Should your agency’s sales function be founder-led or team-led?

December 12, 2023

When it comes to growing an agency, as the founder, it can be challenging to determine how hands-on or hands-off you should be in acquiring new clients. Should you take charge, or is it someone else’s responsibility? Before delving into what agencies should be doing, it’s crucial to differentiate what sales is and what it isn’t.


Many founders start businesses because they want to do more of the work they love. They leave established agencies to make it on their own. However, having never run a business before, the first instinct is often to reach out to their immediate network, including friends, family, past colleagues, old clients, and LinkedIn connections, to pitch their business. This approach helps validate the proposition in the market and refine the offering. Sales start to come in, and referrals grow. In the short term, this method appears effective and fruitful.


The reality is that this approach, while seemingly a good starting point, can be a double-edged sword. It’s a gift because it generates some revenue, but it can also be a curse because it gives a false sense of security in perceived sustainable sales.


The cracks in this strategy usually become visible around three to five years into the business journey. This is when new business starts to slow down, and referrals become less frequent. Panic sets in. What should you do now? You’ve tapped your network to its limit, and going back to the same people isn’t an option. The pressure intensifies, especially when you’ve hired staff during the ‘sales boom’ phase, and now you’re responsible for others’ livelihoods and financial well-being. The need for more sales becomes a pressing demand, creating stress and a sense of desperation as it becomes a necessity.


The key distinction between this approach and what truly works is the need for a sustainable sales strategy. Ideally, it’s better to hit the ground running from day one, but life never goes to plan. If you find yourself reading this and kicking yourself because you’re well into your fourth year with your agency and recognise the scenario I’ve described, don’t fret. It’s never too late to develop and integrate more sustainable habits into your business, redirecting your path toward a more promising future.


The challenge with an unsustainable sales scenario is its heavy reliance on a single person, often you—the founder—who holds the entire vision, charges for services, and sells the concept, leaving the rest of the team in the dark. But what happens when you’ve exhausted your personal network and need to scale? How do you get your team on board to sell effectively? The critical issue here is that vital components such as the business vision and strategy exist solely in your mind; they’re not documented, and no processes have been created to make the system duplicatable. This marks a significant turning point where your agency needs to shift its approach.


This focus needs to fall into three critical avenues:

  • Developing a founder-led strategy
  • Fostering a collaborative culture and creating a self-motivated workforce
  • Making time for and investing in your agency with the same priority as a client


Developing a founder-led strategy


You will always naturally be your biggest and best advocate because you’re so passionate about your concept. But it’s easy to forget that not everyone else will communicate the same way you will about your business. What you’ve created is your life, it’s in your blood, it’s everything to you, it’s your entire income. It’s not a job, it’s your heart and soul that’s been poured bringing it to life.


Passion is one of the biggest foundations of a successful salesperson, and when it comes to passion for your own business, it’s impossible to replicate for the same reasons. And when you’re combining that passion with who you’re pitching to, these are likely people who know, like, and trust you. They’re not fully analysing what you do as an agency as much as they might if they didn’t know you because they trust you. Unfortunately, this creates a false sense of security. Commercially, it’s a death sentence to your pipeline.


The other side of this accidental complacency is that it’s a shock when it comes to investing in real infrastructure. If you’ve got by for four years surviving but not thriving on not much budget, and all of a sudden you have a substantial outlay to get things where they need to be, it’s going to be a big shock to the system. As a business, you got comfortable, and now you need to invest in what it takes to build a sustainable and successful sales ecosystem using the right systems and processes.


To counterbalance the false sense of security that can arise from years of selling to existing connections, it’s crucial to shift your focus towards a sustainable sales strategy, which includes a clear founder-led vision. This vision should involve working hard to define your agency’s positioning in the market and being ruthless in your focus. By having greater clarity on your audience, the best service, and the value you bring, you can more effectively communicate your vision to your team and inspire them to work towards your goals.


Fostering a collaborative culture and self-motivated workforce


Sales is a culture, not just a job, and it involves various facets that make up a business. Your digital channels, online presence, offline efforts, the reputation of your team, and the relationships your business creates all intermingle. To succeed, it’s essential to communicate your vision effectively to your staff, inspiring them to work towards your goals. Your team needs to know where you’re going and how to get there, or motivation will be lacking, and the business will drift.


Your vision for your company shouldn’t solely revolve around financial gain; it should aim to inspire your team, clients, and prospects to be part of something bigger than themselves. When you define your purpose, and the impact you want to make on the world, you start to attract the people who want to be part of that journey. This is how you harness passion from your team to drive your business, and when everyone sees it as their responsibility to grow the company, it thrives. 


Making time for and investing in your agency with the same priority as a client


It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling subservient to clients and working above and beyond their needs. However, you are also a client of your agency. To counterbalance this, get into the habit of dedicating 10-20% of your agency’s operational time to your own business. Create processes for yourself and your team to ensure your agency’s growth and sustainability, just as you do for your clients. This approach ensures a consistent pipeline and prevents your business from relying solely on your efforts.


Finally, it’s important to decide whether you want to be the one delivering the work or steering the ship. As the founder, you should focus on leading, setting the vision, inspiring your team, and onboarding clients. Delegating and allowing others to take ownership are necessary steps for your company to grow. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses and building a team to support those areas is key to successful agency management.


Regardless of how you organise your team, you need someone focusing on the present and someone thinking about the future in line with your vision. Both roles need to exist for your sales to thrive. Choose which one you want to be and delegate the other. The earlier you shift your focus toward a sustainable sales strategy, the better, and it’s never too late to develop these habits and redirect your agency towards a more successful future.