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The Pre-Sales Inbound Agency Model, or How To Drive Value Through Pre-Retainer Paid Services

Attracting potential clients and converting them into potential customers for your inbound marketing agency involves many hard-fought and challenging tasks, but that is only half the battle. You also need to secure the resources to make that happen.


We outlined in our articles on Building The Pain Mountain To Win Multi-Year Retainers and our follow-up, Return To Pain Mountain: The Approach To Winning Clients, the steps to take to show exactly what a potential client needs and how you can provide the solutions, and following these guidelines will help you get the contracts you need to keep your business growing.

However, your digital marketing agency, while trying to win business, is also in itself a business, and in order to provide clients with the services you promise to provide, you need to be able to secure a cash flow that enables you to invest in the resources necessary to do so. That first juicy payment for a new retainer might be a long way off, so what can you do to make sure you are bringing in the funds to work your magic, and further qualify those prospects who have not yet put pen to paper?

There’s a familiar scenario: You are constantly doing pitches, spending time in meetings, doing lots of talks and attending conferences to grow your network and brush up on trends, and writing proposal after proposal. It’s all important groundwork, but these activities don’t bring in any money, so you feel like you are working for free.

Your current model probably follows the path of attracting visitors, nurturing them with eBooks and tailored content, then offering a free assessment to help bring them further down the conversion path, before hopefully winning that retainer. That’s a good model, but where is your revenue in all of this? It’s all outgoings. It is only at the signed retainer stage that you can even hope for imminent payments.

Even after a retainer is secured, delays in payments are commonplace, whether down to client inaction, content problems, discontent, or just plain old slow-moving accounts departments, and all the while you will be watching your bank balance dwindle away.

This is where a new agency model is needed. Incorporating a pre-sales paid services model will not only lead to more profitable work, but also fewer bad clients.

The Inbound Agency Retainer Model

Looking at the retainer model below, you will see that the creation and supply of blogs, eBooks, videos, an assessment and back and forths with questions and answers are all free to the prospect, but after that you can start implementing services you can expect to be paid for, so you can keep revenue ticking over while you continue to up the services you provide and await the contract.


When you get to the stage where a client agrees to a preliminary or trial period involving a pilot campaign and the creation of a detailed strategy, the big bucks start coming in and you can finally secure the big pay-off by being hired for a 6- or 12-month implementation.

How do you go about setting up this retainer model?

First, you obviously need to impress prospects with the content you already have, or continuously create. There’s no money in it for you, but it’s your bread and butter and should be something you are doing already. Without this content, you are unlikely to generate leads or interest potential clients in the first place.

You need to provide valuable and relevant information on all topics and subjects that your potential clients will be interested in, including the likes of email marketingcontent marketingSEO, marketing automation and lead generation, using the terminology website visitors will understand and be interested in.

When a lead is sufficiently interested to consider what you can provide to help with their digital marketing needs, you can bring in small amounts of revenue with quick wins such as providing thought leadership, paid assessment and a strategy session.

thought_leadership_as_part_of_paid_pre-retainer_services_for_value_for_inbound_agency.jpegThought leadership

Sharing your expertise not only shows your interest in the client but also qualifies them further while establishing your worth. Getting them to agree to a half-hour or hour-long call or meeting for a fee helps prove your value while also putting some money in the coffers.

It’s only fair that if you have put years of effort into developing your knowledge and expertise, people should pay to avail of this. It’s the same principle as paying to see a consultant doctor. You can probably Google some medical advice, but the consultant, who has built up years of experience and expertise, is worth spending money on to get the right information for you.

Paid assessment

An in-depth look at the prospect’s website and online content. This is a relatively quick-win for both sides, in which you can quickly give recommendations for updates and enhancements, and can provide a ready-to-go blueprint for future work. It will also help you see the status (or state) of a prospect’s site so you can evaluate how much work is needed to turn it into an ROI-based business asset.

Strategy Session

Usually done via video conference or a call at this stage (unless you happen to be very local), this session can discuss the goals the prospect has, those you have for them, and the creation of a digital marketing strategy you feel will work. It also gives the chance to iron out the next phase of the qualification process, asking ‘what next?’

Again, this is all valuable stuff for a potential client because, even if they decide not to go with your agency, you are giving them the information and ideas they need, and they should be expected to pay accordingly.

Moving up the pay scale, you can offer further services before establishing the full retainer model, and this can include weekly calls dealing with a single topic per call, as well as the chance to hear about other issues. Taking each topic in turn, you can offer advice on the best practices to be undertaken by the prospect, and offer a few tips on the tools to use.

Better still is the offer of an on-site workshop over one or two days, in which you can map out what the prospect needs in order to implement an effective digital marketing strategy for their agency. This should be at the higher end of the pay scale and can include sessions dealing with buyer personas, content creation, blogging,social mediaemail marketing and lead nurturing, as well as any other relevant topics they need to have addressed. This can range from the general – the inbound methodology – to the specific – using LinkedIn to uncover opportunities and build relationships.


The Trial Period

At this stage, you should have wowed the prospect enough to have them interested in working with your agency, but not every prospect is ready to jump in just yet, and many will want to have a trial period to see if you can deliver on what you promise. You may be itching for them to close the deal and pay you for a full retainer at this time, but have patience, because it is only natural that a business will want to see theory put into practice before handing over large sums of money.

Bring a pilot campaign and specific timeframe strategy to the table. Six weeks or two months should be enough time to deliver quick-wins and start building on the strategy that will help you deliver results further down the line, and should be billed accordingly.

This should involve face to face meetings, a workshop, a content strategy both you and the client work on, and the delivery and implementation of your initial service offerings, whether that is blog creation, website redesign, optimisation or a sample email marketing campaign.

A longer pilot programme of around 3 months will allow you to show ROI, as your efforts start to bear fruit (of course it is important to outline to prospects that results are rarely if ever immediate), and you can also use this time to demonstrate the power of HubSpot as an integrated digital marketing platform. On top of that, it will allow you to further assess the prospect to see if they have what it takes to work with you, and vice versa. It may pain you to let them go, but if, for example, they have no content whatsoever, you won’t be able to show them any results, and working with them may prove to be more trouble, and effort than it is worth.

However, if all goes to plan, now should be the time when the pre-sales process is superseded by a full retainer, and the closure of the deal, when you can start to receive full payments. Happy days. Well, almost.

First, you have to put together a detailed proposal outlining the scope of the contract with agreed timelines for delivery, and get input from the client regarding what they need from you, the lifetime value of their customers, and the KPIs you need to reach to ensure your success.

get_to_work_after_gaining_money_with_pre-paid_services_value_for_your_agency.gifWhen all sides are happy, it’s time to get to work!

The important thing to remember is that while you have all the expertise, skills and tools to make a client’s marketing strategy hum, you shouldn’t overwhelm them with all the bells and whistles up front, especially if they are not willing to sign on the dotted line for months. Instead, take things one step at a time, gradually building on the value you offer them until they realise that you are the solution to their challenges. But make sure that each valuable piece of the process you offer comes with a price tag.

Working for free just to get a prospect to sign up further down the line is not an option. What you do is valuable, and that implies costs, so don’t be afraid to say no. If a prospect baulks at the thought of paying for services, however small, they may not be the best fit for your agency and you may face payment problems when the real bills are sent out.

Learn more about how Get Focused, the agency for agencies, can help you convert potential customers into clients by booking time with me.

Talk to Clodagh

Clodagh is currently based in Dublin and is the a co-Director of Get Focused Ltd, the first Irish Platinum HubSpot Partner Agency. She's an accomplished inbound agency sales and marketing coach who has helped hundreds of agencies in the HubSpot Agency Partner Program since 2013, both in APAC and EMEA.


Clodagh Higgins - Founder & Agency Growth Expert

Clodagh Higgins - Founder & Agency Growth Expert

Clodagh is the Get Focused founder and agency growth expert, having spent decades delivering for her own and other agencies across the globe.

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