In the past year and a half, Growth Machine has billed about $1.6M in work across 44 projects, and our inbound interest has steadily grown to around 60 leads per month.
So far, I’ve been doing all of the sales myself. But we’re quickly reaching the point where that’s unsustainable, which is why we’re hiring our first sales rep.
I’m not much of a salesperson, and I’ve never done it before Growth Machine, so I’m excited to see how our new rep overhauls and improves the process.
But before that happens, I thought it’d be fun to share the process that’s gotten us to this point, and how I’ve systematized a lot of it to make it easier for me to manage in less than 10 hours per week.
I’ve been giving away free articles and resources on SEO and content marketing for four years now, and that’s the best investment I ever made.
Almost everyone who reaches out heard about us from one of three places:
But really, all of this inbound comes from being loud about what we’re doing.
No one will remember to refer us to potential clients if they don’t periodically get reminded that we exist and are good at what we do.
No one will feature us in their work if they don’t have good examples and reasons to feature us.
And so it’s most accurate to say that all our leads stem from #3: sharing what we’re doing and our success doing it.
We do this a lot of different ways:
The best example of this has probably been our work on Cup & Leaf. Having a case study that we can talk about in much more depth than we can discuss what we do for our clients has been invaluable for showing how our process works and how fast we can grow a site in the right niche.
All of this content exists to encourage people who want SEO or content marketing work to reach out to us, or to refer other people to work with us. And it’s because of this content that we haven’t had to do any serious outbound sales throughout the life of the company.
It’s also why I’m comfortable writing this article and giving away our entire process. There are no hacks, no secret sales processes, just lots and lots of content.
On the one hand, that might be disappointing to a new agency owner since it means you can’t just copy and paste our process.
But if you put in the work to build up a reputation through free content, there’s no reason you can’t get similar amounts of inbound over time.
Getting interest is just the first step though. What happens when someone decides they want to reach out to us?
Once someone wants to work with us, they usually go to our homepage and fill out our contact form.
The contact form asks a few questions:
The most important question here is their marketing budget. We give them a few options to choose from (it’s not an open ended question) so that we can quickly filter out companies that can’t afford to work with us:
This automation does a few extremely useful things:
Occasionally, someone will get caught in this filter who shouldn’t be there, but they usually reach out and let us know that they do actually have the budget to work together and the conversation goes from there.
For the leads who do have the budget work with us, Zapier creates a new Deal for them in our Pipedrive account with all their info:
And sends an alert to our #sales Slack channel:
This doesn’t have much practical value, but I think it’s fun for the team to see who’s reaching out to us.
Once they’re in our Pipedrive, the real sales process starts.
Our pipeline has six main stages:
Even if someone passes our budget filter, we still need to look at their site a bit and make sure they’d be a good fit before we reach out to schedule a call with them.
There are a few reasons we might disqualify someone at this stage:
If it’s #1, we just send them a polite no. If it’s #2 or #3, we usually reach out and say we can’t work with them but that we’d be happy to intro them to another agency that might be able to.
Sometimes we get pushback, especially on #3. And I’ve been wrong in my assessment of this before: sometimes a client has an idea for a content angle I didn’t think of, and then we go ahead and hop on a call. But in most cases, companies appreciate the honesty here and are more than happy to take a referral to someone else.
If a site is a good fit, then the next step is usually to schedule a call. I like using Calendly for this so I send them an email template inviting them to schedule a call in the next week or two:
The “Initial Contact” stage of our pipeline is mostly to track people who never end up scheduling a call. Sometimes it takes two or three follow ups, or they have some questions before they get on the phone, so I hold leads here until there’s an actual meeting arranged.
Pipedrive is pretty good about making sure you always have a “next task” for each lead and a due date assigned for it, which makes it easy to tell where I need to take action on the pipeline. Anyone I need to follow up with will have a red “alert” symbol. Otherwise, they just chill here until they schedule a meeting.
This is another holding spot, mostly so I have a visual cue for who has already scheduled a meeting and who I’m still waiting on. Once someone is in this stage, I add a task to follow up with them after the scheduled call time so I don’t forget.
On the actual call, I usually go over the same few things with them. I ask about their site, how they found us, and why they’re interested in content and SEO. Then I explain how we work, and our two main buckets of services (content creation and link building).
I usually mention which one I think is the better fit for them, then go over how we do it and what our projects typically look like. I cover pricing on the initial call, too, since we have very standard packages and I want to know if it’s going to be within their range or not.
A certain number will fall off here, usually because they were expecting to pay a lot less. But other times companies will be open to hearing why it’s worth paying more than you’d pay on a site like UpWork to get it done well. In a number of cases we’ve been 2-3x the price a company was initially expecting, but then after this call they understand the value and end up working with us anyway. So it’s not always an immediate disqualification.
If either of us decides at the end of the call that we’re not good fits for each other, then I remove them from the pipeline. Otherwise, I finish taking notes on them and move them to the “Needs Defined” stage to start working on their proposal.
After the meeting, making a proposal is usually pretty quick. But in case it takes a bit longer than normal, I use this column as another holding spot to remind me who still needs a proposal from their call.
Our proposal is pretty simple, you can see the template here. We’ve used a boring Google Doc like that one from Day 1, and it’s been fine for everything from $4,000 mini deals with new blogs, to $50,000+ deals with billion-dollar companies.
I keep meaning to spruce it up and make it prettier and more professional, but people seem to appreciate the simplicity, and it doesn’t seem to hurt our close rate, so maybe that’s not a big deal.
Once I’ve customized the proposal and sent it off to them, I hold them in this column while I wait for their initial response and see if I need to follow up.
Sometimes, they just have a couple questions, and we go ahead and get things signed right away. Other times, they want to know more about the process, see some writing samples, things like that, in which case we move them to the last column:
This column is a bit of a misnomer since we don’t actually negotiate. Our prices for our basic packages are fixed, and we don’t discount them. This column is more for answering the questions they have, figuring out the best package, and giving them time to talk to their team.
This is also where we have the most variance in how long a lead stays active. We’ve had a couple clients who we talked to for over a year before working with them, and we’ve had others who sign the same week they reach out. There’s a huge range in how long our sales cycle might take, so this is the best holding spot for someone who has received a proposal and we’re having on-going conversations with.
That process covers ~95% of the leads we get. Sometimes there’s a special case, like when a friend wants to work with us or we get a very warm referral, but most clients we work with go through some form of this process.
The last part is the handoff. Bringing someone into the agency once they’ve signed with us.
Our client projects are run by Nora (our director of strategy) and Luke (our director of SEO), and future ones will be run by our first Project Manager hire. So once someone has signed, they need to be introduced to the person who will be running their project.
If it’s a link building project, Luke will typically set up a call with them during the first day of their project to introduce himself, go over the process, and answer any questions they might have.
If it’s a full content and link building project, Nora will set up a call with them where she goes over the process, answers any questions, and introduces the rest of the team working on their project.
I’m of course always there to answer questions or be useful as things come up, but Nora and Luke are the real experts at implementing the processes we’ve come up with so they take over as the point persons.
This process has worked well for the last year and a half, but there’s definitely room for improvement.
If you’re experienced in sales and want to come take over this process, make it your own, and potentially grow into our future head of sales role, I’d love to hear from you.
Or if you know someone you think would get excited about that opportunity, I’d love it if you sent them our way!
We’re excited to be hiring for sales for the first time, and to see where this process goes over the next year.