In 2017, I co-founded Accelerate Agency, which offers a wide range of analytics and SEO services to enterprise clients. Between my business partner and I, we had over three decades of experience working in agency settings, but our combined experience was no guarantee for success.
The agency grew quickly for the first two years and the contracts we secured grew larger with each client. We went from working with local Bristol-based firms to clients listed on the NYSE, like RingCentral and Schwartz. And, as our customer base increased, our team grew as well.
Having founded a seven-figure SEO agency, I can tell you we've made a lot of mistakes when scaling our company. Of course, we've learned a lot from these errors, but they still could have been avoided if we anticipated them beforehand.
In this post, I'll try to save your business from these common pitfalls by breaking down seven customer service lessons that I wish I had known when starting my company.
7 Lessons For Scaling Customer Service
1. Understand the different types of clients.
A key part of the client relationship is the connection between the people representing the client and the agency. If this relationship is strong, you have more leeway when a problem arises. A strained relationship, on the other hand, can turn any mistake from a minor problem into a significant issue.
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to interacting with a client. Instead, each client requires a personalized approach. With that said, I usually categorize clients into four groups.
- Artists: Artists are creative, blue sky thinkers. They have a lot of unique ideas and can come up with surprising insights.
- Empathizers: Relationships are important for an empathizer. They want to develop a strong connection with the agency. Empathizers generally avoid confrontation, so it can be hard to know when there's a problem.
- Analysts: Analysts want to see the data because they're driven by stats, facts, and proven results. They expect you to know what you're doing, and report on your progress in an orderly manner.
- Skeptics: A skeptic will question everything you propose to test the validity of your argument. They want someone who will voice their ideas and can justify the reasoning behind the approach.
In order to build a successful relationship, you need to understand the type of client you're working with. When assigning team members to an account, be sure to select employees who have the best personality match and will work well with that customer.
Often, the people best-suited to help will not be the boss -- an essential point for all agency founders to keep in mind. There are certainly instances over the last two years when delegating responsibility has helped Accelerate Agency foster a stronger relationship with that company.
2. Identify your client's goals.
While client types will help you develop and maintain customer relations, be sure to understand why your clients contacted you in the first place. At Accelerate Agency, we send a short survey to every client before meeting with them for the first time.
The survey is just 15 questions long and includes things like:
- Have you ever worked with an SEO agency before?
- What's your budget for the current project?
- What KPIs are you using to measure success?
- What specific outcomes are you looking for from our work together?
Using a survey during this exploratory phase of the contract helps us understand the client's motivations. And, by working with insights that come directly from the customer, we avoid the trap of working from assumptions.
Additionally, understanding our client's goals helps us figure out how much value we can provide to them. The survey data helps with preparation for exploratory meetings and allows us to develop an agenda that's tightly focused on their marketing goals.
Transmitting your company's value to your clients is hugely important. So, we use marketing tools like the graph above to communicate the benefits of our service. Being able to demonstrate what the Return on Investment (ROI) looks like helps us justify our costs to the client. Since the value of SEO is so relative, this information is an essential part of getting any contract signed.
3. Define the scope of the project.
After agreeing to work with a client, carefully define the scope of the project. You should set targets in the form of staging posts, showing clear progression toward your client's goals. Make sure that the objectives and the timeline are clear to both parties.
We use the SMART framework to set objectives.
After you've identified the project's goals, the next step is setting out how they'll be delivered. At this stage, we look at deliverables, tasks, deadlines, and establishing the costs involved. It's crucial to nail these details down at the outset of the relationship to avoid problems in the future.
Once the project's scope is defined, you should log the details using an online project management tool. This is where every part of the project is laid out and given a clear timeline for completion. Your team should run through this plan with the client to ensure there are no mistakes or miscommunication. Sharing these objectives and outcomes beforehand will help your team avoid "project creep."
Project creep is the addition of tasks or requirements after the project's scope is initially agreed on. Adding more goals to a project is an easy way to undermine the client/agent relationship and increase agency costs. Defining scope and objectives should also keep retrospective changes to a minimum. Getting changes approved can be a complicated process and can also damage relationships.
4. Share your success.
Once you have set the project goals, you need to meet the objectives. As mentioned above, we use customer service tools track our success and update clients on our progress. You should always communicate your progress with clients to build a stronger rapport with them.
You should schedule weekly or bi-weekly meetings with a contact person from each account. These meetings are an opportunity to develop a stronger relationship with the client. Use this time to update them on the progress of the project and answer any questions they may have.
Don't forget about your client types here. Tailor the arrangement and nature of these meetings to the individuals involved. You should handle clients in different ways based on an approach that best fits the contact person.
In addition to meetings, send a formal, monthly progress report covering everything delivered in the previous month. Being transparent in this way inspires confidence that you're working towards the agreed goals. Never assume that the value of your work will be completely understood. Be proactive and ensure the positive results you deliver aren't overlooked.
5. Recognize the client's chain-of-command.
As our agency grows, we work with larger and larger companies. We're much more likely to deal with teams of managers than a founder or CEO. The rewards are bigger, but the approval process is much more complex.
The person we deal with every week is rarely the final decision-maker. So, the impression we make on them carries forward to their superiors. This makes the contact person you deal with a valuable ally who can support you during internal client company meetings -- that's assuming you're delivering on your promises.
Always ask the contact person what information they need and try to understand their internal reporting procedures. By providing them with the right information in the correct reporting format, the contact person can easily demonstrate the value you're delivering.
6. Address problems quickly.
No matter how hard everyone works, all projects run into problems eventually. Maybe someone at the agency makes a mistake, or perhaps it's something totally outside of your control. It happens. It's naive to pretend otherwise.
But, when problems arise, your team needs to act immediately, solve any issues as quickly as possible, and, if appropriate, take responsibility for your mistake. The earlier you catch a problem, the easier it is to solve it. And, it always looks better for an agency to report a potential problem than for the client to raise the issue.
Customer loyalty takes time to earn, but it can vanish quickly. When clients suspect an agency is keeping them in the dark -- or worse, lying to them -- there's a good chance the client will change agencies at their next opportunity.
The ideal way to minimize problems is to adopt an internal process of checks and balances that review work before you send it to a client. My team considers the graphic below as soon as we identify a roadblock.
7. Provide value constantly.
If you want to grow rapidly, your company needs to retain its most valuable customers. So, the approach we take to increasing Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) is to deliver our service in waves. We do this by logically upselling and cross-selling services as trust with a client increases.
Below is a hypothetical overview of how we might upsell services to a client:
- Set up Google Analytics to ensure correct tracking of metrics and essential data.
- Implement a comprehensive technical SEO audit with an on-site content audit and implement fixes.
- Run a three-month content marketing campaign that generates more leads for the client's website.
- Implement a conversion rate optimization campaign to increase revenue from the same volume of traffic.
Upselling to a client in waves slowly builds up trust with them because we've demonstrated expertise and delivered results. We leverage that confidence then upsell additional services that the client would find valuable.
The offer you make to a client should be a logical addition to what you currently provide. By completing this purchase, the client should be taking the next step in their customer journey map. Combining the recurring revenue from existing clients with revenue from new clients is an excellent method for rapidly growing a company.
Scaling Customer Service at an SMB
It's important to understand that every client is different and learning what makes each one tick makes it easier to tailor your service to them. Constant communication is vital. Make sure that you always report your progress transparently and honestly. That means raising problems with clients as well as successes. Trust makes for the most robust agency-client relationship possible.
Scaling Accelerate Agency into a seven-figure company hasn't been easy. Even with thirty years of experience, we still have faced tremendous challenges. Hopefully, the tips I have shared here will help others avoid some of our missteps.
For more tips, watch these customer service training videos.
Originally published Oct 1, 2019 8:00:00 AM, updated November 22 2019