Many organisations will be flattered and excited to be asked to write a proposal and won’t do their due diligence – establish budgets and timescales as well as understanding exactly what the client really wants and to look internally to work out if you can deliver it (i.e. you have the skills/capacity and it’s a core service can confidently deliver). This is a time to enact one of my favourite business expressions: ‘slow down to speed up’. Take your time doing your research, going back to ask the client more questions, gather more background info etc. And if you decide it’s a good fit, then go for it. If not, then have the courage to walk away.
Anything that feels too challenging or gives you a feeling it’s going to be difficult to deliver – undoubtedly will be.
So when you have met with a prospect, had a good chat and a nice coffee, and neither party knows exactly how to wrap up the meeting so you suggest or agree to put your thoughts in a proposal, think again! Have you identified all the buying signs; do they have agreed timescales? A budget? Are they clear what they want? Or are they going to use you to shape (or write) the brief and set a budget for them? If so, beware!
Now you have decided its worthwhile writing the proposal – make it about them not you! I am amazed at the proposals I have read that start of by telling the prospect how wonderful the supplier is! This is all well and good but before you do that, you need to prove to the reader that you understand their business, market, products and challenges. Then you should outline how you will creatively solve their challenges. And only then, can you blow your own trumpet and tell them how great you are and what relevant experience you have.
There is so much more to this subject so if you want to find out more, download my whitepaper on pitching and proposal writing by completing the box below.
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There are a number of stages we need to follow in order to truly understand our customers and therefore ‘speak their language’. Firstly, we need to understand who our target customer is. Sounds obvious right? You’d be surprised how few companies have identified their target customer groups (maybe 3-4 different types) and therefore can map their typical behaviours, challenges and needs of each group onto their product/service. If you do this as step one then you can start to produce sales and marketing messages that resonate with each group. Take me for example, as a business coach and mentor, 2 of my (3) customer personas are HR managers of mid-sized businesses and Owner/Managers of small businesses. Do you think they have the same needs when looking for a coach? No, they don’t. If I understand their specific and unique requirements then I can start to ‘talk their language’ when marketing to them.
Now you understand your client types you can start to map the journey they will take as they look to buy your solution and move through your sales funnel. What are the various stages they go through as the convert from contact to warm lead to prospect to hot prospect and finally customer (and then repeat customer)? And what can you do at each stage to ‘encourage ‘ them to move through this process? It will certainly be different messages at each stage; your communications will get more detailed and sophisticated the further they move through the funnel.
If not and you want to find out more, download my FREE ebook on developing your customer personas.
Welcome back! In the previous article, we talked about one of the most common problems agency owners face – managing clients expectations when they keep asking for more. We went over how having a rock-solid service level agreement in place is a huge boon, as it gives you an easy way to handle delivering extras and unforeseen changes.
In this week’s article, we’re going to dive deeper into the things that influence your client’s expectations, and what you can do manage them. Even before you first create that service level agreement, you have the chance to influence how they perceive you. And once you’re working together, you need to ensure that everyone on your team is on board with your methods.
Let’s turn first to how you win their business.
If you’ve read some of my other articles, you might already know that I’m a big proponent of value selling & pricing. Rather than figuring out how much time something is going to take you and then quoting prospects based on this time, you should instead figure out how much value (outcomes and impact) your work can create for them and price accordingly.
Getting crystal clear on the value your work brings to the table will allow you to charge higher prices, win better business, and build better relationships. Think about it – when your customers understand you’re solving problems for them that are saving them (or making them) far more money than it costs to keep you on retainer, they’ll be delighted with your arrangement.
Learning to pitch & sell based on value (and not just time) is a game-changing shift for your agency. If you’d like to learn about it in more detail, you can download my free Value Selling eBook here.
We won’t examine the topic in exhaustive detail here – just the bits that are most pertinent to our discussion about how to manage demanding clients.
First things first…
It’s normal to price based on time. Particularly for internal control purposes, it’s good to have an idea of how long a particular project is going to take, or how many man hours will be required to get something over the line. However, when it comes to pitching, basing your price on time (and not value) is a critical mistake.
Commodities do not command large prices. When the fuel gauge in your car is teetering towards empty, you probably don’t seek out the station that charges twice the price of all its competitors. You probably don’t like paying a premium for your phone plan or business cards.
All of these are commodities. We judge commodities based on price, nothing more. And if your clients should view the work you do as a commodity, then you’ll be judged relative to other agencies in your industry. If competitor X can get the job done in half the time, they’ll seem more attractive. Even if your work is better, more tailored to their needs, or you’re far more reliable… when you pitch solely based on time, you’ll be trapped in a race to the bottom.
When you give a time breakdown to clients upfront as part of your pitch, you leave yourself open to the extremely common question of “why will x take so long?” – and when faced with this criticism, you’ll often react by discounting your price, which starts you off on the wrong foot and sets the tone for the relationship.
The real issue with pitching based on price is symptomatic of the underlying issue… focusing on outputs instead of outcomes.
An agency that wins in the long-term is one that delivers great work to clients. Reputation is invaluable for client-facing businesses, and a reputation for doing great work is one of the most powerful assets you can build as an agency owner.
But to deliver outstanding results to your clients, you have to frame your relationship in terms of outcomes, not outputs.
The outcome is what your client is really buying. The output is what they use to get there.
Think of it like this:
“Outputs” are commoditisable. Plenty of other agencies can deliver the same outputs you can. But outcomes are harder to copy. If you build your business on helping clients achieve their outcomes, you’ll have stronger and longer-term relationships.
If they want to expand the scope of your project beyond what you’ve already agreed on, you can politely remind them that you’ve already decided on a direction for the project. If something is to be added, something else must be removed – or else an additional fee will have to be agreed for the extra work.
I’d like to finish off this article by giving you three quick tips that I’ve seen work wonders in agencies of all shapes and sizes. These practices are distilled from my years of experience coaching 250+ agencies in various sectors, so don’t be fooled by their simplicity.
And finally… if you’ve done all the above and clients are still asking too much of you, it might be time to consider whether you’re a good fit to work together. Working with your ideal clients is crucial to running a stress-free business in the long run.
The filtering process starts back when you’re first considering them as a client, so if you gut tells you they are not a good fit – listen to it and move on to the next prospect.
In the eyes of your ideal clients, you’ll be seen as a partner, not just a supplier. In the eyes of the non-ideal ones, you’re a supplier – a provider of a commodity, there to be used as necessary. Seek out those clients who see you as a partner.
For more information on how you can determine who your ideal client is, you can get a free copy of my Customer Persona eBook here.
In this two-part series, I’ve addressed one of the most common questions I’m asked in my coaching practice: what do you do with clients who keep asking for more?
These kinds of clients are often unclear about what to expect from your service because you haven’t adequately explained your terms upfront. To counter this, you can create a rock-solid service agreement at the start of your relationship. Include specifics as to the deliverables they’ll get each month, charges applicable for extras, outcomes you’re working towards, etc.
Another reason why clients seem unreasonably demanding is that you sell based on outputs, not outcomes. When you frame your work in terms of how much it costs or how long it will take, you make it easy to compare your proposal to that of many other agencies.
If you pitch based on the value you bring to the table instead, you’ll have less issues with clients demanding more from you (for no extra pay). When you’re both clear on the outcomes your work will deliver on, clients are less likely to request incongruent changes or take up your time with other requests.
Finally, it’s simply good business sense to do certain things (e.g. agree a contingency fee upfront, train your staff to handle clients correctly, and enforce response times to manage expectations). These tips can have a significant impact on your business if implemented, so don’t hesitate to give them a go.
If you’ve read any of my other material, you know that I believe that learning to manage your clients effectively is the key to building a successful agency and avoiding the overservicing epidemic. Client management is a complex, multifaceted process: it can’t be explained in one blog post. If you’re interested in taking a more in-depth look at the topic, you can download a free copy of my Client Management eBook here.
In this two-part series, we’re going to focus on one particular aspect of client management that I’ve encountered very frequently in my coaching practice – how should you handle clients who keep asking for more?
Surprising, it’s often our good intentions that cause the most problems for the agency.
Let me know if this sounds familiar to you……..
At the start of any new client relationship, we want to impress them. We’re eager to do everything we can satisfy these clients because we know that the real money is made in repeat business, not short-term contracts.
We sit down with them, figure out what exactly they’re looking for (based on their brief, or by following our own processes), and give them a deadline for the work. Depending on how important this new client is to us, we might place ourselves under some pressure with a deadline that’s a little too close for comfort – but we’re confident we can pull it off.
That is… we’re confident until that client comes back with additional requests (how often do you hear from a client “oh by the way, can you just add this in, it won’t take you long” Famous last words! Maybe they want to amend the original project or have some separate work completed. Whatever it is, we’re setting out to satisfy this client, we agree to their request and complete the extra task.
Suddenly, you’re in a position where the client has now got something for free. This starts to create an expectation on their part that they can call you up or fire off a quick email and have their problems taken care of at no extra cost.
And when you deliver on the main project, they’ll probably be thrilled with the quality of work – and at all the extras they got along the way. But when they return with more requests for the following month, they expect that you’ll continue to handle all these “little extras” for them… even when they add up to a significant time commitment.
If you try to pull back and stop delivering all these extras or try and charge them for them this time, the client can become dissatisfied. They’ve been conditioned to expect one thing, and are receiving another. Because it’s less than what they wanted, they’re unhappy. And unhappy clients are rarely long-term ones.
Over-servicing is a common way agencies try to achieve customer satisfaction. That’s because it works for the client – by constantly over-delivering on client projects, you can pretty much ensure that they’ll be “wowed” with the service they’re getting – but not for your bottom line.
A tough situation, to be sure – and one I’ve encountered all too often in my coaching practice.
“Going the extra mile” (which by the way, I was telling a client yesterday is NOT a good value for their agency) can be a useful tool for your business, but only when it’s strategically deployed. I always tell my coaching clients that over-delivering by 10-15% occasionally is fine, as they’ll probably be able to make up that difference another month when there’s less to be done. But constant over-servicing in the name of greater client satisfaction is a losing game, not one you should play if you’re trying to build an agency that wins in the long-term (not just today) and remains profitable.
Handling clients that are always asking for more is difficult, but there are certain best practices you can follow to make it easier. Let’s look at the first of these now in more detail.
First impressions count. If a client’s first impression of your agency is that you’re simply there as a tactical supplier, it’s unlikely you’ll have a frustrating short term relationship with them. However, presenting yourself as a competent and consultative partner from the outset (not just a supplier), results in a stronger long-term relationship based on respect from both sides.
One of the most important things you need to get right is your ‘service level agreement’. You likely already have standard terms of engagement/standard scope of work documents in place – if you don’t, make this a priority!
A really solid service level agreement will outline the scope of work to be completed for a particular project, relevant deadlines, outputs, outcomes, and response times etc. But it’s not just a case of including everything that the project entails… it’s also about figuring out what’s not included.
If you recall the example we discussed earlier on in this piece, you’ll remember that many little client requests add up over time, to the point where you’re losing out on significant amounts of billable hours. This undercuts your agency’s profitability, leaving you with a difficult decision to make – should you keep over-servicing that client to keep them happy, or renegotiate the terms of your arrangement (and risk losing them), or just walk away?
This dilemma can be avoided by setting out:
With this in place, you’ll have an easy out when clients come along with additional requests outside the scope you originally agreed upon. Ensuring they understand that ‘extras’ cost extra from the outset will only be of benefit to your business in the long-run… but if you fail to put this in place upfront, you’ll suffer. Part of this is getting your MINDSET right from the start and ensuring you constantly communicate the VALUE of what you do rather than just the OUTPUTS (more on mindset in a future blog).
In this week’s article, we talked about one of the most common problems I’ve seen in my work with agencies of all shapes and sizes… not being able to to say NO to clients who keep asking for more.
This is a problem for your agency because it puts you in a position where you’re running just to stay in place. When you eventually want to slow down and return to the original terms of your agreement with a client, they’re dissatisfied with a feeling of getting less value for their money.
Starting off on the right foot is very important. With a well-drafted scope of work and agreed service levels, you’ll be able to avoid delivering increasingly unprofitable work and getting backed into a corner by client expectations.
In the next article, we’ll talk about the crucial difference between outputs and outcomes, how you can avoid your work being seen as a commodity, and some quick solutions you can put to work in your business right away to solve this problem. Meanwhile, I would love to hear back from you about your experiences with managing client expectations so please leave a comment, or if you have a specific challenge drop me a message and I’ll give you my best advice.
Welcome back! If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m a huge proponent of learning to manage your clients effectively. This is because it’s something many agencies struggle with – it’s rare to meet a client in my coaching practice that has no room to improve in this area.
Part of the reason why so many businesses struggle with effective client management is that their staff’s beliefs lead them astray. While they may not consciously think so, many fall into the trap of thinking that great service = saying ”yes” to all client demands. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly if you’re aiming to build an agency that competes on quality (not just on price).
Keeping customers is way cheaper than finding new ones. Better client management breeds stronger retention rates, additional sales, higher prices, more satisfied customers and a less stressful experience all around. If you neglect to improve your skills in this area, your business will suffer in the long-term.
We give our staff technical training to do their job but many agencies do not do the same when it comes to effective client management. With that in mind, let’s dive in and talk about how you can do this.
In the early days of your agency, you probably spent a great deal of time working directly with clients. Whether you were listening to their concerns or delivering on important projects, you had hands-on input into the process of “client management”.
If you constantly said yes to your clients when you really should have been asking for more money or politely reminding them of your scope of work agreement, you quickly saw the results of that approach. Forced to do more work for no extra pay, you learned your lesson: there’s more to client management than simply always saying YES!
However, as an agency scales up and the day-to-day management of clients is passed down other staff, there’s a shift in dynamics. Navigating sticky client situations is tough enough for you, as you’ve got the business’ reputation and longevity to think about. But your staff have to deal with an additional pressure… pleasing the boss (i.e. you).
This is particularly true of junior staff in the agency. They want to be seen as skilled and competent by senior staff, and client perceptions of them factor into this. With the words “the customer is always right” burned indelibly into their minds from years of hearing it, they’ll be as obliging as possible and try to give clients whatever they want (often without a second thought as to the impact of what they’re agreeing to).
This is not how you build a highly profitable business. Becoming a doormat for clients to walk all over inevitably leads to one outcome: you’ll be stressed, overworked, burned out, and wondering how things got so complicated.
The key to avoiding this situation is to effectively manage expectations from day 1. Perception is a reality, and it works both ways. If your team know what you expect of them, they’ll be able to work towards building your agency into the kind of business you know it can be. And if your clients have unrealistic expectations regarding quality, the scope of work, or delivery times, they’ll perpetually be dissatisfied.
One of the most significant areas of expectation management your team need training on is the difference between “standards” and “extras”.
You have to set out a clearly defined scope of work agreement at the commencement of any project. Without this, you could be left trying to deliver on the client’s vague vision, wondering if the price you initially quoted them is going to cover the ever-increasing demands they’re placing upon you.
With a scope of work in place, you’ll be able to look back on it and figure out if what the client is asking for is a standard (i.e. already part of your agreement), or if it’s an extra (it’s beyond the scope of the current agreement).
It’s important that your team understands that they shouldn’t feel obliged to deliver extras for free. Doing so will condition clients to expect the same in the future. Before you know it, those extras have become implicit standards. And if you suddenly decide to skip out on these extras one month, what’s the likely result?
Client dissatisfaction, as their expectations have not been met. Going the extra mile is all well and good, but when that becomes the norm, it ceases to be extra… and is soon seen as par for the course.
A clear upfront agreement, laying out what’s part of a monthly retainer or project (and what isn’t) is key. Beyond that, your agreement should also contain details as to how any extras will be billed. The most common approach would simply be charged a flat rate per hour or per additional deliverable completed.
Of course, you don’t always have to charge clients for these extras. Occasionally doing a little bit more for free (if it’s valuable to the client) can be a good strategy to boost long-term retention, or to upsell them on a new level of service. The key here is to ensure that they understand they’re getting something for free and that they’re not under the impression it’s going to be a standard from that point on.
An example of how you could deliver an extra without being put on the hook for delivery in the future:
“This month, at no extra cost to you, we’ve produced x report/deliverable. This would typically cost in the region of ___, but as we feel your business will benefit from it (given that ____), it’s yours for no extra cost.
If you’d like to discuss adding x to your monthly service plan, just let me know and we’ll set up a time to talk about it.”
The above is just an example – tailor it to fit your business, but remember the spirit of it: extras are great, but doing more work for no additional payment is not.
Beyond the work itself, you should also consider expectations/service levels around deadlines and response times. Once again, this is an area that junior staff often struggle with (so we must explicitly train them). The impulse to agree to a client request without thinking or to respond instantly to their emails/instant messages/phone calls is one that needs to be trained out of them.
If a client’s fee level means that you respond within 3 hours yet they are conditioned to expect a response within the hour – because the team always responds immediately (who has ever thought “oh I might as well answer this email now since I can”), they’ll be disappointed when you take three hours… even though that is what they are paying for!
Expectations are everything. It’s important that your staff do everything they can to ensure client expectations remain reasonable. Sometimes, that’s going to mean letting client calls go to voicemail, or allowing emails and IM’s to sit unanswered for a while. Staff may be eager to jump in and respond right away, but make sure that enthusiasm is tempered with understanding: expectations matter, so they need to be managed correctly.
Mastering the skills of effective client management is one of the most important things you can focus on as an agency. It’s not enough for the owners to be skilled – all the team has to be too.
Client management is a game of expectations. If clients get less than they feel they’re entitled to, satisfaction plummets. But if you can consistently give them what they expect (and a little more, provided you know how to avoid being liable for free “extras” in the future)? Your retention rates will soar.
Managing client expectations starts with a solid scope of work agreement and clear service level agreements. Without these, you’ll flounder and could end up delivering a lot more than you bargained for.
Having this conversation with clients at the start of your relationship is important, as it sets the tone for how things will proceed. First impressions matter: the work you do in ensuring they have realistic expectations from the get-go will make satisfying them much easier, as the actual service delivered will be in line with what they expect.
Managing client expectations is fundamental, but truly effective client & account management is broader than that. That’s why I’ve written a brand new eBook on the subject.
Inside, you’ll discover my five-part framework for great client management. This could be an excellent training tool for your team, helping you to build your agency and increase your retention rates without over-servicing, constant stress and competing solely based on price.
If you’re interested, you can download a free copy by completing the form below.
Creating a sales funnel that identifies the best sales and marketing tactics to engage with your target audience is crucial. It will help you establish the best ways to communicate with your audience; working out what works and what doesn’t work.
I spend a lot of time working with my agency clients to help them build their sales funnel, so I thought I would capture my best learnings in this short, 8-minute, video tutorial. Love to get your feedback so please leave a comment and feel free to share the video with your colleagues.
Welcome back to the final article in this series. Last time, we covered some of the most common problems you encounter when scaling your agency from “small” (5 or fewer employees) to “boutique” (10-15 employees), and how you can avoid them. If you missed that instalment, you can check it out here.
This week, we’re going to look at the next stage in the process – moving from “boutique” to “medium” (10-15 employees to 25-30 employees). Just like the last stage, there are certain challenges that routinely crop up as you start to add more employees into the mix. Let’s examine those issues in more detail.
Scaling your agency from 15 employees to 25-30 employees is not as simple as stacking more and more people on top of existing infrastructure. As we discussed last week, a dysfunctional foundation will collapse when it’s put under too much stress. Similarly, if your agency doesn’t run well when it’s small, it’s unlikely that things will improve as you get bigger.
However, the single biggest issue that holds back agencies looking to make the leap from boutique to medium-sized isn’t infrastructure. If you focused on putting the right systems & processes in place earlier on in the process, you should find that most of your systems scale up readily to accommodate new employees. Sure, there may be some hiccups, but overall, intelligent design and selection of your internal processes will serve you well.
Anything you neglected to reinforce earlier on (e.g. IT systems, finances, communication) may come back to bite you here, so make sure to take the time to strengthen these systems now, before they can cause real problems.
Neglected system upgrades notwithstanding, the principal obstacle you must overcome at this stage relates to skills.
When scaling your business from solo to small, you had to grapple with making your first hire. Here, you had to make good choices and bring on employees that possessed the skills your agency needed.
As you continued to scale your business from small to boutique, your attention shifted away from people and onto systems. Making good hires was still important, but you also had to ensure that your infrastructure was robust enough to sustain your growing operations.
And now that you’re looking to scale from boutique to medium, your focus returns to people. But it’s quite possible that the skills you need at this stage in the journey are different from those you needed earlier on.
Many agencies are top-heavy when they start out. If you have multiple owners, it’s likely that you’re all doing a substantial amount of work. When you take on a few employees, the work starts to get more dispersed and your time frees up. The top-heaviness of the agency decreases as more and more lower-level employees join the ranks. However, this leads to a growing gap between top management (i.e. you and the other owners) and junior staff.
This gap can cause problems, particularly as you endeavour to scale your business further. Making strategic business decisions and focusing on the future of your agency requires the space to do so – breathing room from the everyday hustle and bustle of managing operations. Without being able to safely delegate your duties, it can be hard to get this time to work on the future. And this can be compounded by the fact that your key clients all expect YOU to be working on their account!
If you’re not careful, you can be caught in between roles: not stuck in the business, but not free to work on the business either.
The solution to this problem is twofold:
Let’s look at these two areas in more detail.
Simply put – if your skills/expertise are integral in delivering great client work, you won’t have the time you need to focus on scaling the business effectively.
There’s nothing wrong with having an input into the work, or being in a position to guide your team. But if your valuable time is spent doing work that someone else could be doing, you need to consider introducing more senior experienced staff into the organisation.
The best way to determine if this is an issue in your agency is to look at your current employees. Consider the following:
With reference to questions like these, it should soon become apparent if you have issues in this area.
If you’re still required to oversee day-to-day operations and closely manage employees, your time is still being used up IN the business, so who is working ON the business?
The lines between your competing delivery, managerial and leadership roles blur as your agency scales. It can be hard to grow the business effectively when you have so many demands on your time.
When scaling your agency from 15 employees to 25+, you’ll probably find that there’s an awkward transition period. The demands on a handful of vital core staff (e.g. yourself, or some key employees) increase dramatically, which can then lead to decreased performance, slower delivery, and even burnout.
The solution is to identify these issues before they can cause real problems. You know you need to invest in people, but what does that look like?
Whatever the case may be, you have to invest in people at this stage in your journey. The systems you put in place previously (when growing from small to boutique) should serve you well, but remember to proactively improve matters in this area too.
This is the final article in this “Scaling Your Agency” series. When moving from ~15 employees to 25+, it’s rarely systems that hold you back. There’s little difference (conceptually speaking) between the infrastructure required to run an agency of either size. Payroll, communication, IT, finance… unless you’ve seriously neglected one of these areas, it’s unlikely to be your primary stumbling block.
Instead, the obstacle you must overcome at this stage relates to skills. Whether you restructure your business, hire new employees or train up existing staff, you have to ensure your agency possesses the skills required for growth.
As you continue to scale, you need more time to work on the business, not just in the business. If you’re trapped in a functional role all day, you won’t have the time or energy to make smart strategic decisions. For the good of your agency, you have to step back from day-to-day operations (in both a functional and managerial capacity). Take care of this, and your journey towards building a bigger, more profitable agency will be a whole lot easier.
Welcome back to the second article in this series. Last time, we covered some of the most common problems you encounter when scaling your agency from “solo to small” (less than 5 employees), and how you can avoid them. If you missed that instalment, check it out here.
This week, we’re going to look at the next stage in the process – moving from “small” to “boutique” (5 or fewer employees to 5-15 employees). Just like the last stage, there are certain challenges that routinely crop up as you start to add more employees into the mix. Let’s examine those issues in more detail.
If you’re ambitious, and things work out well for you, you’ll eventually reach a point where you’re ready to scale your budding agency into a slightly bigger organisation. Breaking the 5-15 employee barrier is a big milestone in any agency’s story, and with good reason: it indicates you’re moving up in the world yet it’s one of the most difficult growth phases.
The main challenge you face when you’re just starting out is making smart hiring decisions. An agency of five (with two members who don’t quite fit with the culture) is going to be hurt more by a poor hire than a bigger organisation – generally speaking. Recruiting and retaining the best talent for your agency is always an important consideration, but as you scale up your agency, another obstacle emerges: infrastructure.
Having a solid infrastructure in place is what keeps the wheels turning when you’re not standing in the room overseeing every little action. Great systems separate the winners from the also-rans… and sadly, the kind of systems that worked perfectly with a handful of employees don’t always function so well when you add more people into the mix.
I like to use the term infrastructure as a catch-all label for the processes and systems (IT, productivity, documented etc.) your business is built on. They’re foundational – without solid ground to build on, anything you construct on it will be unstable. Throw some external pressure on top, and you have a recipe for disaster.
As I often tell my coaching clients… “what got you here won’t get you there”. Manual (or no) systems work fine when your business is small, but quickly expose you when you scale up, and ultimately stop you growing. For instance:
The point here is that building sound systems into your business from the start is never a waste and indeed, sets you up to become the bigger agency you aspire to be. That said, there are a few specific areas you should focus on as you grow. Let’s take a look at two of those in more detail.
If any of the above situations sound familiar, then it’s likely your documentation systems need work. Whether that means improving your organisational skills, or getting more diligent with tracking your working processes, you need to take note – your business depends on it.
The need for meticulous filing and documentation is less noticeable when your agency is small; you probably feel you don’t need them. You have fewer clients on the books. Fewer employees, which means there’s less chance of losing things! And you have an easier time directly teaching people what they need to know vs just having them to follow a documented process which means you can ensure consistency.
But as you scale up, cracks start to appear if the foundation is weak. Maybe valuable files go missing, or new hires don’t quite understand how to do some crucial task. The net result? The client doesn’t get a consistent experience, and this quickly damages your brand and loses you that client.
Issues like these can only be avoided by taking the time to set up your systems right from the start. Ensure you’ve got the basics down, such as:
The takeaway point here is to get your filing and documentation systems in place before you need them. Take it from someone who’s seen businesses who didn’t do this – you’ll regret it if you don’t.
Much like the carton of expired milk you discover on your return to the office after a long weekend off, your finances get worse the longer you leave them unattended, and most entrepreneurs do not love doing their finances (hand up here, I really don’t like it!)
It’s easy to let the matter go, reasoning that you’ll take care of them once things settle down/take off/after your busy season/before the year-end etc.
But honestly – you’d be surprised how much work it takes to catch up when you fall behind. Piles of receipts, bills you’re not sure were paid, or even invoices that might be overdue: that’s just a taste of the trouble you can find yourself in without a good handle on your finances.
And if you think it’s bad when your agency is still small, you won’t believe how tricky it gets when your business scales up. More employees, more clients, and more money make things much worse if they’re placed on a weak foundation of poor finances.
There isn’t much to say here, apart from this… get a professional in to help! Whether that means hiring a part-time bookkeeper or an accountant, ensure you are on top of your finances.
Remember, one of the critical reasons agencies fail in their first 2 years is because of cash flow issues. So you need to be on top of your invoicing and credit control, not to mention your expenses!
And a few additional points:
The areas mentioned above (project management, documentation and finances) are essential if you hope to scale your agency beyond five employees. Of course, other areas matter too (e.g. communication, IT, and more), but these are the two stumbling blocks I’ve seen numerous businesses struggle with over the years.
Weak foundations are critically exposed when weight and pressure are placed upon them. If you want to avoid serious problems further down the line, take the time to build sound systems into your business now, before you need them. You’ll be glad you did.
In the next article in this series, we’ll discuss what it takes to go from “not-so-small” (10-15 employees) to medium (25-30 employees approx). Stay tuned!
In this new article series, I’m going to discuss some of the most common problems you may encounter if you aspire to scale your agency – and how you can avoid them. Think of this series like a roadmap: it will detail the routes available to you, but ultimately, which road you decide to travel is up to you.
Before we start, it’s important to note that having a small/lifestyle business isn’t a bad thing – if that’s your goal. Some people are content running small agencies (i.e. 5 or fewer employees). Some people are content to work entirely by themselves. And with the right strategy, you can build a highly profitable small business (even without employees) that affords you plenty of free time and the chance to do work you enjoy.
Running a small business can be liberating in some ways. You can charge more competitive prices than your competitors, who have larger overheads. You can create more personal connections with clients and have a direct hand in delivering work to them. There’s also less pressure when you’re only responsible for a handful of employees or just yourself.
However, depending on your ambitions, you may wish for something more. You might have a vision of an agency that is number 1 in your niche. You might hope to eventually “cash out” and retire young (a hard feat to accomplish when you’re responsible for servicing clients every week).
Many agencies start out with just 1-3 people (the owner(s), and maybe an employee or two). Few businesses stay this size – over time, they scale up and become full-fledged operations, capable of creating waves in their space.
The process of scaling up your agency is not always an easy one. There are several pitfalls you need to avoid on your path to a bigger business. Depending on how far along you are on this journey, the dangers will differ. Let’s take a look at these problems in more detail.
When you start as a one-man band, there are certain things you take for granted. No one knows you better than you know yourself. You seldom need to explain what you’re doing to yourself – the answer is already in your head. While this is obvious (and very convenient), it can be a hindrance once you have to take on your first employee or two.
The process of going from zero employees to one or more can be tough to adapt to if you’re not prepared for it. Almost overnight, you go from being able to just do things to having to explain little details to someone else (the stuff you know, but take for granted as common knowledge). That could include your preferred methods of communication, typical working processes, favoured tools/systems, or anything of that sort.
Typically, the first hire you’ll make as a solopreneur looking to expand will either be another functional person (i.e. someone who you can directly delegate work to), or an admin employee (who can handle everything that doesn’t relate to servicing clients). You shouldn’t just hire these people for their skillset – you also need to look out for adaptability and can easily be flexible enough to work in a small agency and do what needs to be done!
The growing pains you’ll experience when moving from self-employment to co-existence with someone is a huge psychological leap – you’re moving from a 1-man band and making the decision to become a ‘real’ business – that’s how it felt to me!
Let’s take a look at an actionable process you can apply to your business today if you’re looking to make one of your first hires (or just a great hire in general).
I’ve heard many horror stories in my time as a business coach. I work with a range of small and large agencies. Regardless of how far along these businesses are in their scaling journeys, the owners usually have stories to tell about the mistakes they made when hiring their first employees. And from listening to all these different stories, I’ve learned there’s a general process you can follow to avoid these mistakes:
That’s the abridged version of the experiences I have seen with many successful agency owners over the past 12 years. While the specifics of their situations differed, the overwhelming majority of them followed a process much like this when taking their agency from “solo to small”.
While part 1 of this article was geared towards one-man bands looking to make their first hire or two, the fundamentals of making great hires are the same no matter how big your agency is. Hiring typically gets a little easier as you scale – you have a better grasp of the kinds of employees you need, attract better candidates, and have stronger systems in place for making the right decisions. When you’re starting out, you lack these resources. That’s why it’s so important to have a robust process in place for making hiring decisions.
Starting that journey of growth may begin with hiring a freelancer but don’t be fooled into believing you can build your business using freelancers. I can guarantee you that it will not work. A freelancer may help with growth in the early days, and they are great for plugging a capacity gap or bringing in skills you do not need or want permanently in your agency, but they are not a long term strategy for growing your agency. (If you want to know more about why I believe this then get in touch).
P.S. In the next article in this series, I’ll discuss what it takes to go from “small” (5 or fewer employees) to “not-so-small” (10-15 employees approx). Stay tuned!
Welcome back to the final article in this four-part series, detailing the biggest mistakes I made as an agency owner – and how you can avoid doing the same.
This week, we’re going to discuss the final error I made as an agency owner, one that potentially cost me hundreds of thousands of pounds: not being in the right frame of mind when I was selling the business.
Even if you’re not currently thinking about selling your agency (or in the process of doing so), you’ll still find valuable lessons to be learned here.
After that, I am going to recap the four biggest mistakes I made as an agency owner, giving you an easy reference for this material in the future.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: first things first…
I remember it like it was yesterday. December 2002. As another year drew to a close, I was sitting in my office, reflecting on all that had happened over the preceding 12 months – and even further than that, right back to the beginning.
Since starting my agency in 1991, I had grown the business from a two-man show to an agency with over 25 staff, seven-figure revenues, and a healthy client book to boot. The dotcom crash had passed our UK-based business by, and we were well poised to succeed and grow moving forward.
The future was bright, but there was one problem: I didn’t really love the work anymore.
Sure, I still showed up every day, met with clients, worked on putting deals together, mentored my staff, made decisions, and “took care of business”…
But the passion that had driven me to set up my own agency in the first place had dwindled. I seemed to spend all day dealing with other people’s problems and that wasn’t why I set up my own business in the first place! So initial talks of moving to a new office space (one that could accommodate our expansion plans) were nothing but a headache. Losing a key client (responsible for ~30% of our revenue) didn’t help matters.
The fire was gone. And I didn’t know how I was going to get it back.
As I sat there in my office at the year’s end, I knew that something had to change. I wasn’t motivated to keep moving in the same direction I’d been heading in. My work-life balance had taken a hit, and I desperately needed a break.
It’s from this position that I decided to sell my agency. This wasn’t an impulsive move by any means (it’s not as if a buyer walked in off the street and made a great offer the next morning), but it all started here from this place of tiredness.
Looking back now, I know that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to sell my business. I was looking for a way out, and that made me vulnerable. And potential buyers could sense that.
So in this first part of the story, the lesson is clear: when you’re selling your agency, don’t negotiate from a position of tiredness. You’ll end up getting a worse deal than you could. If you need to, consider bringing in some outside help – hire a specialist to assist with negotiations and broker a great deal. They often pay for themselves, especially if they’re skilled.
And the second part of the story? That’s the tale of what happened to me once the sale finally went through.
Almost overnight, I was free as a bird…
With no idea where I wanted to fly.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of selling the agency, I had failed to create a concrete plan of what I’d do once it was sold. I was so focused on selling the business (the process actually took about 9-months) that I spent no time answering the question ‘what next?’. I knew I didn’t want to retire (a. I was only 39 and b. I didn’t sell for nearly enough to enable me to retire)
It’s easy to feel lost when you lose something that’s been driving you for a long time. When I no longer had to show up at the office every day to put out fires and make big decisions, I was directionless for a time. But thankfully, this confusion didn’t last too long. To get clarity, I did one simple thing:
I sat down and remembered all the things I had wanted to do before running the agency had dominated my life, taken my time & energy, and drained the fight from me.
Some of the things were easy. I wanted to travel more. Spend more time with family. Contribute to charity more often. All the things I could do – but not things that would give me all the direction I was looking for.
I racked my brains further. As I reflected on those times when I had felt most engaged with my work… I realised that I loved helping people overcome obstacles and solve problems. Whether it was delivering great work to clients (the kind that they were delighted with) or mentoring a promising employee through a particular situation, I loved coaching (I just didn’t know that was what it was called at that time!)
So that’s what I decided to do. I would become a full-time business coach and work with other agency owners, helping them to avoid the traps I had fallen into in my business. I knew that – if nothing else – my fresh pair of eyes could give a much-needed perspective on a situation. My vision was clearer than it had been in a long time now that I knew what I wanted again.
It seems like a quick process when it’s written down like that, but in reality, it took me several months – close to a year, even – before I decided to get into coaching. Looking back, I realise that I could have avoided getting caught in limbo like this if I had just put a proper plan in place before selling the agency.
Taking the time to sit down with a coach/mentor or trusted advisor, and plan out my next moves – would have been a smart decision – but sadly, it wasn’t one I even considered or was aware was even an option!
So that’s the second lesson you can take from my story. If you’re thinking about succession planning then make sure you know what your next steps are going to be. Think a little further ahead than lying on a beach somewhere and ask yourself:
If you’re struggling to answer these questions by yourself, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone else for guidance. Personally, I know it would have made my transition much easier, and I’ve helped many agency owners answer similar questions in the past. The quality of your answers to these powerful questions will determine your future: don’t take them lightly.
When I began writing these articles, I envisioned they would be much different to how they are now. So I suppose the first lesson we can reflect on is that our visions change over time, based on how the real world interacts with them.
As for the worst mistakes I made as an agency owner? They went like this:
When I was running the business, I didn’t have a clear vision of where I wanted it to go. While I had a general sense of its direction, I had no idea of the milestones I’d need to hit each week, month, quarter and year to make that dream a reality.
If this sounds like you, then get clear! Figure out what kind of business you want to build, and start building it. Chunk that end goal down into small milestones you can hit along the way, so you’ll know when you’re on track (and when you’re off).
The second mistake I made was being in constant fire-fighting mode instead of taking a strategic approach to the business. I loved being the key man in my agency, solving problems left and right… but this held us back, as I frequently didn’t have time to make the big moves that would have the biggest impact on the agency.
If this sounds like you, then you need to focus on building a great team. Once you’ve found talented professionals that do great work, you’ll feel comfortable handing off responsibility to them. Secondly, you need to get clear on your vision (sound familiar?) – once you’re accountable to a bigger goal, you’ll find you don’t have time to waste on the small stuff. Bigger problems will demand your attention.
The third mistake I made as an agency owner was trying to go it alone, instead of just learning from the experiences of others. After quickly scaling the agency to around 10 employees, I hit a sticking point. The decisions I was faced with got bigger and more complex, and I (being as stubborn as I was) ploughed ahead. Little did I know that this “trial and error” approach to difficult decisions was not the right move.
Instead, I should have looked outside for guidance: a coach, a mentor, people in my network, seminars or even books. These were all viable sources of knowledge… but I didn’t use them as much as I should have. Don’t do what I did – learn from the experiences of others where you can. Personal experience is valuable in decision-making, but you don’t have to go it alone.
The fourth mistake I made as an agency owner was selling my business from a place of exhaustion. Completely burnt out, I was eager to get the deal done. And once I was out, I lacked a clear plan of action. What did I want to do? Who did I want to be?
I could have avoided both of these situations if I had been more strategic. I could have hired a skilled negotiator to assist with brokering a better deal for my agency. I could have taken the time to work with a coach to clarify my vision for life after the sale. But I didn’t do either of these things. While everything still worked out fine, I know things could have worked out better. So if you’re selling your agency, learn from my mistakes – call on the strength and experience of others if you need to. You won’t regret it.
The purpose of this article series is to help you avoid the mistakes I made as an agency owner. I can’t go back in time and change what happened (and even if I could, would I want to?), but there’s still time for you. The lessons of the past shape our future. They shape the actions we take, the moves we make… and the words I write to you today. It’s up to you whether these lessons help or hinder you.
I hope you’ve gotten something from these articles. And remember: I’m always happy to help other agency owners through whatever they’re dealing with. Odds are I’ve encountered your situation before in my coaching practice. So if you’re currently struggling with something in your business, don’t hesitate to reach out. You can email me anytime at [email protected].