Greg Hickman facilitates automation for all types of clients, but on this episode of DYF Podcast he talks with Brennan about how automation works for consultants. Not only has Greg automated his own consulting business, but he also uses Active Campaign and InfusionSoft to set up campaigns for other consultants including some big influencers. In this episode Greg tells Brennan how his business started –almost accidentally– and grew to serve an impressive list of heavy hitting clients in just a couple years.
Greg Hickman started his agency, System.ly, as an experiment. At the time Greg was co-hosting a podcast called Zero to Scale with his friend Justin McGill. When the Podcast’s success reached a plateau Justin challenged Greg to try monetizing his automation skills by offering funnel-building services. System.ly was born and soon became the force behind numerous influencers’ and course creators’ sites. What started as funnel building evolved into a much fuller service including front end marketing, back of house client how to guides on automation, fulfillment, operations etc. Greg says they fell in love with helping businesses expand the role of automation throughout the entire client journey right up to fulfillment. System.ly spent much of 2017 moving away from coursebuilding clients and into service based business. System.ly’s current focus is helping service-based business go from productization to building sales teams. They then streamline the sales experience with automation at every turn including new lead acquisition, client onboarding, and the sale itself.
Can solo agencies and smaller businesses benefit from System.ly’s consulting and if so, is working with them worth it for Greg and his team? Greg says size of the agency doesn’t matter –in fact, he says automation is “the best first hire.” While size of agency doesn’t matter, having an established process does. He says there is a lot of temptation to start using cool new tools before it is necessary. Greg says selling manually at first is key to creating systems that actually work. Early on, agencies won’t have a sales process which is understandable but automating this early, Greg says, “is just wasting precious time,” since the use-cases and workflows that are implemented might not target the right things. Greg says, “for anyone just starting out, the focus should be sales sales sales.” Then once they have validated their offer with proven results, new ventures should evaluate the system for automation opportunities. As Brennan says, automating your process is “the codification of something you’ve done a lot manually already.” Rather than the invention of a new system, automation should be curating and editing a proven process to make it evergreen. Greg points out that System.ly has 3 employees but finds that their automation does a lot of the heavy lifting so he believes in getting started early –just not too early.
So how do you automate a consulting business? Greg and his team typically set up very similar foundational systems for each of their clients with small variations. For System.ly, the automation process typically starts with productization. When they first meet, agencies and individuals are usually functioning as generalists: e.g. “I am a web designer but I also do facebook ads and SEO etc.” Greg says when his clients have multiple service offerings, he often sees them attempting to systemize the back of house first which, as he points out, can become very messy. Greg says he fell for this trap also, developing hundreds of SOPs for his business while needing to customize the product (and therefore the procedure) for every sale. As a result, he never really got to use those SOPs. Having learned the hard way, his first questions for clients now are “What are you selling?” and “Who are you working with?” He works to extract his clients’ expertise from the process to find what is uniquely theirs since, much as we may try, no one is an expert in everything.
Having a product that clients can see helps a business stand out in the marketplace, accelerate the sales cycle, and sell easier. But how do you make a product out of ideas? Greg looks for the unique processes that his clients use so that he can build the back-end system around it. Fulfillment depends a great deal on product so it is easier to work backwards from there than to build the service anew with every new customer. Once System.ly has helped a client refine the offer, they’ll expect the client to spend some time validating and selling it. The client will need to prove that the product is something they can actually get people interested in and sell. Once the product is deemed viable, System.ly and the client will work on building an acquisition system. It is much easier to direct people towards a sale when you know what a product is (in fact, Greg says without it, pretty much all of your leads will either be via referrals and word of mouth).
Brennan thinks of acquisition systems similarly. He says you should front load your targeted marketing into your system and look at it from the client’s perspective, isolating a certain outcome rather than listing services. He points out that if you say “I’m a web designer, and I have a webinar,” all of your sign ups will be from people who have already identified an immediate design need. He gives the example of a friend who specializes in cold outreach to chiropractors. Although he is a web designer, Brennan’s friend sells himself based on the ability to get more leads to chiropractors. This is much more effective than just offering websites or redesigns to chiropractors who probably think their site is fine. This strategy tells customers that they are missing out and that there is a solution within reach.
The cost of the product also determines the sales tactics you’ll want to use. Greg says “The lower your price point, the more ninja your funnel needs to be.” For example, using paid advertising like Facebook ads to sell something at a low cost, is going to require much more work than selling a high-ticket item. Lower dollar items are going to require more re-engagement sequences, split testing, and of course, more money up front if you’re paying per click. Higher value sales allow more wiggle room and you can spend more getting one lead to an intake form than you’d have to spend on a smaller one. As a result, Greg has found that selling a service with a higher margin often works out to be more profitable than selling a course at a higher volume with a lower individual cost. If you’re good at the service you provide, Greg suggests just using systems to get more prospects and letting automation do as much lead generation work for you as possible.
System.ly typically starts out by setting up two funnels. As discussed, they have their client testing the market to see if a product is validatable. Meanwhile, Greg and his team set up an application process and the necessary screening procedure for ensuring clients get on the phone with the right people instead of wasting time with the wrong ones. They build the automation that powers getting to the sales call, arranging the sales call, and following up on call. The manual version of this is creating a Wufoo form that goes to your email, reviewing it and set up the call or not. Greg’s clients start with a version of this that is slightly more sophisticated. Theirs includes some of the stuff that goes into the process of getting on that first call: reminders, touchpoints like reviewing applications etc.
Greg is a big fan of webinars as a tool to introduce a service to a customer. System.ly itself uses a webinar to app to phone call funnel. Greg’s team will typically be building a webinar for the customer during the product validation portion also. To get prospects to their webinar, most of System.ly’s clients will use paid and organic traffic. He says clients often have a tiny list to begin with which the System.ly team will use to get prospects into the client’s app in order to grab any quick, low hanging sales. However, getting clients into paid ads is usually a first step in the System.ly approach if the customer doesn’t already have some kind of audience. The team also gets their clients to examine how they look to their own Facebook groups and to other components of their audience to promote more organic traffic in the long run.
Brennan typically promotes lead magnets rather than heftier webinars when he uses paid ads so he asks about the cost aspect of System.ly’s business. Greg says their clients sometimes pay up front, then they hire his team on a retainer. Other times they just go straight into a retainer. Greg says they use an excel spreadsheet to show their clients how much they should spend per webinar registrant, how much they should spend per applicant etc. All of these numbers are based on how many of each group moves forward and the percentage that end as actual paid clients.
Greg says in general, he shoots for at least 20% of Facebook clicks to end in webinar registration, and on average, his company gets closer to 40%. Of those who register, Greg says about 50% actually attend. At this stage, the funnel is still evergreen, since the webinar is pre-recorded and on demand every 15 minutes. Greg points out that when they host live webinars, the number of attendees usually drops to 20% because timing is difficult to coordinate. Of the 50% of leads who attend his webinars, 15% apply. Greg makes an offer to nearly every qualified applicant and 20% of those offers will result in a contract. Greg says if he had a dedicated paid ads person on his staff they might go as far as looking at prices per click and price per webinar registration, but he chooses not to look this closely. Greg’s focus is on the price per application since that is the most important value in his funnel.
Since most of the lead qualification happens on the front end of his funnel, Greg makes an offer to nearly every applicant he gets on the phone with. He and his team have a system for reviewing and scoring applications. Since many of the application questions are open-ended and some leads are working on mobile devices, applicants sometimes give very brief answers. When this happens, his team does not hesitate to pursue more information and will send follow up questions saying, “we don’t know if we can help you yet.” This follow up is actually part of the screening process because anyone who filled in the application on a whim or half-heartedly won’t respond so the team will move on.
There is some opportunity in Greg’s funnel right now. He says he has about 10-15 sales calls per week and is now onboarding a sales team member to help him with that. Business is booming which means they are cancelling more applications (20-30%) than Greg would like. Of course, sometimes the call is not the right fit. Greg mentions one call he recently had that didn’t result in an offer. He believes it was someone trying to funnel hack him and learn about his stages of traffic. Greg politely pointed that lead towards a more relevant resource elsewhere.
Brennan, like Greg, chooses to look at the price per qualified lead as a way to gauge the effectiveness of his paid ads. Greg estimates that he spends about $600 per day on lead acquisition. About $500 of that is for cold lookalike audience ads pushing leads into the webinar (See Brennan’s interview with Kev Kaye on paid ads, linked below, for more on audiences). The remainder is for retargeting leads who didn’t complete the funnel, pushing them either into the webinar or into the application depending on how far they got. These methods are currently resulting in 50-60 applications per month. Brennan breaks down the equation conservatively as follows:
$600/Day paid ads x 30 days/month = $18,000 for 50 applications
20% of those 50 applications = 10 new customers per month
$7500/ customer x 10 = $75,000 new income per month
Even during the Winter holiday season when ads are most expensive, Greg’s margin is comfortable. Additionally, he recognizes numerous opportunities to close the leaks and is making small tweaks all the time. He says the most important advice he’s ever received came when he was adhering to a maximum $200/day budget. A friend told him “I know it’s crazy but you have to spend more.” Despite the similarities in their businesses, his friend was finding significantly more success. Compared side by side, the only major difference in their businesses was opportunity volume as a direct result of their ad budgets. Greg decided to give it a try and to his surprise, his applications steadily increased.
Brennan asks about the level of maintenance required in Greg’s ad cycle. Although Greg acknowledges the opportunities that come with increased attention to updating ads, he doesn’t want to spend too much time on this side of things. Instead he goes for quality, working with an ad coach and uses careful records of what ads are running and what results are achieved to determine the effectiveness of each one. His analysis has shown that testing new audiences vs new ads is better for him. One successful ad ran from August to January (which is a long time in the world of internet ads). It only ended up coming down because some viewers had started marking it as “spam.” In response, System.ly created a similar ad with new copy and video. Finding an ad that works and refining the lookalike audience is Greg’s favorite part of the process. He says he was nervous when he first saw that one of his ads had gotten negative feedback, but his coach assured him that as long as his conversions are running well, a new ad would bring back the audience.
When someone registers for a webinar but doesn’t get to the application step, Greg’s automation sequences will send daily emails for a week to that person. This campaign is then followed by less frequent emails and they will have opted into his newsletter email list. Generally, Greg sends about 3 newsletter updates per week. Just by sharing his week’s wins and useful content, Greg is able to use his newsletter as follow up rather than targeted re-engagement follow up messages. Since Greg will be talking about the same stuff anyway, he doesn’t spend the energy twice which simplifies what he has to create. Greg mentions Clay Collins’s “Five Ones,” which urges business leaders to achieve success by focusing on one target client, providing one solution, through one offer, via one conversion method (funnel) for one year. This kind of focus has been helpful to Greg since it is easy to become overwhelmed by all of the possibilities and opportunities he sees.
Brennan asks if leads know the service pricing by the time they get on the call with Greg. Greg says they generally don’t. System.ly’s pre-call education includes the webinar, thank you page, and a handful of videos that demonstrate how to apply, how to prepare for the sales call, etc. They send call details via email, and of course, if more information is needed, Greg’s assistant will reach out to the applicant. When the team spots potential pricing conflicts, they’ll reach out to the client and let them know, “We think we can help, but this is the investment required and these are the payment options.” If they’re able to meet those requirements, the call will stand. If not, the System.ly team will try to provide alternative resources to hopefully get them to where they can afford to revisit the investment later.
Even if the call doesn’t result in an immediate close, the account is not necessarily written off. Sometimes, Greg will set up a second or third call with the lead if it seems like a promising fit and this is managed by Pipedrive. However, not every lead is a great fit. Greg tries to avoid being a pushy salesperson and only encourages the client to continue talks if he thinks they’ll truly benefit from System.ly’s help. When the fit is wrong, the client will usually be encouraged to check out other resources and they will be moved into the newsletter and Facebook group in case things change down the line. If the hang up is simply bad timing (an upcoming vacation or another project taking center stage at the moment), System.ly will take a deposit and set a start date for once the way is clear. This holds the client’s space in the queue and keeps them interested in the service. Lastly, if the call goes well but the client does not respond immediately, Greg will set a reminder to check in with the lead later. For December, System.ly acquired 9 new clients and took 6 additional deposits from future clients. This system helps Greg plan the revenues for his upcoming workmonths.
Most of Greg’s acquisition funnel now runs on autopilot he says. He is able to visually manage his funnel via Pipedrive and only involves human influence once his assistant starts reviewing applications. Automation does the heavy lifting and keeps his calendar full.
Greg says through automation, he’s been able to cut his personal fulfillment duties to three hours per week. Since his leads are great and his fulfillment capacity is so streamlined, Greg recognizes his current challenge is delegating some sales call work to his new employee so that they won’t have to turn away potential clients.
Greg’s plans for scaling the business beyond adding another sales representative, include increasing the amount of adspace he buys (assuming the new salesperson brings in new closes). He’s also recently expanded on the 10 week program he hosts and created a 12 month program. This creates monthly recurring revenue which allows System.ly to continue paying their advertising bill before it is due. One thing Greg is tracking is how many conversions he gets from the 10 week program to the 12 month program. Since these leads are highly qualified and readily available, Greg is hoping this will be a viable avenue. However, he cautions that this is a great example of why knowing his numbers is so valuable. With careful records, he can ensure that he’s not just pursuing the thing that he hopes is the answer, he pursuing the most logical course and won’t go over his budget.
Greg concludes that although $600 per day on ads can seem like a lot of money, the payoff can be well worth it. With only 3 people on staff, System.ly has still managed to have two 6-figure months in a row, and the payoffs run deeper than cashflow. Greg says he has more free time and confidence than ever before and it is all thanks to one funnel. He argues that automation is key for service providers since the thing that is going to result in the most significant increase in business is simply getting on more sales calls. By charging what you’re worth, he believes you can afford to create the infrastructure needed to increase your business, allowing you to scale appropriately. If your skills and service are good, then spending time creating downsell courses and other such strategies can be a distraction from what you’re good at and is within your reach. Later, when that is running smoothly, you can look at what expertise you’ve built and create new products based on that. Greg emphasizes that sequence is the key to having an effective business.
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