Is it Time to Hire an Agency?
Even the best of us DIYers all eventually run up against something that makes little sense for us to tackle on our own and we have to hire a professional to get the results we want. When I first bought my home, I got HGTV Magazine just to read the section where a handyman answers home improvement questions with either: “Ask a Pro” or “Give it a Go.” Basically it has a question like, “I have termite damage, should I try to fix it myself?” (uh, no) or, “I need to replace a doorknob (go for it!).”
Even though I am a proud DIY enthusiast, the homeowner stuff freaked me out. I was talking to my then boss who owned some rental real estate and was a DIY home renovation hobbyist. He told me he felt the same way I did about home projects as he did about computers. We both looked at each other like we were aliens and at the same time said, “But if something on a [house -him] [computer -me] goes wrong you just fix it.”
For a small business, it can be more complicated than just “I can’t do it so I’ll hire someone who can.” Sometimes it’s not the skillset of the new project that’s the issue, but the time it would take away from an internal team member to do it. For most of the hundreds of small businesses I have worked with, the Owner or General Manager is often the salesperson, the marketer, HR, payroll, webmaster and so on. In other words there is a lot of awesome DIY going on in small businesses and sometimes it works great and sometimes, well, it doesn’t, and experts have to be hired.
So the first part of learning how to hire a third party to handle a facet of your business is to answer the age old HGTV magazine question: Hire a Pro or Give it a Go? In lieu of Q&A here is a flowchart that I (obviously) DIYed.
This Flowchart Assumes the Following:
- You cannot afford NOT to do this project based on the goals of your business. You have already decided that “The Thing” you need done, whether that’s someone to run your online marketing, build your website, or cater your next event is something you must do.
- You can afford to hire a 3rd party to do “The Thing” for you.
- You cannot justify hiring a full- or a part-time team member for “The Thing.”
- You = the main decision maker for “The Thing”
Congrats to all of you give-it-a-goers! Stop reading, grab some coffee and go get on YouTube or Lynda.
For the rest of you, let’s talk about how you should go about hiring a business to help run your business. In my former position as Marketing Manager at Mobile Electronics Specialists of America (M.E.S.A.) a huge part of my job was hiring and managing third-party marketing vendors. Why? Because M.E.S.A. is a 150+ retailer buying and marketing group but the M.E.S.A. team was (and still is) quite small. So it was impossible to do it all. We often got stuck on the “Do you have time to do this” part of the flowchart, so we hired pros.
For half a decade I was on the client side of B2B discovery and sales calls 2-3 times per month on average. Sometimes they were event vendors, sometimes they were digital marketing agencies, sometimes they were digital sign vendors, and the list goes on. That means I’ve talked to SO MANY of these companies and through it all I’ve learned that it’s like hiring anyone: you ultimately don’t know how it will work out until you take the leap and hire them.
That doesn’t mean however, you can’t set yourself up for success. Use these 3 steps to make sure you partner with the best possible organization for your goals.
[Still not sure if you need an agency or not? Check out our free guide, 3 Signs That You Need an Agency]
STEP 1: Start With You, Not With Them
Before you begin researching possibilities for partners on this project, make sure you know what you want. You can be flexible later if need be but always start with you. When a B2B company’s sales pitch is 100% about them and they ask nothing about you and your business that is a big red flag (see Step 3). I mean would you have a second date with someone who only talked about themselves for 1.5 hours? Hopefully not.
Many B2B organizations have a wide range of offerings. For example, an agency might offer SEO, PPC, Call Tracking, Web Design, Sales Training, Business Listings, and Content Creation. If you were really only looking for PPC help they are still going to try to sell you the rest of those offerings. They might send you something scary that shows you how much you need them to take over that other part of your business that you were not even considering in your original plan.
I am not saying you shouldn’t consider those pitches, but don’t lose sight of your original goal and budget. If you are interested in other services that come up along the way, make it clear that you would like to accomplish the original goal first before moving on to a next phase. In the meantime, do your own research to confirm whether or not their additional products or services are actually of value to your company.
It is crucially important that you keep your eye on the ball and not be intimidated by excessive shiny jargon (another red flag) and scare tactics. Any car owner who doesn’t know much about cars knows this is easier said than done though, right? Why? Because if you lack the expertise to know exactly how to fix the car or whether or not it’s even broken, you need to find someone who does. Quite the pickle. (Are these baseball metaphors working for you?) That is why trusting your new partner is one of the most important factors in deciding who to work with. You should also remain mindful of what you do know: what you want out of this partnership.
Try This: compose a new email and address it to yourself. For the subject sum up what you need done. In the body describe exactly what you want to accomplish, how much you want to spend to accomplish it, and a sentence or two about the type of people you want to work with including what a trustworthy company looks like to you. It should take you 2-3 minutes tops. Click Send.
Note to Project Managers: Okay yes, a full statement of work would be ideal but let’s get real, are small business owners and GMs really going to do one? Well if they do that’s great! But the idea behind this “email to self” is to get to the heart of what ultimately really matters fast. If that’s all you have time to do, it should help you as a reference along the way.
Good job, now let’s move on.
STEP 2: Finding a Partner
Every love story has the “how we met” story. Looking for someone to run your Facebook ads or SEO strategy probably won’t be an actual love story (who knows though!?) but still you have to find one another somehow and you have to do it all (gasp) without Tinder!
Here are my top three strategies for finding the right partner in a marketing agency:
Ask Other Businesses
If you’re a local business, find a non-competing company (like in a different geographic area) in your industry that seems to be doing a good job with what you’re trying to do. You might need to do a little research to find them or you may already have good industry contacts you can start with. If you can’t find anyone in your industry to help, try other businesses in your area that have similar challenges as you and seem to be managing them how you would like to.
Don’t forget about your other vendors. Do you work with other businesses already? For example, at my current position we work with car dealerships, car/home audio and electronics vendors, and boat dealerships. Who do they work with? You may get multiple recommendations from this exercise, which would be great. Set up calls with them all.
Ask Your Team
You might have someone on board who worked with a great company for this service at a previous position or they might have other relevant contacts that can help in your search.
I know you did this first and that’s fine. The downside to Google is that there are SO MANY B2B PRODUCT & SERVICE PROVIDERS. Go back to your email to self from Step 2 to help you narrow down your search. Is it important to you that they be in your area? Can you afford those top companies that pop up? Do you want someone who has experience in your vertical? I found the lovely people over at WebMason with a simple google search for franchise printing solutions and they’re one of my favorite vendor hires ever! So even though it can be daunting, throw some cold Google leads in the mix.
More tips on partner hunting:
- Don’t Hate the Player: Talk to 3-5 companies and make sure they know they aren’t the only ones you’re talking to.
- Raise Your Hand: Make a list of specific and direct questions you have and ask them all to each company. Note discrepancies, whether or not they answer directly, and whether they seem annoyed by your inquiries or welcome them.
- Keep Their Enemies Close: Ask them straight up who their #1 competitor is. If they tell you (many dance around this one for obvious reasons) ask why you shouldn’t go with them instead. Then talk to the competitor.
- In Free Stuff We Trust: I recently had a call with iFocus Marketing and their National Sales Manager, Whitney Barker, offered me some great objective user feedback about our site’s mobile user experience that I was able to address and fix in minutes. We haven’t signed anything with them yet but that first taste of their expertise and potential value was a huge step in the right direction for me. I’m really not saying this just because this is their blog but WordStream does this really well and it’s one of the reasons people trust them.
- We Want Prenup. Not really but you know what I mean. Should you part ways, you should leave with at least what you started with. Make sure you retain ownership level access of all digital properties and accounts that you own that they help manage. Get it in writing.
STEP 3: Watch for These 9 Red Flags
Now for the fun part. Use these red flags as a guide to help you in your vetting process. But note: They only work if you’re honest with yourself about them. I know it’s tempting to just go with the first company you talked to because you have zero time, but avoiding bad eggs will save you time and money in the long run.
Not that kind of red flag
Red flag #1: You know 2 or more (yikes) other businesses that you trust that have had a bad experience with them. My father in law is a mathematician and always likes to remind me that, “Two is a pattern.” But you don’t have to be a mathematician to know that this situation isn’t looking good. Don’t even waste your time with a call with this company. Dealbreaker, move on.
Red flag #2: They will not allow you access to something you owned before the relationship. See the prenup tip in Step 2. I have dealt with this mess and it isn’t pretty. Dealbreaker, move on.
Red flag #3: They dodge questions about current or past clients and/or projects and will not provide any portfolio or examples of work. Or, their portfolio is bad. Dealbreaker, move on.
A detailed design portfolio
Red flag #4: They ask you few or no questions about your business, your goals, or your industry. Even if they have experience in your vertical. Workable: If everything else seems okay see if you can talk to someone higher up. You may just have an inexperienced salesperson. Make sure you will ultimately be working with someone who does care about your goals and wants to understand your business.
Red flag #5: Overusing repetitive scripted pitches. Some of you salespeople out there are mad at me about this one and I’m sorry (not sorry). If they can’t think around every angle of your problem in relation to their own product, it’s possible they don’t completely understand their own offerings OR they don’t completely understand what you need. Workable: This happens all the time because salespeople are usually expert salespeople but may not have a deep technical understanding of what they sell. That’s why this one is workable. Ask to have a 2nd call that also includes a practical member of the team who will actually be working with you on the project. If you’re still not having a real conversation.
Red flag #6: They repeatedly refuse to answer or purposely dodge direct questions.
Dealbreaker, move on. This might be one of the most frustrating experiences as a client. I should have made this Red Flag #1 because it’s one of my biggest pet peeves. In my experience, people do this for 1 of 2 reasons: they don’t know the answer, or they know that you aren’t going to like their answer. Answering questions honestly (even if it’s, “I don’t know but I’ll find out for you”) builds trust; but not answering questions or avoiding them destroys it. It’s pretty simple, people.
Red flag #7: They are very late to or miss scheduled meetings to sell you on their products or services. Dealbreaker, move on.
I had a pretty pricey web project I was getting multiple bids for and I had a call set up with a company to pitch me on the project and…. the guy just forgot about the call. A WEEK later, he emailed me and was very apologetic and begged me to reschedule, but I didn’t. Maybe I was being too harsh but I stand by the decision. I get that people make mistakes but if they don’t show up when it means making them money, they probably aren’t going to show up when they already have your money. They should value your time from the get go and want to earn your trust.
Red flag #8: You know something crucial about their area of expertise that they do not. Dealbreaker, move on.
A person in a social marketing agency once told me I needed to use hashtags on Facebook. Which sounds all fine and dandy here in 2016 except for the fact that this was about 2 years before hashtagging was even possible on Facebook. He didn’t use social media himself, must have been confused about something he heard, and never bothered to confirm it. If you’re going to hire an expert, make sure they’re actually an expert. If you don’t, remember you often get what you pay for (or don’t pay for as it were.)
Red flag #9: You have a bad feeling about them/You don’t think they are being honest with you/They seem to purposely talk over your head/They over-jargon their sales pitches. Judgment Call.
My friend owns a business and he found a company through word of mouth to build his website and possibly handle his Google AdWords account. He asked me to talk to the rep there because my friend doesn’t speak online marketing-ese. I exchanged a few emails with the rep and he came off kind of rude and pushy but when I got him on the phone he was all smoothed out. When I called my friend to tell him that I thought they would be fine, he said he had a bad feeling about the guy and the company. He thought the guy was too pushy and he wasn’t sure he liked him. From there, my friend needed to make that call for himself but for me it’s a dealbreaker: it hurts my soul to work with people I truly don’t like. My boss once said he can work with people he likes, with people he doesn’t like, but he cannot work with someone he can’t trust. Seems pretty reasonable to me. You have to decide where you stand on that for yourself but don’t ignore it as a red flag.
Congratulations! You now have an expert you trust to run something that will help you obtain your business goals! But don’t just settle on autopilot. People, technology, businesses, and goals all can change without much notice. Just because there were no red flags when you started working with an agency doesn’t mean that in a year or two there won’t be. Make sure that it continues to be the right investment for your business.
About the author
Erin Costello is the Director of Marketing for Freeman's Car Stereo in Charlotte, North Carolina. Previously she was the Marketing Manager for Mobile Electronics Specialists of America for 5 years: a 250+ brick and mortar storefront buying and marketing group of 12 volt (car audio electronics) retailers. She is also the co-founder of the non-profit literary publishing project, SpringGun Press, which publishes poetry, fiction, and digital art. Originally from Northern California, she graduated with a B.A. in English from University of California, Davis and earned a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from University of Colorado, Boulder. She works from home and lives in Denver, CO with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter: @erinmcostello