Ep 92: The Serve Don’t Sell Approach, with Liston Witherill

Mar 10, 2021

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The Serve Don’t Sell Approach, with Liston Witherill

On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Liston Witherill discuss how agency leaders can serve their prospective and existing clients with a diverse content mix that’s rooted in relevance and integrity.

Feedback always welcome! Questions for Kelly and/or guests? Want to suggest a guest or show topic? Cool. Just email

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EP 92: The Serve Don’t Sell Approach

Duration: 30:21


Kelly: So welcome back to Thrive, your agency resource. I’d like you all to meet Liston Witherill, a sales trainer and consultant who helps service-based companies to serve not sell to the ideal clients that they want to be working with. He’s also the host of the Modern Sales Podcast. And he was kind enough to have me keynote client con, one of the days back in October of 2020. Liston, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m really, really excited to have this conversation with you.

Liston: Thanks for having me. It’s my pleasure.

Kelly: So we were connected a little bit before the show. And we were joking around a little bit, because we’re both in some ways consulting on business development, and pipeline and all of that. And you said something really funny. Most people don’t think that they have a sales problem. They think that it’s like an issue with their pipeline. And I would love for you to start out by kind of expanding upon that.

Liston: Yeah. So well, where should I start? So I think that if you kind of trace the trajectory of the average agency owner, often they either worked in house somewhere and they had a great client or three, and they left and those clients weren’t with them. Or maybe they were working in house at a company, they left that company, and that became their first client. They kind of had a fast track to be an agency of record. There was a network effect built into what they were doing.

Kelly: That’s right.

Liston: And that, for a lot of people, for most people, the majority, will not sustain a business. And certainly you have very little control over what’s going to happen in terms of referrals and word of mouth. And so if you want to build your business in a more intentional way, you need other sources. So I think that’s one of the first places where people say, I’ve got a pipeline problem, if I just had more opportunities. Now, I was actually talking to someone the other day, and he was sort of bragging about the fact that he closed over 50% of the deals that came to him. And to that I always respond, you don’t have enough opportunities then. And he was sort of taken aback. And he’s like, well, what do you mean? And I said, well, if you’re closing that many opportunities, it’s probably a sign that you’re not taking enough risk in your marketing and your sales.

Kelly: That’s interesting.

Liston: Because you’re basically only addressing people who you think for sure will close. And so I think that’s kind of the first thing, is a lot of agencies don’t see themselves as being in sales or having even a sales function. They use euphemisms for it. So we just have conversations with potential partners, something like that. And I always say, well walk me through how that works. Well, we meet. I ask them some questions to see if we can help them. Then we put together a proposal and we review it together. And then there’s a small negotiation. And I’m like, so that’s not sales. And they’re like, oh, no, no, no, no.

Kelly: We’re not salespeople, please.

Liston: Right. Yeah, if I don’t have sales in my title, I can’t be doing sales. I think it’s kind of the prevailing feeling. And as a result of that, they always think, well, if I just had more pipeline, that would be the answer to all of my revenue problems. But I think, I guess, there can be a semantic question here of like, what sales and what’s marketing? But certainly what I find is a lot of people who get opportunities that they quickly disqualify have no process to nurture them to the point of being a mature opportunity that once again, they can start that sales process all over again. So that may be a little bit of a complicated answer. But that’s what I see is from founding to the self-identity, part of like, I’m not in sales. I just have conversations. That’s why a lot of people think that I have pipeline problems.

Kelly: Yeah, it’s so interesting. And I would say that the vast majority of agencies that I work with all fall into that same, I don’t know, sandpit, I guess, you could call it up, like we are 100% or 99% reliant on referrals. The networks of the leaders of this organization, we are tapping them, we’re tapping their agencies, or clients that they used to work with, or their personal networks or what have you. And at some point, there is capacity to that, like a network can be very expensive, but there’s a capacity to that. So you have to do other things. But just sticking with the idea of networking for a second, you have I think some great things to talk about in terms of habit formation, when we’re talking about networking and how it relates to business development. So I’d love to kind of pop over there in the conversation.

Liston: So for anybody listening to this, what I’d like you to do right now is take stock of what habits or regular activities you have that are building your network. And you can think about that on several dimensions. So the obvious one is reaching out to potential clients that you can help. But I also mean, industry thought leaders, potential partners, or vendors that you could be working with, event planners or coordinators, maybe even doing your own events, or even dare I say, a podcast, all of these little things add up over time. And that’s what really makes your network grow in an intentional way. And so, I challenge you to think about what are those activities that you’re executing regularly. And what I find is a lot of people say, almost none. I post on LinkedIn every quarter something like that or I send a newsletter every now and again. But that doesn’t count. And when I think about habit formation, there’s this great book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which is now pretty old; I think, eight or nine years old. But it builds on the work of B.J. Fogg who talks all about habit formation. And really, it’s trigger, routine, reward. That’s what they call the habit loop. And so building in a trigger is really important if you want to create a networking habit. And that trigger can be at 4pm every day I reach out to at least two people for various reasons. That could be your trigger. Another trigger could be, I produce a podcast every week. And so, I need to interview someone. Another trigger could be, every month I want to attend an event or plan an event, a webinar, or something like that. Building something like that in and having accountability at the level of your revenue growth plan, I think is really important in order to start to build that habit. And then you can look at, did I achieve it or not? Most measures say that it takes about 60 days, depending on who you believe the research is, not definitive on this topic. But it takes about 60 days to build a habit. And so in terms of work days, that’s 12 weeks, 5 work days every week, assuming you’re not working 80 hours, listening to Kelly more if you are. But assuming you’re working a regular workweek, that’s going to take about 12 weeks to do that. And so that fits nicely into having a quarterly plan that you can start to execute and making this more of a routine thing, where you’re doing it in little bursts, 5, 10, 20 minutes a day, rather than sitting down and go, I’m gonna spend all day building my network and then not touch it again, which is how much most people approach diet and exercise.

Kelly: That’s right. I mean, that’s such a great point. And really, what we’re talking about here is, like you’re talking about it from the standpoint of habit formation. But we’re also talking about it from the standpoint of like diversifying your business development mix, which is something that a lot of people just don’t. They don’t do it. They don’t really invest in it. So when we say diversifying the business development mix, it’s like, when are you speaking? When are you getting on keynoting client con for a day? Or when are you doing a webinar? Are you doing any outbound account based marketing? How is your SEO looking on your own website? I mean, that is the redheaded stepchild of the agency world, like all of their own sites are just pretty poor. I mean, even ones that focus on search engine optimization. And the list goes on. Podcasts, we talked about that a little bit, which we’ll get into in a minute. There are so many ways in order to amplify your visibility, and add to the top of that funnel. So I want to talk a little bit about that, because that to me is sort of the antidote to this idea that relying on referrals as your predominant business development source is just not sustainable back to what you said before.

Liston: Yeah. And I think about the marketing mix as a two by two because every great topic in business needs a two by two. And so, I think about push and pull, right? So push would be outbound cold or warm email, depending on your preferred way of thinking about it, or you’re choosing who you want to contact. And then after you do this for two, three months, you should be able to determine, hey, when I put in this amount of effort, I get this many conversations.

Kelly: Or when I use this language, I get this many conversations.

Liston: Yeah. Okay. All right, you’re keeping me honest. Just let the record reflect. I think the way you message and especially the way you approach people and how much research you put into it is critically important. But I was just sort of assuming people knew that.

Kelly: I wish that they did. I maybe out of business, but I wish that they did.

Liston: And then so push, pull, right? So that sort of outbound would be the classic example of pushing and pulling would be SEO. People are searching for something online. If you rank in the results of something that’s relevant to their search, they come to your website, and they go, oh, this is interesting, I should learn more about them. So that’s the difference between push and pull. And then there’s mechanical versus organic. So organic, again, SEO would be the classic pull organic channel. But mechanical is also pretty important. So by mechanical, I mean, paid advertising. We talked in the pre-show about account based marketing where, if you only like to work with giant companies, we’re gonna prioritize 100 or 200 accounts for the entire year, and all of our marketing and sales budget will go into that. That would be one way of doing a mechanical push, but having something where you have more control than the typical business development plan for an agency, which is just do great work, and great things will happen to us. And while that does work for some people, it’s not a great business strategy, because you have so little control over it.

Kelly: Yeah. And I want to highlight that for those who are lucky enough to have that work for them, it’s not luck. It’s not luck at all, because they probably had a previous relationship. Or if you actually look under the hood at their agency, one account might be representing 80% of their revenue. And they’re just landing and expanding and growing business inside of one large account. Whereas you can see the obvious issues with, what happened if that account were to leave or if they were to pull back budget. So there’s some sustainability issues with that as well.

Liston: Well, you’ve now touched on something that I think may merit a separate podcast recording. Maybe I’ll have you on to talk about the role of luck and how much we can attribute to luck. But what I find is the sort of standard line of do great work and good things will follow. There’s a survivorship bias in there, or confirmation bias, where the people who that works for will tell you, this is the best strategy, just do this because it worked for me, just like anything else you see online. Everybody who has an opinion about what you should do is typically selling something related to that, or it’s worked for them. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to replicate it. And, when we talk about marketing mix, I think about diversifying your stock portfolio. You wouldn’t put all of your money into one single company. You’d put a little bit into index funds and a little bit into dividend paying stocks, and maybe place a few individual bets on companies that you think are really going to grow or have an advantage. But you wouldn’t put it all into one single place that’s dependent on movement in one area. And that’s sort of the equivalent of the do great work and great things will follow kind of business strategy.

Kelly: And just to touch back on what we were talking about before with regard to podcasts. So podcasts obviously, I think that’s one of the most relevant things that we can talk about from a business development standpoint. Some agency owners are starting to understand that getting booked on podcasts can amplify their visibility that can add to and create some thought leadership content that they can then extend into their social media channels and all these different things. What should people keep in mind, in your opinion, as they’re thinking about trying to get booked on podcast or even potentially creating a podcast for their own company, for their own agency?

Liston: So those are very different things. So I think the advantage of being a guest on a podcast is you get access to an audience someone else has already put the painstaking work into building. You also get their conveying credibility through the transitive property. Their listeners go to them and think that they have great taste in people and guests. And so when you show up in that feed, de facto, you get a level of trust that’s assigned to you based on their perception of the host. So all of that is conveyed as a guest. And overall, it’s much less work to be a guest than to produce your own show. I can tell you from experience. So I have a popular podcast that now I think we’re up to about 150 episodes. I’ve been doing it for around three years. And it’s a lot of work if you want to do it well. So I would hold off on making that commitment unless you really are committed to doing at least a season, 12 to 20 episodes to see if it works for you. So being a guest allows you to, as you said Kelly, amplify your message. But it also allows you to skip a lot of the work that goes into the production, the promotion, putting it up on a website. The host does all of that. So that’s great. What a lot of people will get wrong is they think, well, if I just show up on a show, and I’m somewhat interesting, then people will reach out to me. And that has not been my experience. Maybe yours is different. But my experience is if I show up with a short message, and I have a call to action that’s associated with what I talked about, that’s going to produce much more interest in what I’m doing. And that will, from a sort of getting the word out, kind of missionary style approach, that’s going to be the most effective. So would it make sense to talk about why you should start your own podcast?

Kelly: Yeah. I mean, we could talk about that, because I think that that really fits into this idea of additional business development channels. I think you started your podcast, probably for the same reason I started my podcast two and a half years ago, which was, I wanted to have conversations with agency owners. And so for me, it was two-fold. I did it initially as a business development tool. And then once I attracted a sponsor for that, I looked at it differently. I looked at it more as creating value add content for people who may never be my clients. But please, yeah, talk a little bit about that. Because I think that with the surge of podcasts now, probably even greater, during the pandemic, people are listening more and more and more. You see a ton of companies that are coming out as podcast production and management firms. So they’re realizing that this is pretty swelling industry. But yeah, what would you advise if an agency was thinking about having their own podcasts? I’m seeing it pop up all over the place now.

Liston: So the first thing I would say is get clear about what your goals are. So most people I talked to who, individually absent in any conversation with me or thinking about starting a podcast, have these visions of building a loyal audience who hangs on every word and shows up to hear what they have to say. And my feedback on that is don’t start a podcast if you want to develop a giant audience. Now, podcasting still has a lot of growth to go in terms of listenership, in terms of how many shows will be available. So there’s already an oversupply. But that’s going to get worse. So it’s actually still a pretty good time to start a podcast. But generally, for agency owners, what I would say is, the main advantage is you get to interview people who otherwise may be inaccessible to you. And so, as you said, Kelly, it’s great to have your ideal clients on the show, and talk to them about what they’re going through. So if you’re an SEO firm, and you work with, of course, SaaS companies don’t do that. First of all, change your positioning, if you’re doing that. But let’s say you’re an SEO company, working with SaaS firms, you would want to have on marketers and SaaS firm owners who talk about where they’re getting traffic, what are some of the problems with that, what are their growth plans, and kind of start to build a picture of where you can fit in. But that can also lead to a discovery call where afterwards you can say, hey, by the way, I can help you address some of these things you talked about. Would you like to talk about that separately? I’m not a big fan of like this has been done to me and I personally hate it. We’re exchanging notes about things we hate in terms of marketing and sales beforehand. And one of the things I hate is when someone says, oh, yeah, come on to my podcast, and then I show up, and it’s just a thinly veiled sales pitch for their program, whatever it is. And I’m like, why did you do that? Like, you should do that separately?

Kelly: Yeah, I had a really, really terrible experience that I just want to highlight just in case this happens to anyone else. I was approached on LinkedIn to be interviewed, to be quoted in a book. And the book was like, very relevant to my industry, and whatever. So I get on the call. The call was not with the same person that had originally reached out to me on LinkedIn. And it was literally the most egregious sales pitch. It was a very funny thing what happened in the actual content of the conversation. I got the guy to admit, essentially, that it was a sales pitch. And he just was very upset, that this was his life. But anyway, I digress. If you are going to do this, be in an integrity about it. So I think that’s kind of what I hear you saying underneath.

Liston: Yeah, and I like the word integrity better than authenticity. This is another thing I could go on a rant about. But yeah, have integrity. So if you’re going to start a podcast, you actually have to make the podcast and have the intention of producing it, and having a conversation related to whatever the topic of the podcast is. But if you start one, let’s just do some simple math. You can have 52 conversations throughout the year. I’m guessing I could be totally wrong. But your average listener on the show right now probably is not having 52 conversations with people who are in their target market. So that can be huge. I mean, you can also invite potential referral partners. You can also invite vendors to learn about what’s interesting or trending. You can invite event planners who may later ask you to come speak. You can invite other podcasters whose show you can be on later. So I think there are lots of benefits to it. But I would flip on its head, the sort of main way people think of podcasting, which is I’m going to develop a giant audience. And, again, we should trade notes on this, if you want to do that, my experience has been time is a core ingredient of developing a bigger audience. Do a lot of good stuff over time. There’s a chance that you’ll start to see some organic growth. But if you really want to change the trajectory of your show, you have to do ads, and you have to be on a lot of other shows. That’s the only way. I’ve tried a lot of things. I have a list of, I think 37 tactics that I’ve used to try to grow the show. And those two things seem to do the most. I’m a big fan of podcasting because also it’s so intimate. So let’s go back to this idea of outreach in habit formation. So think about the difference in the proposition where you reach out to someone and say, hey, we do X, Y, and Z, we help SaaS companies with their SEO. Here’s some results that we’ve given other companies that seem relevant to you. Would you like a few tips on how we can help or what you could do? That’s version A. Version B is, hey, I see you’re a fast growing SaaS company that just raised your series B. I have a podcast about that. I’d love to interview about how you’re thinking about the next phase of your business. Way different. And what I find is when I reach out to people for the podcast, the chance of them saying yes, is over 80% versus any sort of outbound sort of approach with the express intent of showing a company how you can help them or maybe giving them some free content that could help them whether they work with you or not. That’s going to be less than 10% guest rate. So big, big, big difference. And the other thing I love about podcasting, and then I’ll shut up is the overhead to produce it is for most people way lower than writing articles or making videos. And so that is super helpful as well.

Kelly: Yeah. It’s definitely low risk, low cost. I mean, I have a podcast production and management company now and they’re very affordable. They do a great job. It allows me to do other things and use my time in a way that’s a little bit more appropriate for me. But yeah, I mean, like I said before, there are a lot of companies out there that are willing to help, but I think what you’re really saying is be an integrity about it. Figure out what you actually want to do with this. And it’s really got to be something that you and or your leadership team, come to the table and brainstorm like, what are my goals and objectives for this? How is this going to help our agency? What are we actually looking to do with this? I think it’s about being intentional with it. And, just being really conscious about why you’re doing it, as opposed to, hey, there’s this new shiny thing out there called podcasting. Let’s just launch one and see what happens. Like don’t do that.

Liston: Right. Exactly. Or like, in the old days, people would say, what’s this Facebook thing? We need a Facebook strategy. And you’re like, well, what will that do for you? And they’re like, I don’t know, don’t I need it? So for podcasting, I know people who focus on interviewing ideal target market clients, and just starting a relationship, knowing that it may take 6 or 12 months for that to happen.

Kelly: Yeah. This is a long game, for sure.

Liston: Exactly. But I’ve talked to other people who say we’ll use the podcast as a way to attract great speakers because we do live events for our clients. And that’s like the main engine of our business development. And the podcast can be an easy way to get great people to speak for free and then maybe come out to our events. So there’s lots of different ways to approach it. But yeah, you’re right, intentionality, and just committing to a one page plan. What is this about? Who is it for? What am I trying to do? How often will it be? What’s the show format? That’s all you really need, and then start moving forward on it.

Kelly: And I also didn’t mean, like this entire episode or half of the episode to be focusing on podcast, but I think that it’s super relevant when we’re talking about business development, because the whole landscape has changed when it comes to business development. We all get those emails, or the spam emails, or the LinkedIn connection requests from people that are just trying to sell us things. And clearly that doesn’t work. So we have to be more creative about how we diversify that business development. I think podcasting is right now just a great topic to talk about, because it’s super effective. But as we start to wrap up, what I love to ask sort of like, what is your big takeaway, or your greatest piece of advice? And in this case, being a sales trainer and a consultant, what would you say to agency leaders who fit into what we talked about at the top of the show, which is the ones who don’t think that they have a sales problem and believe that they have a pipeline problem? What do you say to them?

Liston: Actually there are two things I’d say to you. One, start dissecting where the waste happens in your whole funnel from first introduction to closing a new client and starting work with them, like where are they dropping off? And that will help you identify, is it within the sales process? Do we truly have a pipeline problem and we need more opportunities? That would be the first thing. The second thing I would tell you is, rather than thinking about what are ways you can get the word out about your service. Think about ways that you can address and help your target clients, whether they do business with you or not, in a way that also positions you and in a way that eventually could lead to your service. So your marketing doesn’t have to be about your service. It always should be about something that will help your clients be better at what they’re doing. It doesn’t have to be directly related to your service. Start there. And you will start to see better results.

Kelly: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, that’s really what this all comes down to. And that’s why you call it the serve don’t sell approach. It’s about giving an adding value over and over and over again until that prospect believes that, wow, I really understand what the intention is at this company, like they really do care. You want to really I think, like, make it land with them, that you care about their success, whether as you said. they become a client or not. So I’m 100% invested in that same philosophy and that mentality and it is extremely effective. Counter to what people may believe.

Liston: We’re on the same page.

Kelly: As usual. Well Liston, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it and I will put links to all of your sites and all of your contact info in the show notes.

Liston: Thank you so much.

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