tailor your interactions to the customer:
- Adapt your talking speed. Your pace should be different for a native speaker with an A+ personality type, than for someone laid-back without a good command of English.
- Choose your vocabulary based on the person’s background and expertise. For example, most people outside PR will not be familiar with an acronym like AVE.
- Level of detail. Someone high-up in the client organization will be mainly interested in the executive version, and not the details.
Using the framework: concluding meetings
At the end of every meeting make good use of the need-payoff questions. The goal is to have the client summarize the main problems, their implications and why your agency is perfectly positioned to deliver the value they are looking for.
Points should be limited to the most important ones. Research has shown that people only remember a small percentage of meetings and presentations. Use the meeting conclusion to ensure the client will remember the key points.
Address any remaining objections before you conclude the meeting. To surface any remaining issues ask: “Do you see any possible reasons not to go ahead?” or “What is your intuition about this project?”.
Finally, agree on who will do what to evaluate and set a time for your next meetings. Avoid ending meetings that do not result in either a direct “no”, or defined next steps.
I hope this guide will help you land more deals. Don’t be shy to reach out to me if you have any sales challenges. I would be happy to give you a hand and can be reached at my first name (ivo) at ReachReport.io.