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A Mantra for Digital Marketing Consultants: Always Be Consulting

May 17, 2017

One of my favourite films is Glengarry Glen Ross, a film about boiler room real estate salesmen featuring an all-star cast of Al Pacino, Kevin Spacy, Jack Lemon, Ed Harris and Alec Baldwin. Baldwin, the trainer sent in by corporate to motivate the sales team with a big stick, delivers a badass speech which for years since has been force-fed by sales managers to new recruits as part of their inductions, building to the cult-like line “ABC: Always Be Closing!”


Unfortunately, too many agencies in the digital marketing and technology industry seem to have taken this film literally with an excessive focus on getting clients to “sign on the line that is dotted” instead of developing a quality consulting relationship with their clients.

At Venture Stream, we have a different take on the concept of ABC which is more along the lines of Always-Be-Consulting.  When Digital Director Marty Hayes joined as Venture Stream’s first staff member in 2013 I mentioned in his induction that I’d like us to always pick up the phone with clients, which wasn’t the only thing that mattered but was symbolic of a commitment to service in how I wanted us to run the business towards becoming great consultants.

Fast-forward and in less than 3 years, Venture Stream has become a leading ecommerce and digital marketing consultancy working with some great brands ranging from start-ups to leaders on the High Street and abroad. We’ve reached £1 million in billings and our team has grown to 17 strong.   There’s not much we can’t or don’t do when it comes to ecommerce or digital marketing ranging from building online shops from the ground up, integrating with all beasts of accounting and fulfilment systems, to masterminding budget beating digital marketing campaigns across every channel – email, PPC, SEO, affiliate marketing, social media, external marketplaces etc.

But it’s not just what we do but how we do it that often matters most in achieving success working with clients.  If we had an ABC handbook, these would be a few examples of how we endeavour to “always be consulting”:

Before we are hired

HR managers say the best path to a promotion is to take the initiative to perform the job you aspire to and the promotion will follow e.g. if you want to become a manager, start working like one.  We take the same approach to winning new business:

  • Our website as a service – The first time a prospective client engages with us is typically visiting our website where we’ve packed useful information as both insights into know-how but also as information a business can utilise without even hiring us. For example, we have a great guide on PPC management which visitors can download for free   Try to be as helpful as possible as early as possible in forging a new consulting relationship.
  • Free audits and consultations – As the first step in working with potential new clients, we always look under the hood of their digital / ecommerce business to audit the quality of the existing website and digital marketing activities. If we can gain access to Google Analytics and other digital marketing systems e.g., Google Adwords, we can start consulting to clients on their unique business not just sell them on a generic approach.  And our initial audits always involve a consulting presentation by a real live person!  If a client would like us to expand on the free audit and initial consultation before committing to a longer relationship we offer expanded scope audits and initial consultations  We’ve received great feedback on the quality of our initial audits and consultations, that they are a fantastic launch-pad for a new consulting relationship – both as insight into our digital marketing skills and hands-on, open style of working.
  • Honest, constructive feedback on client briefs – It’s great to receive a clear client brief for new work. Being a good consultant doesn’t mean you just provide a proposal and quote for service even if you do provide a detailed work plan with clear objectives.  If you think there’s a better approach to achieve results, it’s important to share your views with the client before you sign on the line that is dotted.  Always maintain a constructive tone, as you don’t want to cross the line in the critique of a client’s plans.  And don’t take budgets for granted.  We’ve been in situations where we advised prospective clients to spend less than their budget to help prove an earlier return on investment towards making the case for wider investment in the future.

During the paid engagement

We tend to work with clients for a long time once we’re on board together. My first 2 clients from 5 years ago when Venture Stream was me as a sole trader are both with us still today and our new clients typically commit to working with us for at least a year from the outset.  With that commitment comes responsibility:

  • Taking strategic initiative – Every half-decent digital marketing agency provides client reporting but most are no more than a representation of data from Google Analytics or Google Adwords. At the start of every client engagement, we consult to develop a digital / ecommerce growth plan and corresponding KPI reporting framework tailored to the client’s business. Throughout a client engagement, it’s not only important to provide reporting data but also to present and debate reports in meetings to discuss insights and strategies. It’s our job as consultants to take initiative to spot the emerging issues and trends, act on them if within our remit, and communicate them to our clients towards refining campaigns and formulating future strategies.
  • Seeing the forest through the trees – There are some amazing tools for managing digital marketing campaigns. I personally lost probably a couple years sleep in my life in optimising negative keywords and bids on Google PPC campaigns into the wee hours of the night. The power and complexity of digital marketing tools can lead us to overly focus on them as black boxes. Remember, the Managing Director of a business doesn’t primarily care if their PPC channel is achieving an amazing ROI, they mainly want to know if their total marketing investment is being managed towards its highest and best use. So being a good digital consultant means being aware of channel management blind spots at a time of increasingly complex customer behaviour. For example, it’s important to understand multi-touch attribution analysing all the different channels (e.g., the customer clicks on a paid ad, but visits again after visiting a cash-back affiliate site) leading to a customer action be it a sale, lead generation etc. From an overall marketing strategy perspective, we help clients optimise the performance of marketing activities and websites proportionately across channels and the customer life cycle. For example, sometimes the best marketing investment is an improvement in part of the website. Even if you’re only consulting on a specific marketing channel, digital marketing consultants should still endeavour to consult on the wider picture as sometimes less is more for the area in question.
  • Embrace old school and new school communications – There have never been more technology-enabled modes of communication with clients which can be particularly beneficial to digital consultants – the myriad of document, project, ticket and task management systems make it easier to be transparent, responsive and accountable with our clients – some of the ones we use include Google Drive, Slack, Teamwork, and Float. But consultants are people, not robots and need to be wary of email and online tools being used to excess in lieu of good old fashioned meetings involving real human beings! We strive for regular meetings with all our clients, sometimes face-to-face other times via phone or Skype calls, essential to providing a true consulting service. If in doubt about a client communication, you should always pick up the phone and call.
  • Be there 24×7 – The business of ecommerce never sleeps so why should our service? Part of our business is supporting client websites, so if there’s a problem after hours or over the weekend we’re on call to help. As marketing campaigns are always running, if a client needs us to change a PPC campaign on a Saturday night we’re on the case. Part of the job of a good consultant is to be there when full-time staff are not – so be there 24×7!
  • Knowledge Transfer – Richard Branson is quoted as saying “train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” A good digital marketing agency should aspire to this ideal internally and relative to its clients as it’s not just our job to be the experts but also to help our clients become more self-sufficient in areas of digital marketing. Venture Stream provides formal and informal training to our clients at all levels of the organisation from specialist digital roles to management and Board level mentoring. We sometimes even help with internal recruitment. An ideal consulting relationship achieves a healthy balance between the work and management of the client and the consultant.

After a potential or paying client leaves  

Not all prospective clients become paying clients and sometimes clients leave. It could be the service didn’t meet client expectations, budgets tightened after the client encountered financial difficulties, or merely the client decided to try something new. Prospective clients often encourage us to stay in touch, which helps in revisiting opportunities of working together in the future. Updating a previous audit can help benchmark progress since our previous discussion with a prospective client.

Last year one of our largest clients decided to switch agencies after years working with us – we had achieved strong results but the client decided to try a different approach which in this case involved hiring new internal staff and one of the largest digital agencies in the UK.  We never stopped consulting helping the client during the transition to the new agency. When the new agency ran into recurring problems implementing the new ecommerce system, we offered a free consultation to help the client manage through the situation and propose alternative solutions. Venture Stream was subsequently rehired as the single digital agency serving our long-standing client, and it’s like we never stopped consulting in the first place.

A Word on Internal Culture

Over the years, I’ve met some of the smartest people in the consulting industry but also some of the most arrogant. In developing consulting relationships, it’s essential to be respectful and ethical.  In an environment where much of a consultant’s work is delivered remotely from the client’s offices, use the “fly on the wall” test in how you speak about your client behind closed doors by acting with humility. It’s OK to have a little friendly client-consultant banter, but when expressing differences in opinions amongst colleagues ask yourself how the Managing Director of your client would feel if they sat across from you in the office. Seek to take the high ground – be positive and classy in how you communicate and conduct yourself as a consultant.  If we get it right as consultants, we will be valued as an extension of the client’s own team.

At Venture Stream, we’re not perfect but we always strive to be better as ecommerce and digital marketing consultants.  If you want to join us as either a client or consultant, we’d love to hear from you.

Written by Vic

Vic is CEO and founder of Venture Stream. A digital entrepreneur with a heart, US-UK cross ponder, Harvard graduate and aspiring park ranger.

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