How to Get Better Buyers by Focusing on Their Problems, with Karl Sakas

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Consultant to agencies, Karl Sakas [credit: Karl Sakas]

I recently ran into an idea so simple and powerful that I had to interview the man behind it, consultant to agencies Karl Sakas.

I’m always on the hunt for new and better ideas regarding running a better agency or freelance business. One of my water holes is the Grow Your Agency Slack channel where I participate from time to time. It was there that I ran across Karl Sakas suggesting this simple idea. I liked the idea so much that I asked Karl for an interview so he could unpack it for us and explain what makes it so potent.

Note: I’ve taken the liberty to add some links to other posts on this blog for those wishing to learn more. These additions of mine are clearly marked as such, inside brackets and in italics.

Stop Talking About Services, Talk About Problems Instead

Jakob: This interview was inspired by something you posted in a chat room for agencies: “Consider shifting your site’s focus from Services (what you do) to the problems your prospective clients are experiencing (“Problems We Solve” or similar).” and I thought it was an insight that more agencies should learn from. Why is this so important and what are the benefits of doing so?

Karl: This is about an important mindset shift—toward putting your clients first [see being passionate about client needs]. Your website and other self-marketing are merely indicators of that shift.

Specifically, focus your self-marketing on the problems you solve for clients [see value-based pricing]—not the services you provide. The shift is a version of highlighting benefits (solutions to client problems) over features (how you charge money to solve those problems).

For instance, clients don’t pay for SEO or PPC because they inherently value SEM services—they buy SEM because they want leads. They don’t buy branding or video services for their own sake—they’re trying to accomplish a business goal (and often a personal goal, too) [see this post on before-during-after, BDA, as a way to analyze client goals and needs].

From 2013-2017, my website primarily featured the services I provide—consulting and coaching for agencies. In 2017, I redesigned the site to focus on the problems I solved: agency business strategy, managing clients, managing teams, and attracting your ideal clients. This radically changed the sales inquiries I received—including less self-diagnosis from prospective clients.

That doesn’t mean completely eliminating the “Services” section from your website—but consider that “Services” tends to attract people who’ve already self-diagnosed their problem. They tend to be implementation-oriented, rather than clients who want strategic advice. The focus on commoditized services typically means lower profits and more frustration for you and your team. [see this post on what to consider when adopting value-based pricing as a way to avoid commoditization]

More profits mean you’ll reach your financial goals sooner, and reaching your financial goals helps give you the freedom you want as an agency owner.

Agencies Need to Help Market Themselves, Not Just Their Clients

Jakob: Expanding on the previous answer, what, in your opinion, are the most common mistakes digital agencies make when it comes to marketing themselves?

Karl: Three things—lack of consistency, failure to effectively use client-facing services for themselves, and an unwillingness to be unique.

First, agencies are failing to do consistent self-marketing. If you haven’t updated your blog in over a month or posted to Twitter in a couple of days, something went wrong.

If your own marketing looks “unloved,” why should clients trust you with their marketing? Sophisticated clients may understand that agencies tend to prioritize clients’ marketing over self-marketing, but the “shoemakers kids” problem hurts you regardless.

Second, agencies often aren’t using their own services for themselves. When an agency owner asks me for ideas to market their agency, I start by asking about their target persona(s) and then ask whether the agency is using their client-facing services for self-marketing. The answer is too-frequently “No.”

Third, when agencies are doing consistent self-marketing, it’s often bland. The world doesn’t need another “Top 5 Pinterest tips” article. Ideally, your content marketing is about topics your audience cares about, your unique angle on those topics, and your agency’s unique spin on that combination.

Why Agencies Risk Becoming Irrelevant

Jakob: From your point of view as a management consultant to agencies, looking beyond the scope of marketing, what kind of challenges do you see digital agencies facing today? How do they address them?

Karl: Your clients have options. You’ll become increasingly irrelevant if you aren’t a client industry specialist if you can’t provide help in higher-value strategy tiers [see our post about repositioning to learn how an agency can sell strategy to existing clients], and if you can’t help them on revenue attribution.

That’s not to say you’ll go out of business if you don’t immediately address all three, but it’s a slow march toward “meh”—and I assume your goals don’t include “meh.”

What Agencies Need to Do to Stay Relevant

Jakob: Where do you see digital agencies heading the in the next 3 to 5 years? What could owners and executives do to better face that future?

Karl: Decide on the type of agency you want to run. This includes writing an Advance Retrospective about your ideal future so you can work backward to get there. This also includes identifying your preferred Growth Style—do you want to build an Equity agency, or is a Lifestyle agency a better fit?

Figure out revenue attribution. I run a mastermind group for CMOs at companies ranging from $10 million to billions in revenue. They’re all talking about attribution, yet I rarely hear agencies address the topic. Your clients are likely to eventually leave for any competing agency who can help them there.

Choose the right agency structure. It’s important that your staffing model gives you the flexibility you need, based on where you are today and where you’re headed. This may include a combination of ‘pods’ dedicated to certain clients, freelancers who help with ‘surges’ in demand or in new areas, and admin support to help you focus on your “$1,000/hour” activities.

How to Get in Touch With Karl

Jakob: For those interesting in learning more or working with you, how can they get in touch with you?

Karl: Visit SakasAndCompany.com for hundreds of free articles on agency management plus free weekly tips. My boutique consulting and coaching focuses on managing growing pains at independent agencies. For those who don’t want hands-on help, I recently launched an Agency Resource Library of tools, templates, and other time-saving resources.

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Author: Jakob Persson

Jakob is a co-founder and the CEO of Zingsight, the company behind Bondsai. He's been involved with the web for over twenty years and has previously co-founded and grown a web agency from 4 to 70 people. Jakob has bachelor's degrees in media technology and cognitive science. He consults in product design and management, and business development. He's an experienced skier and a learning scuba diver.