Max Bowie: Perfect Pitch: The Rise of Fintech’s Not-So-Secret Agents

Increasingly sophisticated data products need sales experts with a wide range of experience, which sometimes means going "out of house."

max-bowie
Max Bowie, editor, Inside Market Data

As data and related technologies become more sophisticated, so too does the process of identifying the correct audience and selling them. To achieve this, start-ups and established vendors are turning to independent sales agents, who Max says appear to be thriving as the industry balances budget cuts with the need to expand and grow.

Third-party sales agents are nothing new: The practice of using a partner with local knowledge to penetrate a new market is well established, especially in international markets, such as Brazil, says Luis Boldizsar, São Paulo-based founder of LatVance Assessoria Comercial, which provides local market and intelligence and strategic consulting for companies seeking to enter the Brazilian market.

“Often, global firms recognize the benefits of having agents with local expertise. And these agents can sometimes be less expensive than importing existing company sales people,” Boldizsar says. “In addition to the local expertise and potential lower costs, outsourcing some elements of the sales function can be attractive as a ‘try it before you buy it’ approach.”

It’s also true in international markets where solutions need customization for the needs of the local client base, says Jim Davies, co-founder and managing partner of Collaborative Financial Services Inc., a Canadian advisory firm.

But this need equally applies to new products in established markets. Philip Winstone, executive director of consulting firm Cordatum Associates, says more companies are seeking this type of “out-of-house” service since the demands of new technologies and content require “a broad range of expertise not always to be found internally.”

What is new, however, is the availability of expertise. The economic environment of recent years has led many firms to lay off experienced staff, who spotted an opportunity to tap into that talent pool, realizing that vendors of all sizes would need their expertise again.

“Traditional sales is a dying style. People want to work with people who understand their problems because they’ve been there and done that.” Adam Honore, MarketsTech

Adam Honore, CEO of Markets­Tech LLC, a “business development accelerator” that provides strategic consulting to financial technology firms, was previously a managing director in Nasdaq’s FinQloud managed cloud services unit. “There are fantastic technologies looking for exposure to financial services, and people in financial services hungry for new technology. Sales agents are the facilitators connecting these groups together,” Honore says. “Traditional sales is a dying style. People want to work with people who understand their problems because they’ve been there and done that.”

Drawbacks
There are some drawbacks to using, and being, an independent agent. One of these, Winstone says, is getting buy-in from staff who feel threatened by the agent’s involvement. Boldizsar says independent agents “rarely have the product and proposition expertise, let alone company loyalty,” of dedicated staff.

Feargal O’Sullivan, CEO of USAM Group says independent agents lack the “brand-name business card,” which can make it harder to get a foot in the door, while Honore warns that being “always on” can be exhausting—not just from working all hours to meet clients’ demands, but also from simultaneously networking to find the next engagement.

And the next engagement is key, because generally speaking, a sales agent can’t subsist representing only one client. Indeed, a large part of those clients’ rationale for hiring an external agent is that they are more practical and affordable than full-time employees. But while representing multiple clients can open up potential cross-selling opportunities between different companies’ solutions, it can also risk conflicts if clients’ businesses are too similar to one another.

“Only an idiot would represent competing companies. That’s a recipe for credibility disaster,” Honore says. “That said, I do try to take clients with the same target market so I can accomplish more with each conversation,” he adds, whereas CFSI actively seeks out vendors with overlapping solutions so the firm can offer clients a more rounded proposition.

Ultimately, the transparency that comes from constant contact is key to maintaining the confidence of multiple clients—especially in the case of USAM, which aims to be a seamless extension of an internal sales team. “Constant interaction ensures complete transparency, forcing us to stay on top of all our vendors’ solutions or risk a black-and-white exposé of our failings. Remember, vendors can cancel a consulting agreement much more readily than they can lay off full-time employees,” O’Sullivan says.

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