[Agency Guide] Step-by-step advice to create a “Fast-Failure” Sales Process

Written by: Karl Sakas

Wondering what steps should be in your agency’s Sales Process? Here’s a deep dive on the topic!

These are the 10 sales process steps I use myself (with my team’s help), and the same ones I help agencies customize for their business development.

You’ll need to adapt the steps to your situation, but my tips will help you avoid “reinventing the wheel” as you and your team sell your agency’s services. [Last updated: March 2024]

Framing: Create a Fast-Failure Sales Process

My advice? This is all about creating what I call a “Fast-Failure Sales Process” so you can focus on your best opportunities. Fast failure means front-loading your decisionmaking process—so you can pull the plug early on flakey prospects, and so you can avoid chasing after gone-bad opportunities.

In an agency’s sales process, this is about creating “stagegates” or a “tollbooth” before you move forward, including “CRUX,” my upgrade to BANT. For instance:

  • Don’t get on the phone with a prospect until you’re sure they meet your basic qualifications, like minimum annual budget.
  • Don’t agree to create a proposal until you’re fairly sure they’re ready to buy now, and that key stakeholders are on-board.
  • Don’t send or deliver a proposal until they make commitments in return, like agreeing to a video call or meeting to review the proposal.

With that framing down, let’s look at my list of sales process steps for agencies. At nearly ~3,000 words, this article isn’t short—but it’s an important topic that could transform your agency.

Agency Sales Process: Sample List of Steps

Here’s a high-level of list of 10 steps to use as your starting point:

  1. Require the prospect to complete your Sales Pre-Qual Survey before you get on the phone.
  2. Clarify big questions via email.
  3. Validate prospect against CRUX or another qualifying checklist.
  4. Do an Exploratory Call.
  5. Get pre-qual survey responses from other stakeholders.
  6. Re-validate against CRUX. (And add a second Exploratory Call, if needed.)
  7. Pre-schedule a Proposal-Review meeting (or video call).
  8. Create and deliver the proposal.
  9. Close the deal.
  10. Onboard the new client.

Next, I’ll elaborate on each step to help you customize the process!

Details on Steps in Your Agency’s Sales Process

These sales process steps are a starting point—at a high level, they work whether you’re the sole salesperson or you have an entire sales team.

You’ll need to adapt the steps to your situation—for instance, you might opt to skip the pre-qual survey if you have a dedicated inbound sales rep. Don’t want to DIY? I’m glad to help you customize things.

1) Require your Sales Pre-Qualification Survey before you get on the phone.

I won’t get on the phone with a prospect until they complete my sales pre-qualification survey.

Why? Because I don’t want to waste time speaking with someone who’s unqualified—for instance, they need help I can’t provide, or they have unrealistic expectations. That’s not a good use of my time—but it’s also a bad use of their time.

Here’s what I ask in my live survey. My goal is to learn why they started (or joined) their agency, how things are going today, and where they want to go in the future. I also ask about experience with other advisors in the past—about half the time, I’d be their first. (Fine for management consulting, but risky if you’re someone’s first agency.

I typically have an 80% idea of whether someone is a fit based on their survey from both their answers and how they answered the survey.

Even better? I’ve delegated the “request the survey” process to my team. With occasional exceptions, I don’t formally hear about a prospect until they’ve completed the survey.

Tempted to skip the survey before the call?

If you tend to get phone sales inquiries, you’ll need to decide which questions to ask before you continue the call or point the prospect to a survey. (I recommend asking baseline questions in the call, while they’re there; this may fast-fail them before you even need to read a survey.)

If you have a dedicate phone sales rep (or your pipeline is really dry right now), you might skip the survey when someone emails you first. But weigh whether that’s the best use of your team’s time (and the prospect’s time). If calls without the survey tend to be time-wasters, add the survey.

2) Clarify big questions via email.

I use the exploratory call to clarify most questions, but there are some questions I recommend sorting out beforehand. This is especially important when something’s open-ended, or when there might be a conflict.

For instance, if they have super-aggressive growth goals (but don’t mention a timeline), you can ask: “You mentioned you want to quadruple your sales—over what time period do you want to accomplish that?”

If they mention work that requires an in-house implementation resource but they don’t currently have someone on board, you can ask, “We find this works best when clients have an in-house implementer. From LinkedIn, it appears you don’t have someone in that role; is that a role you’re planning to hire?”

You should also clarify where there might be conflicts of interest. For instance: “We currently work with XYZ firm in Sheboygan, focusing on residential clients. I see you focus on commercial clients; if you plan to expand into residential in the next year, we wouldn’t be a good match. How does that match your goals?”

Again, save most of the questions for the exploratory call—but if you get the sense that there’s a dealbreaker than might end the call after five minutes, save everyone time by sorting that out beforehand.

3) Validate prospects against CRUX or another qualifying checklist.

From what you’ve heard so far, does the prospect seem qualified? You can use my CRUX acronym: Compatible, Realistic, Urgent, and X-Factor. (More on CRUX here.)

Part of fast failure is eliminating poor-fit prospects early. For instance:

  • Do they need the kind of help you want to provide?
  • Do their expectations seem realistic to what you’ve heard about budget so far?
  • Are they ready to start soon… but not sooner than you can start?
  • Do they feel like a good fit, or are there clear or “gut feeling” red flags?

If a particular prospect fails CRUX, don’t proceed to a call!

4) Do an Exploratory Call.

Now, you—or a salesperson—can get on the phone. Depending on what you ask in your sales pre-qualification survey, you should have a pretty good idea beforehand whether they meet your baseline minimums.

I like scheduling the Exploratory Call for 45 minutes, while reserving 60 minutes on my calendar. That extra buffer helps if things run over, and gives me time to write my post-call recap. (More on post-call recaps in a future article.)

Some agencies prefer 30 minutes; that’s doable, but I find it’s harder to be truly consultative. There are exceptions if you’re really good at this—executive strategist Neen James recommends doing 15-minute sales calls.

Now’s your chance to fill-in any gaps on your CRUX criteria list. During the Exploratory Call, ask followup questions about what the prospect shared, and manage their expectations about overly-aggressive goals.

This is consultative sales—your goal is to show you’re paying attention to their situation, and you want to confirm if it makes sense to proceed.

During the call, you should assess which other stakeholders are involved. People often don’t like to admit they’re not the final decisionmaker. Instead, ask, “For you and your team, what’s the next step after today’s call?”

This often includes their naming others involved the process. If they request a proposal, you can say, “We’re glad to create a proposal—but before we can do that, we need pre-intake questionnaires back from all stakeholders. It sounds like that would include Bob and Sally?”

Get your contact’s buy-in on circulating the pre-intake survey to the other stakeholders, and get a deadline commitment on when they think the others can complete the survey.

5) Get pre-qual survey responses from other stakeholders.

Don’t agree to create a proposal until you’ve heard from all key stakeholders. If your contact is the VP of Marketing, others might include the Director of Marketing, the CMO, the CEO, and potentially the CIO.

If you’re working with a non-profit, you ideally want to hear from the Director of Communications, Executive Director, and chair of the Board of Directors. You might also want to hear from the Director of Membership and Director of Development (aka fundraising), depending on the nature of the engagement.

Tempted to skip someone because it will delay the process—or because someone says they’re too busy, or your contact doesn’t want to interrupt someone? That should trigger your “Spidey Sense.”

If they’re “too busy” now, they’re likely to be dis-engaged when you need them later. And I’ve found that key stakeholders who skip the beginning are the ones who are most likely to pull a Swoop & Poop later.

If your contact’s the one pushing back on escalating the survey, they either lack political capital or awareness (not good for you later) or they aren’t fully serious about the engagement (a sign that they don’t meet “Urgent” in CRUX).

6) Re-validate against CRUX. (And add a second Exploratory Call, if needed.)

Once you have everyone’s pre-qualification survey back, compare the answers. Do you see conflicting answers between stakeholders? The surveys aren’t anonymous (people share their name) so you can flag potential internal problems between client departments. You want to address concerns before proceeding to a proposal, especially if a key person doesn’t seem to be on board with your help.

At this point, you may want to add a second exploratory call that includes all the stakeholders. I suggest including the account manager you’ll assign to the client—this makes them more familiar to the client, and it helps them understand key people and their priorities.

All in all, are things still a fit? Great—contact your contact and let them know it makes sense to proceed to a proposal. But there’s a catch…

7) Pre-schedule a Proposal-Review meeting (or video call).

Don’t agree to send a proposal without the client agreeing to a proposal-review meeting or video call—with ALL key stakeholders attending. Even if you have a semi-automated process that spits out a proposal in minutes, you still should wait until they buy-in.

Why? This is a game of “chicken”—if they won’t commit to meet for 45 minutes, why should you commit to create the proposal?

There are two better alternatives to “just email it”:

  1. Deliver the proposal “live” during an in-person or screen-sharing meeting, and send the finalized document afterwards.
  2. Email the proposal a day or two before the pre-scheduled review call, and answer questions during the review call.

Personally, I don’t like #1—it feels pushy. As a detail-oriented introvert, I want to review things (when I’m the prospect). Having to sit through a presentation at the presenter’s pace feels controlling and paternalistic. (If you do approach #1 be smart, jump into the value you’ll create and answer the top questions everyone has—how much, how long, and how likely are the results?)

I use approach #2 myself. It combines getting the pre-commitment with an opportunity to address objections “live.” So far, I haven’t had a situation where I sent the proposal and the client cancelled the Q&A call. I’ve had some cases where people don’t want to commit to a live call… which means the process is working!

If at the last minute, they share a key stakeholder can’t make it but you should “do the meeting without them,” I strong recommend you reschedule the meeting. That can feel scary, but that’s part of the fight for control—as the agency, you define which people must attend. If a key person wants to skip, that’s fine—but the meeting won’t happen. (If you cave, I understand—but the meeting-skipper is likely to be the Swoop & Poop culprit later… or this may be an early sign the client is going to say “no” altogether.)

Ultimately, find the approach that works for you and your prospects—but either way, never just email the proposal without further commitments—that’s guaranteed to go into The Abyss.

8) Create and deliver the proposal.

You don’t need fancy sales proposal softwareyou should spend most of your time on proposal strategy, rather than proposal construction. I like Blair Enns’ specific approach to creating a one-page, three-option proposal, which he describes in his excellent Pricing Creativity book. I’ve created my own version of a 3-option proposal, available as one of 60+ resources in my Agency Profitability Toolkit.

Don’t waste 20 pages on why your agency is a special snowflake. Instead, convey you understand their problem, and illustrate how you’ll confidently solve the problem. (Don’t share the specific answers, of course, but you should feel comfortable sharing about your process.)

Ultimately, most prospects care about just a few things:

  • Price & Scope: How much will it cost? What’s included?
  • ROI: What’s the likely return? What are the risks?
  • Timeline: How long will it take? How much of their time is required? What’s the next step?

The process is harder when you need to persuade stakeholders who aren’t involved up-front… but all the more reason to get their buy-in through the pre-sales questionnaire. The mere process of asking good questions makes you look more credible.

For a copy of my sales proposal template, you can buy my Agency Profitability Toolkit (including 60+ additional templates) for $997 USD or get free access as an executive coaching client.

9) Close the deal.

Unless the prospect pulls something ridiculous—like demand a price cut without a commensurate reduction in scope—you’re probably ready to move forward!

Once they confirm the details, proceed—send the contract and deposit invoice, and prepare to start. (Having learned this the hard way a decade ago, you might start aligning resources internally, but I strongly recommend that you don’t even schedule the client-facing kickoff meeting until the paperwork and payment are back.)

Do your prospects tend to get squirrelly at this point? Before sending the contract and deposit invoice, ask about their process to review contracts and process payments. If they say their usual process requires 2-3 weeks (or longer), it’s better to know that now than be disappointed later.

Of course, you won’t start until they pay! Their eagerness—plus your cheerful resolve that you’re glad to start as soon as they return the paperwork—can work wonders at getting them to accelerate their internal process.

10) Onboard the new client.

The handoff from sales to delivery is vital—it’s where many agencies drop the ball. It’s important to have a strategic client onboarding process, but you also need to handle the details along the way.

For a smoother transition, include the client’s future day-to-day agency contact during the sales process. Depending on your approach, this might be an account manager, a project manager, a client success manager, or another role.

You don’t want to do this too soon—but at a minimum, involve your Account Manager in creating and presenting the proposal, even if your salesperson leads the proposal-review meeting. If you hold a second Exploratory Call (to include additional stakeholders), that can be a good option, too—at this point, you’ve resolved basic qualification questions and you’re just digging deeper to confirm, and you want the AM there.

Customizing This to Your Agency

You’re welcome to combine or otherwise adjust steps. For instance, I do the CRUX comparisons informally, and often talk through prospects with my colleague Diane. I pay attention when she mentions X-Factor red flags, because as the business owner and primary consultant, I’m too close to the situation.

You can also use proxy questions (more on that in a future article) to gather info on things like marketing budget—that is, you don’t need to ask every question directly (and in fact, probably shouldn’t—you don’t want to overwhelm prospects with questions).

You can also decide whether to skip a step—for instance, some agency leaders don’t feel comfortable doing pre-qual surveys when a prospect was a referral from a current client. (I still think you should, but it’s up to you.)

You can also edit your scripts as you go—you’re human, not a sales robot. And sometimes you’ll decide to proceed with a prospect in spite of their “fast-failing” earlier steps, because the opportunity meets another need for you and your agency (for instance, adding a big-brand “logo” to your portfolio with a smaller-than-ideal budget).

Start by scheduling an internal meeting to plan your next steps. Creating or overhauling your agency’s sales process steps isn’t an overnight fix, but each iteration will help you get better results. After all, running your agency is a lot more fun when you spend time on prospects and clients who appreciate what you have to offer—and your team will enjoy it, too.

Question: What change(s) do you want to make your agency’s sales process?

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