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February 23, 2016 // 9:00 AM

We Documented Our Agency’s Mistakes Every Week for a Year. Here’s What We Learned.

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Every Friday, our team comes together for a weekly reflections meeting. It's our "touchy-feely-kumbaya" moment where everyone has an opportunity to open up and share what's on their mind. Primarily, we try to focus on three things: what went well, what didn't go so well, and what we learned. We then document those lessons, and once-a-year, we review the key themes. It's surprising-- and a bit embarrassing -- how often issues we discussed in March are repeated in August and again in November, but it's all part of the learning process. 

This year, a few interesting themes emerged that I thought would be valuable for other agency leaders to review. Here are some of the most important lessons we learned in 2015:

1) Outline project unknowns as much as knowns.

It's very easy to find yourself putting together a beautiful project scope or proposal that painstakingly details every requirement the client has mentioned during your sales calls. The problem is, once the project kicks off, you're going to find yourself dealing with many, many things the client did not explicitly state. Image purchasing, content implementation, hosting fees, etc., are all aspects of any web project not typically top-of-mind for the client. Be sure your contracts and documentation tackle as many of these project unknowns as possible. Include language that provides a means of factoring in cost/time when these little surprises sneak up, as they always do.

2) Transition from managing a sales pipeline to a relationship pipeline.

The idea of a sales pipeline is to track opportunities across various stages in your sales process, each with their own weighted likelihood of turning into an actual deal. Having a sales pipeline helps you determine where to invest time and energy in opportunities. The problem, however, is that most sales pipelines only look at a 30-to-90-day window. With this narrow of a view, it's far too easy to cast "slower" opportunities to the side.

We found that focusing on building relationships with companies that could be great clients, even if they're a year away from that, is far more valuable than ignoring every prospect who doesn't meet the perfect profile for your sales pipeline. You shouldn't expel that much energy on these prospects, but you should set reminders to connect periodically, invite them to relevant events, and send them useful content. This can lead to huge returns beyond this month or even quarter. 

3) Help define success for your client.

The reason most potential clients are speaking with you about a project is that you've demonstrated a capacity for solving their problem. Embrace this truth, and control the vision for working with your clients. Focusing on identifying and addressing their needs is critical to a successful sale, but don't let them dictate all the terms of engagement. You've done this "thing" far more times than they have, and it's important that you explain what will make a project successful. If timelines are unrealistic or certain content or systems need to be finalized before you can start a project, be sure to communicate this to the client. It's far better, and far more profitable, to set clear "rules for success" with a potential client and hold them to those boundaries. 

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4) Don't overlook easy money.

If your agency thrives on large project-based deals, it's tempting to always go after the "whale" and ignore the "fish" along the way. If every new deal is six-figures, why wouldn't you put your time and energy into those opportunities? However, when you focus 100% of your time on these big wins, you often sacrifice opportunities for "easy money."

Support retainers, appropriate technology recommendations that have a referral kickback, and one-day workshops are all value-added services you could offer existing clients. These relationships are already established so they don't require the same effort as a new deal. Sure, the check isn't as substantial, but if you build in a practice of upselling across all of your clients, you could see an impressive uptick in account size.

5) Focus on solving problems, not just implementing solutions.

It's not uncommon to find that your team is obsessed with how to implement a specific solution within a project. Whether it stems from client interest or internal interest, once you're fixated on making something work, it's hard to take a step back. Taking a step back, however, is often the only way to avoid blowing the budget on a project. This step back should not be focused on re-evaluating the solution, rather re-evaluating the problem. Ask both yourself and the client what the exact problem is that you're trying to solve and the impact of not solving it. Sometimes the solution is simply doing nothing.

6) Don't view account management and project management as the same role.

Many larger agencies already have this baked into their operations, but this was a big lesson for us to learn this past year. Although they can sometimes be tackled by the same person, the responsibilities associated with account management are not the same as those associated with project management. Account managers need to focus on defending the client's needs at all times while project managers need to focus on defending the agency's needs at all times. This sort of conflict is healthy as it ensures both sides are properly represented in the creative process.

In addition, the very metrics each role should be focused on are considerably different. Account managers are accountable for growing their book-of-business with clients while project managers are accountable for expanding the profitability of the relationship. These are two very different mindsets, and two very different roles.

7) Always be selling.

Once that initial contract is inked, it's tempting to pop the champagne and call it a day. Closing a deal does not mean that the sales function is over. A client who accepts a contract simply means she believes in your plan for solving her problem; it does not guarantee that she believes in your execution of that plan. Every person involved in the project needs to realize the importance of continuing to sell ideas and solutions to identified problems. Every new deliverable is a new first impression.

8) Realize the difference between makers and managers.

There is a big difference between "makers" and "managers" within an agency. Makers are responsible for creating deliverables and executing the plan for a client. Managers are responsible for setting that plan and ensuring resources are appropriately allocated to enable execution. Many agencies depend on their team members to play both a maker and manager role. Effectiveness as a maker requires long, uninterrupted time where execution can take place. Effectiveness as a manager requires continued communication and performance analysis to ensure the plan is on track. Treat team members differently depending on the role they play and their responsibilities, and respect the differing work needs of each type within the structure of your agency.

9) Work in time blocks.

Most tasks will take as long as you allow them to. And complicating this problem is that in most agencies, we're inundated with so many tasks from so many different accounts that things are constantly done right before they're due. Working in a reactive pattern, where tasks are constantly being shuffled around based on the latest fire or ASAP request, only perpetuates inadvertent procrastination. Take control of your workload by carving out distinct blocks of time to tackle projects, and set the end of that block as your hard deadline.

10) Repeat everything. Repeat everything.

Repetition is a key ingredient for success as an agency. This includes repetition in communication, resources, and process. Repetition in communication ensures everyone is on the same page and that expectations are met. Repeat those expectations, and repeat the plan for meeting them. Repetition in resources ensures you have a game plan should someone go on vacation, get sick, or quit a project. Having redundant roles is an important safety net for any project. Finally, repetition in process ensures that you create repeatable results and start building efficiency into your delivery. The more your processes repeat, the more likely they can be automated, leading to tremendous gains in efficiency and profitability. 

11) Manage against scope or timeline, not both.

Bumps come up in a project. Unexpected requests or roadblocks are inevitable. Budget is often that hardest thing to revisit in a project, so consider whether scope or timeline needs to be re-evaluated as problems emerge. If timing is critical, scale back on what needs to be accomplished within a specific timeframe. If completeness is key, push out your launch date. If the client can't choose between the two, bring up money again.

12) Negotiate constantly, but wisely.

Remember this: You're negotiating throughout the entire lifespan of a project. You're negotiating for extra resources, reduced scope, quicker turnarounds, etc. As in any negotiation, the key to success is knowing all of the terms of which you're negotiating. It's far easier to get what you need from a client and still make them happy if you give them something they want. When faced with a significant problem in the project, ensure you understand what's really important to the client and what's really important to your agency. Oftentimes, negotiating over different terms and bringing awareness to that is all it takes for everyone to walk away happy.

13) Have a process, but know that the process will change.

Technology, experience, resources, and many other factors will lead to evolutions in your processes over time. You'll add new deliverables, cut out unnecessary steps, and automate some of your workload. But this sort of benefit only works when you have a process that you're currently using. You can only measure improvement or evaluate efficiency if you have a benchmark. If you have a process for how your projects are delivered and how your agency is run, you can track and improve things going forward.

14) Build in padding for inaccurate project estimates. 

It seems no matter how many times we've done a project, something always comes up that affects our original project estimate. Perhaps it's a desire to continue improving our processes or "one-upping" our last project, but things inevitably take longer than expected. Understand this, embrace this, and add padding to be conservative. Extra time and extra money provides room to over-deliver for your clients and make them even happier with the project's outcome.

15) Remember that contractors are not employees.

In a world of specialization and the need for ever-changing scale, it's likely that your agency depends on some sort of contract-based labor force. They provide the natural capacity necessary to take on larger projects or unknown technologies. For this very reason, contractors can be one of your greatest assets.

However, remember that they are not employees and should not be treated as such. Employment and tax regulation aside, professional freelancers and contractors have chosen that profession for many of the benefits that come with it: unlimited vacation, remote working, schedule independence, etc. It's foolish to expect that contractors will make the same sacrifices or meet the same demands as an employee. As such, it's critical that you establish clear expectations on the "softer side of your relationship in addition to the scope, time, and budget requirements you're bound to discuss. Agree on communication schedules, deadline management, and anything else that might cause a problem for a project down-the-line.

16) Show, don't tell.

As agency folk, we're participants in the "idea economy." We're paid for coming up with and executing ideas that will solve our clients' problems. Clients are our lifeblood, and they command respect in the creative process. However, we cannot assume that the ideas in our minds are the same as those perceived by our clients. Hypothetical pitches and explanations might get people excited, but it doesn't lead to consensus around expectations.

Don't be afraid to introduce working deliverables into your process solely to serve as a means of crystallizing ideas into a form that has boundaries. Even a napkin sketch will give a client a better sense for your vision than flowery language over a bourbon-fueled dinner. If the client is excited about an idea, she should be excited to spend 5% of the total time/money to sketch out the parameters of that idea before committing to it fully.

17) Promote others first.

Imagine going to a party where the guy in the corner is constantly shouting about all of the awesome things he's done. It won't take long for you to excuse yourself from the table. The same goes for your marketing efforts. If all of your marketing is focused on promoting how "awesome" your agency is, how long will it take for your audience to leave? Focus your marketing on educating and sharing the success of others before your own. It builds trust and credibility. It also builds community as those you promote will promote your work in turn.

18) Do less marketing to do better marketing.

It's easy to start the year with a huge list of marketing activities your agency will pursue to expand your footprint: blogging, events, emails, advertisements, podcast, sponsorships, etc. It all sounds great on paper, but such a diffused strategy is more likely to lead to a bunch of smaller failures than one or two major successes. Figure out what channels resonate with your target clients, align these with your voice/skillsets, and determine how you can maximize the impact with the limited resources you have at your disposal. Double-down on those few things, and ignore everything else.

19) Find the source of the stress.

Agency life is fueled by deadlines and tight budgets. No one has ever claimed it's a stress-free business. But letting this stress affect us leads to poor performance, which leads to more stress. When you find yourself feeling as though every project is going wrong, the problem is unlikely that everything sucks.

Take a step back, and identify what the real source of stress is. Then, create an action plan for dealing with it. Is it personal? Did you lose a deal? Is a client being pushy? Not resolving the major stressor in your life will impact other responsibilities on your plate. Tackle the real source of stress, and everything else might just be a bit easier.

20) Celebrate your accomplishments.

You've won awards, generated millions of dollars in value for your clients, and created jobs that give people the opportunity to pursue their creative passions. Running an agency can be overwhelming, but it is also incredibly rewarding. Do not let the challenges of running the business overshadow the successes along the way. Take time to step back and celebrate wins individually and as a team. Reflect on how much has been accomplished during just one year, and use that to fuel your work going forward.

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Topics: Leadership & Management

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