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When Clients Just Keep Wanting More – Managing Client Expectations (part 2)

managing clients expectations

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.

Sell Based on Value, Not Time

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…

Selling Commodities is a Difficult Business

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.

Focus on Outcomes, Not Outputs

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:

  • A content marketing firm’s outputs might be blog articles, social media posts and general strategy consulting sessions. The outcomes that their clients are chasing are more engaged customers, more leads, more profitable relationships with clients etc.
  • A PR firm’s outputs include press releases, features and media coverage articles. The outcome their clients want is to have a better public image and increase market awareness.
  • A branding consultancy might deliver a new logo and brand identity documentation to their client – but what that client really wants is a refreshed brand, one that lets them capture more market share than before.

“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.

Three Quick Tips To Help You Deal With Demanding Clients

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.

  1. Agree to a contingency fee with clients upfront. Have them set aside an additional 10% of your retainer fee for extra work that might arise during the period. If you don’t do anything extra, you don’t charge them for it – but if you do, you’ll easily be able to get the payment for the additional work and won’t feel awkward asking for it.
  2. Make sure your staff are well-trained in handling client requests. Junior members in particular need to be watched, as they’ll often conflate customer satisfaction with just saying yes to everything that’s asked of them. This can cause problems for your agency as you scale, so don’t forget to ensure that everyone is on board with your way of doing things.
  3. Furthermore, make sure junior staff members don’t respond to clients too quickly! Ensure they’re getting the level of service they’re paying for. Don’t respond to their emails within an hour unless your service level agreement entitles them to this privilege (TURN OFF YOUR EMAIL DIALOGUE BOX!). Doing this is counter-intuitive for some, but will help to prevent unreasonable client expectations in the long run.

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.

Conclusion

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.

When Clients Just Keep Wanting More. How to avoid the overservicing epidemic (Part 1)

overservicing

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.

When Good Intentions Come Back to Haunt You

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.

The Problem With Over-Servicing

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.

Create a Rock-Solid Service Level Agreement

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:

  • A clear scope of work for what’s included in the monthly retainer
  • The rate you charge for extras (you know I am not a fan of selling hours so try and keep to project fees when pricing additional work)

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).

Conclusion

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.

Scaling Your Agency: A Roadmap To Guide Your Way  (Part 3)

staff development

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.

Stage 2: Boutique to Medium

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.

Overcoming the Skills Gap in Your Agency

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:

  1. Ensure that you have the right functions filled in the agency
  2. Bring in more senior staff (maybe a general manager) to oversee day-to-day operations

Let’s look at these two areas in more detail.

Functional & Managerial Capacity

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:

  • Is there a clear skills gap between top management, your few star employees, and the rest?
  • Is there an obvious bottleneck individual in the business (someone who needs to sign off on work, or is frequently sought out to get things moving)?
  • Are you overly reliant on “Jack of all trades”, or do you employ a number of specialists?

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?

  • You may need to restructure your business. For instance, this could entail the promotion of existing employees to higher positions, then making an additional hire or two to fill their old positions.
  • You may need to train up existing staff (i.e. for a leadership role, or even just a different functional skill to reduce over-dependence on key employees).
  • You may simply need to make hires in some area. Perhaps you need additional client-facing staff, support staff, or a middle manager.
  • You need to get comfortable with your new more ‘hands-off’ role as you focus on guiding the agency forward.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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The Time-Travelling Agency Owner – Lessons From the Past to Change Your Future (Part 2)

business growth

Welcome back to the second 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 talk about one of the most common traps agency owners fall into: bailing out the boat instead of plugging the leak.

A Day At Sea

Picture this: you’re the captain of a small fishing vessel, and you’re out at sea with your crew. The ocean is calm. Waves gently lap against the hull of your small boat, a gentle breeze blowing past you. You can taste the salt in the air as you survey your surroundings. All is quiet. Peace at last.

But suddenly, there’s a commotion.

You look around from your post at the helm to see your crew all in a panic. You don’t know how it happened, but there’s water filling the boat at an alarming rate. Your crew are desperately bailing it out, but it’s pouring back in as fast as they get rid of it.

The shore is distant – too distant for you to hope for help to arrive. This is a job that requires all hands on deck, so what can you do but get down there and join in? If you don’t, you’ll be sunk for sure.

Everyone needs to do their part to keep things afloat – and as the leader, it’s up to you to shoulder the heaviest burden, direct everyone to where they’re needed, and even get down there and handle the work yourself.

There are times when this is the best approach. After all, life is unpredictable, and sometimes you don’t have a choice. But when you’re on your hands and knees desperately scooping out bucketfuls of water like your life depends on it, you’re blind to the reality of the situation:

  • All that water is pouring in from three small holes in the hull.
  • As long as these remain, the boat will continue to flood.
  • If you could just direct your energy towards patching these holes instead of bailing the water out as fast as possible, you’d return to a safe state that much quicker.

The captain that realises this simple truth can save his crew for certain.

The captain that gets caught up in dealing with the immediate threat in front of them (bailing out the water at the expense of correcting the root cause) is leaving their survival up to chance.

One of these is an effective leader… and the other is not.

But why is this relevant to you as an agency owner?

Because while you might not be the captain of a literal fishing vessel, you lead a team of your own (even if you’re just working with freelancers and other outside partners). And when your agency starts to take on water, what do you do?

Do you jump down and start bailing like a madman, shoulder to shoulder with your employees?  Or do you take step back and figure out where the water’s coming from?

How you answer will determine the success of your business. Sometimes the choice is out of your hands. Sometimes the best thing to do is to plunge in headfirst and lead by example, but other times, we simply default to this approach – even when it’s not the best move to make.

If you’re tired of being stuck in your business, then read on. You’ll get two tips you can use immediately to get some breathing room and start plugging the leaks, rather than getting bogged down in the bailing.

Tip #1 – Surround yourself with a great team

A lot of people are attracted to the idea of having their own business so that they have complete control over everything. Maybe you’re highly creative and very good at your job. In this case, it’s understandable that you like to be involved. You’re skilled at what you do, and you feel as if you can handle difficult situations better than your employees can.

But Apple would never have grown if Steve Jobs spent all day tinkering with computers and electronics. A landscaping company doesn’t grow if the owner pulls weeds 8 hours a day. And your agency won’t grow into the business it could be unless you can take a step back and become more like the effective boat captain we discussed above. From a detached perspective, you can make the right moves, not just the urgent ones.

During my 12-year stint as an agency owner, this was one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome in order to grow my agency. Through my coaching practice, I’ve encountered dozens of other agency owners who had the same problem… until I was able to help them to conquer this issue and scale their businesses into something that worked for them (not the other way around).

Truth be told, I loved the work I did. I loved the process of engaging with new clients, landing new business, and delivering great creative work that generated big returns. Back in the early days, I was the key man in my agency, putting out fires and solving problems left and right. There was no limit to what I’d take on.

But over time, I started to enjoy my “key man” status less and less. I felt like a one-armed juggler trying to keep 12 balls in the air at once. Inevitably, some of them started to fall, often with negative consequences for the business.

My agency was suffering because I was trying to manage it all by myself… so the very first thing I had to do was to find a strong account manager. This simple step created some separation between me and the agency’s operations, which freed me up to focus on the bigger picture.

Managers can come from inside the business (i.e. you can develop and promote existing employees that have potential) or outside. Both are viable options – the most important thing is that they’re suitable for the position. We’ll talk more about what makes a great manager in another article, but don’t be afraid to go with your gut. Experience is the best teacher, and taking this first step away from low-level work is crucial in making your business into all it can be.

And if you’re not in a position to bring on a full-time manager (if you’re a smaller agency, or just starting out on your journey), then don’t be afraid to outsource some of your work to a freelancer (I use Upwork). If you don’t have the funds to take on a new member of staff, delegating to someone like this can be a viable option.

Tip #2 – Get Clear On Where You’re Going

After I had successfully detached myself from the day-to-day operations of the business, I suddenly had more free time to focus on where I wanted my agency to go.

And with all this free time, I soon realised that I wasn’t very clear on what I wanted.

As strange as it sounds, I had been so engrossed in running the business that I hadn’t stopped to consider where we were running to. All I had were some vague ideas as to the kinds of clients we wanted to serve, what we stood for, and how big I wanted the business to be.

Knowing your goal is one thing, but having a plan to attain it is entirely another. I didn’t have a precise destination in mind, so constructing a road map to get there was practically impossible. Like a ship without a clear course plotted ahead of it, my agency was liable to go around in circles – or even head straight for an iceberg that I didn’t spot until it was too late.  

At this point, I knew that I needed help once again – but this time, it was different. This time, I needed to sit down with someone and figure out what I wanted to do with my agency. So I did what I thought was best and hired a business coach.

He was local, recommended to me by a few colleagues. While I don’t remember the exact details of our meetings now (25 years is a long time!), I do remember that our sessions together put me back on the right track. I came away with a clearer vision of what I wanted to do with my agency, a plan for achieving these aims, and confidence that I could make this plan a reality.

This positive experience also pushed me towards becoming a coach later on in life – but that’s a story for another day.

Conclusion

The two simple tips I’ve described in this article have the potential to greatly improve your business when they’re put into practice. If you’re anything like I was, you love working in your business… but to grow and become all you can be, you need to set aside at least some time to work on your business. There will still be plenty of challenging situations, urgent problems and important clients that require your personal touch. However, being able to separate yourself from the day-to-day operations (at least every now and then) will enable you to take tremendous leaps forward.  

Getting an effective manager/management team in place is a vital step in freeing up your time to focus on the bigger picture. And if you’re not entirely sure what this bigger picture is, don’t be afraid reach out  for advice.

Gaining perspective from someone who has been in your position and advised countless other business owners just like you is the smart move. It’ll save you time and money, help you avoid unnecessary struggle, and help you to develop your agency into something that serves you in all you do.

Remember: the captain that chooses to bail out the boat alongside his crew is risking their lives…

But the captain that stays calm, spots the leak and moves to fix this underlying issue is hailed as a hero.

In our next article, we’re going to deal with the third mistake I made as an agency owner – one that has a huge impact on your business: choosing the wrong strategies. Stay tuned!

The Time-Travelling Agency Owner – Lessons From the Past to Change Your Future (Part 1)

business growth

The 2000’s haven’t panned out like Back To The Future promised they would.

I cashed out of my agency in 2003. Once the last document was signed and the money was on the way to my account, I remember feeling immensely relieved – and, to be honest, a little lost. I had been so focused on getting the deal done that I hadn’t taken the time to think about how far I’d come or what was next.

Over the prior decade, I had scaled the business from nothing to 25+ staff and a seven-figure valuation… but what had I learned?

While it feels like it was only yesterday, there’s no getting around the fact that 2003 was 16(!) years ago. In between then and now, I’ve had the chance to reflect on my experience as an agency owner: the good, the bad, the confusing, and the downright terrible.

It tends to be the negatives that stick out in your memory the most because those are the things you learn the most from. When I think back to running my agency for 11 years, certain things jump out more than others. Sure, I remember the big wins, the celebrations after a hugely successful project, the new hire that was a perfect fit…

But the mistakes sting just a little more. Wrong decisions, bad hires, losing important accounts. Long days. Sleepless nights. Arguments. Heartache and Stress!

Don’t get me wrong: there were highs. Plenty of them. But highlight reels, while fun viewing for the victor, don’t teach us as much as a good post-mortem analysis.

 

From the ashes of failure comes valuable lessons. And what good is a lesson left unshared?

That’s one of the key reasons I ended up retraining to be a coach (but that’s a story for another day).

In my work with over 250 agencies over the past 12 years, I’ve seen a lot of business owners making the same mistakes I made.

I do my best to advise them, lead them back onto the right path, help them to avoid suffering like I suffered back them. If you’ve been burned once, why let someone else get burned too?

But not everyone is interested in being shown how to avoid the fire – they need to feel the heat for themselves.

In my coaching practice, I often observe that agencies don’t understand the value of learning from the experience but just continue to do the same things (usually because they are run ragged servicing demanding clients) and hope for a different outcome. Predictably, this doesn’t tend to work out too well for them.

If you need to get burned before you learn, your agency is in for a rough ride. But if you’re interested in avoiding unnecessary pain, building a better business, and actually enjoying the process, then read on.

In this article series, I’m going to lay out the four worst mistakes I made as an agency owner (mistakes I see countless agencies making even today), and what you can do to avoid suffering the same fate.

I can’t go back now and change anything – sadly, we haven’t quite worked out time travel yet. But if I can help other business owners avoid these same pitfalls, they won’t need a time machine. And that’s good enough for me.  

The only value in an idea is how it helps you. The greatest business plan ever written is worthless without hard work & execution behind it. So please take the information you find in this series and use it to make your systems, your business and your life better. In the end… that’s all that matters.

Now, let’s get started.

Mistake #1 – No Vision

Hands down, the biggest thing that held me back from growing my agency as fast as I wanted whilst feeling in control, was not being clear enough on where the business was going.

It wasn’t that I had no idea what I wanted – it’s just that no one ever told me how crucial it was to have a exact destination in mind when you’re setting out to grow your agency.

Maybe you started out as a solopreneur or a freelancer – just one person servicing your clients.

Maybe you were a “proper” agency right from the start, with multiple owners, a few key talents, and a couple of admin staff for good measure.

I’ve had clients from both camps. Worked with bigger businesses, pushing 100+ staff, with client bases to match…

And in my work with businesses of all shapes and sizes, I learned something very interesting:

Most of them had, at one time or another, felt lost on their journey.

Sometimes they made it through on their own (with a lot of time, effort and pain!). Other times, they came to an experienced coach like me for guidance.

It goes without saying that I helped them get back on track using a powerful, yet simple set of tools (read on for more info).

When you first start out, you’ll take clients wherever you can get them. 5, 10, 20, 30 – you take on new business left and right without taking the time to consider whether they’re really a good fit for your agency. And this strategy is fine until you hit a sticking point.

The sticking point varies, depending on your business…

But one day, you wake up and realise that you’ve got 5, 10, 20 or 30 demanding voices to answer to, with no clear escape route in sight.

If you’ve been here, you know how this feels. You started your agency with the best of intentions, hoping to build a business that worked for you (and not the other way around). But before you knew it, you were working just as hard as you ever did – it’s like having a job all over again, but with more stress, worry and risk than it’s worth.

This happens when you don’t set out your plans in advance. When your growth strategy is client acquisition at all costs, no plan is needed – you just keep pitching, keep winning new business… and deal with the fallout later.

That fallout comes when you don’t pay attention to building the critical infrastructure you need to support these clients. The staff, the systems & processes, the valuable core offering, the marketing plan – they all matter, but we forget this when we head off on our journey without a map to guide us.

However, if you’ve got an actual vision for your agency, things are different. When you know where you want to be a year from now (and what you need to do to get there), making strategic decisions is a lot easier.

But when you’re stuck in the trenches, a year can seem like a long time. That’s why I like to sit down with my coaching clients towards the end of their financial year and hash out the details of their vision and plan for the following year.

We get crystal-clear on their goals, the KPI’s we’ll use to assess their progress, and take full stock of the situation they’re in (using a variety of planning tools e.g. SWOT analysis, and more).

But a yearly plan on its own isn’t very useful, so we don’t stop there. Once we’ve gotten clear on their big-picture vision for the next 12 months, we go one step further and determine their quarterly plan.

Here, we create a plan that puts them on track to accomplish their yearly goals, by breaking it down into quarters and allowing for seasonal fluctuations in revenue or anything else that’s strategically relevant.

We repeat this quarterly planning process four times a year, constantly assessing and adjusting as needed.

We don’t stop there. To really make sure we deliver the annual vision, we take our quarterly plan and use it to create a monthly plan.

I find that a month is the shortest period of time most top-level managers should think in. Further down the agency, you’ll want to implement daily and weekly plans to stay on track, but visionaries need to think bigger.  

The monthly plan is just as it sounds – we take the quarterly goals, determine what they can realistically be done in the next month, and set it out for achievement.

This three-level planning process seems simple. If you already do it, you probably think it’s obvious… but you would be astounded if you knew how many agency owners don’t have a solid, well-formed vision of where they’re going.

And the ones that do? At least 80% of them don’t have concrete quarterly and monthly plans (with built-in KPI’s to assess progress) that hold them accountable.

Without a vision, you can’t see the road ahead.

If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know if what you’re doing is helping your business… or if it’s strangling it.

Take the time to sit down and figure out where you want your business to be a year from now. Be realistic, but don’t be afraid to think bigger – we can often do more than we expect when we actually work for it.

Don’t stop there. Go further. Take your one-year vision and figure out what you need to do this quarter in order to get there. Then drill down one level deeper and figure out what needs to happen this month to get your business from here to there.

Without a vision, we flounder. We don’t know which option to choose, so we choose whatever’s easiest, or whatever pays us the most money right now… but this approach costs us in the long-term.

Get strategic, and your business will reap the benefits in the weeks, months and years to come.

In our next article, we’re going to deal with the second mistake I made as an agency owner – a crucial one you need to avoid: bailing out the boat instead of plugging the leak. Stay tuned!

Is your sand timer running out?

Time Management and CEO coaching in Brighton

The fundamental flaw with many company’s new business strategies is that they do an intensive burst of communications to create some engagement and interest with their target customer, and hope that is enough to generate sales. Sadly they will be dissappointed. It’s not how marketing works.

Think right now of your top 3 favourite brands of car or perfume. It’s no doubt easy to think of 3 but maybe harder to think of 4, 5 or 6.  So the question is, are you one of your target audience’s top 3 brands?  If not, they won’t remember you (and therefore won’t buy from you).

So what do we need to do to stay at front of mind with our potential customers?  Here are 5 things to consider:

It’s not just about saying the right things to the right audience

It’s about saying the right things to the right audience AT THE RIGHT TIME.  You have to be present for them at the right time – when they have an issue, challenge or problem that your product or service can solve.

Your contacts will forget you

Think of it this way – every time you communicate with your target audience, you refill the sand timer – and from that moment on, it begins to empy. If you haven’t communicated again with your client; reminding them who you are and how you can help them BEFORE the sand timer runs out, then when they need your services, they will have forgotten you.

It’s about doing a few things well – all the time

Many businesses have peaks (and therefore troughs) in their marketing communications activities (for instance, a a new product launch) and then things tail off.  It’s great to have a burst but you need to continue it consisently.  Remember the sand timer?  Well this burst approach will ensure it runs out before your next big push and that means the client has forgotten you.

Don’t get blinded by shiny new objects

This is a tough one.  There are lots and lots of channels you could be using to engage with your clients but my advice is find the few (that your clients use) that you can use well and consistently – and focus on them, rather than getting sidetracked by the latest marketing tool, new piece of software or channel.

Less is more and keep it simple are 2 thoughts that spring to mind here.

Plan ahead

If you want to keep the sand timer filled then plan ahead.  This is why a marketing strategy and a marketing plan (and a content plan) is crucial – it tells you the best ways to reach your target audience and how & what you are going to say to them, and when.  This ensures you are consistent with your audience communications, and you create messages that resonate with them (not just sales messages but genuinely adding value).

Most of my target audience knows this (after all it’s what they do for a lot of their clients) but it doesn’t mean they do it!  Often my job is to hold a mirror up to the client and remind them what they already know!  I often say, I am not teaching you anything new, just reminding you what you already know and holding you to account to do it!

Let me end by asking you a question, what do you do to keep your prospect’s sand timer filled so they never forget you, and consequently you are there when they need your service?  Drop me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Fixing the leaky bucket

Work smarter and spend more time with your family

Last week I had to renew my car insurance so I phoned my current provider (after checking out the best deals) and they showed little interest in trying to keep me as a customer. They didn’t even attempt to match any other quotes that I received so I said goodbye and moved to a new suppler.

It has always amazed me that utilities companies such as car insurance make little effort to retain their clients and instead, focus all their marketing money on winning new clients. This is not a good business model for any agency or service based business. Yet what efforts do we make for keeping our clients? Of course we want to continually do a great job for them and we know that if we do, we will give ourselves a good chance of retaining them but what else should we be doing?

So let me ask you a question – “How often do you stop, take stock of your top clients and take a high level strategic view of them to work out any risks and opportunities for growth?” If you are like a lot of my clients, the answer is probably ‘not often enough”!

Client retention v client acquisition

Yet it costs 5 times as much to win a new client as it does to keep an existing one. I think we have all read a stat like this somewhere, so why don’t we focus more on developing existing clients?

There are a number of reasons that I hear:

  • We don’t have the time; we are too busy delivering work
  • The account team doesn’t have the skills or confidence to upsell into existing clients
  • We don’t know how to identify new opportunities in existing clients

Here is another interesting and thought provoking stat: If you can increase your client retention by 5% you can increase your profits by 25-95%! Surely that is worth investing the time to train your accounts team to do some Account Development Planning?

I know when I ran my agency, CIT, we didn’t have this in place and just believed we could keep our clients by going the extra mile (there is SO much wrong with that statement!) but every now and again we would feel really cheated because we had worked extra hard (read that as over serviced) for a client and suddenly we had the rug pulled from our feet and they went else where. Could we have prevented this? Maybe, if we had done some proper strategic Account Development Planning.

To successfully do some Account Planning, we need a formalised structure for reviewing existing accounts, identifying threats and opportunities, and creating an action plan to go after those opportunities (or mitigate the threats). I appreciate many agencies don’t have this structure in place or don’t even know where to start so it’s one of the topics I cover in my new Client & Account Management Mastery Course. its a big topic so it gets a whole section to itself.

So back to my car insurance – it’s just going to take one of them to buck the trend and ‘swim in the other direction’ and put their focus on customer retention rather than (or as well as) customer acquisition to make them really stand out from the crowd – and no doubt customers will flock to them! As an agency, we need to ensure we are also doing the same.

Until next week, enjoy the rest of your week.

Rob

The cost of winning the wrong type of client

account management

I have wanted to write about the consequence of taking on the wrong kind of clients for a while because it’s something I see causing problems for agencies time and time again.

What prompted me to write this now is because last week I sat with a client and worked through their pain of having to invest WAY too much time dealing with the issues and grief having wrong type of client on their books.

We all want full order books. I get it. We all have bills to pay and mouths to feed, and we, the owners, are the last to be fed. So I understand the practical need of filling our capacity and avoiding cash flow dips. However, when we have the wrong types of client on our books, we store up several problems for ourselves and our team:

  • The wrong kind of client is hard for us to manage, since they are not in the core ‘sweet spot’ of our expertise or what we do
  • They don’t really appreciate the VALUE that we are bringing them and may well evaluate us based on the wrong metrics (who was cheapest or who was fastest, for example)
  • They are super demanding (because of points 1 & 2 above)

OK so if we can all agree it’s not ideal having the wrong kind of client on our books, how do we find the right client? (I know that’s your next question!).

Well first off, you have to know who the right type of client is. That means:

  • Being really clear about your niche (and a hint here; the more niched the better because it becomes much easier to define and reach your ideal target client)
  • If you are clear then it’s easier to define your customer personas or customer avatars
  • And if you can pinpoint your target customer then it’s easier to produce sales and marketing messages that resonate with them

So, if we have worked out who our ideal target client is, we now can start to build sales and marketing messages that resonate with them and also ‘hang out’ in the places they frequent. But we need the time and space to work on our sales and marketing. However, if we are super busy (over)servicing the wrong type of clients we neither have the time nor the energy to go out and find the right clients.

Every way you cut this, having the wrong clients on your books is really damaging.

One thing that really resonated with me last week when I was discussing this with my client (who is the right type of client FOR ME even if they have been currently taking on the wrong kind of client FOR THEM!) was how TIRED and FED-UP they were. I had to remind them that when we run our own business, we should be there to enjoy the journey, despite the many ups and downs we need to navigate. They were just tired and questioning WHY? We worked on a specific plan to change this and I hope they felt somewhat better and back in control when the left the session with me.

I know this is a big topic and one most everyone is interested in (including me!) so I am excited to include a section on this in my new upcoming course The Client and Account Management Mastery Course*. It’s a hybrid course including access to me directly via a closed exclusive group*.If you would like to be one of the first to hear about the launch as well as special offers next month, then just complete you info below.

How to train your clients

Account management

OK so that sounds like a weird title for this blog but trust me it’s not, so please read on. I want to share with you some of the client management mistakes I made when I ran my agency, and my key learnings over the years (so you don’t make the same mistakes!).

So there are 3 key reasons why we want to manage our clients effectively

  1. To retain them for the long term and be as profitable as possible;
  2. To earn additional revenues by selling additional services;
  3. Create a strong happy relationship between us and the client

Fundamentally this means we need to be great at managing their expectations.  We all know its way cheaper to retain and grow existing clients than it is to find new ones.  Yet sometimes our best efforts to keep a client happy leads them to be dissatisfied and leave us.  Read on to find out why.

To effectively manage client expectations, we need to have clearly understood service levels that are well understood both internally, with the team delivering the client work and with our customer.

To achieve this, we need to get our service levels right from day one.  How often do you feel: “I need to do an amazing job to impress this new client, so they stick with me for the long term”.  This tends to translate to:

  1. Doing whatever the clients asks so they ‘love’ me
  2. Creating a rod for your own back since we have set the benchmark high and need to keep delivering at this level – even though we are over servicing!
  3. The client keeps asking for more but without wanting to pay additional fees for it

Sound familiar?

I remember when my agency (CIT PR) won its first few clients.  We were super excited and since we had the capacity, we did whatever we could to keep them happy (i.e. always say YES and over service them).

Ironically, we actually achieved the reverse of what we were hoping for.  By continually saying YES to the client, they didn’t really respect our time or what we were doing for them and this led them to not always being happy with our levels of service – they had completely forgotten what we had agreed at the outset and how much they were paying us.  This also made it really hard to raise our fees with them and guess what, as we won more clients and got busier, we started to resent these early clients because they were our lowest fee payers but took up more of our time in order to keep them happy!  Something had to change……

So here are 5 tips I learned (and share with my clients)

  1. Create a clearly understood, documented and agreed scope of work with the client and ensure all team members understand what is and isn’t included
  2. Be willing to over service plus or minus 10%
  3. As soon as the client asks for something outside the scope (or +10%) then have discussions with them about additional costs OR dropping something that has previously been agreed in the scope
  4. Talk VALUE and OUTCOMES with the client rather than TIME (download my free eBook on value pricing and selling to learn more)
  5. Report and communicate regularly (ideally monthly) with the client about progress against agreed scope of work (and discuss any deviations)

And a bonus 6thtip…..

  1. Don’t bury your head in the sand if something isn’t going well – address it as soon as possible and work with your client to find a solution

This is a big topic and I am super excited to be launching a new mastermind course on client & account management in February.  This is a hybrid online course, delivered over 4 weeks and gives access to me via an exclusive closed members group. If you would like to be the first the hear more about the course, and how it can help you and your team then enter your details below and be the first to hear about the launch of the course and exclusive offers.

Customer retention and customer relationship management

account management

According to the Harvard Business School, increasing customer retention rates by 5% increases profits anything from 25-95%.   Also repeat customers, on average, spend 67% more (Source: Bain & Company)

So it’s pretty evident that keeping clients is important! One of the key ways of achieving this is to provide exceptional client and account management.  I never understood the utilities or mobile phone business model of being good at winning new customers (through great offers and deals) but making next to no effort to keep customers!  This seems crazy to me, especially in super competitive market places.  So what ever type of business you run, don’t follow their lead!

Whatever your strategies are you need to attract new customers AND keep (and grow) existing ones. Having run my own agency and then spent the last 10 years coaching all types of agencies and service based businesses, I know that getting a good level of client and account management, whilst also ensuring you do not massively over service, is the key to developing a stable and growing business. Yet many staff do not know how to effectively manage clients on a day to day basis as well as taking a strategic view of clients to ensure growth and retention.

Some of the key points I make to my clients:

  • Train your staff on how to be a great client manager – don’t assume they naturally will be!
  • Build a great relationship and empathy with your clients via regular communications and frequent face to face meetings (where possible)
  • Make sure you have a clear way of measuring what you do for your client and communicate this with them
  • If they change the goal posts then be willing to discuss the implications/delays rather than just ‘sucking it up’
  • Be clear to your clients when you over-service them, so you can potentially charge them for the additional work
  • Build a partnership relationship rather than a customer/supplier one
  • Create detailed plans (to use both internally and with the client)
  • Spend time away from the client and monthly work, developing your long term strategy for retention and growth of your key accounts

Since this is such a big topic I have distilled my thinking into my top 15 tips and if you would like a copy of this free document, you can download it here.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us on 07775 644588 or via the contact page.

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