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Scaling Your Agency: A Roadmap To Guide Your Way (Part 1)

scaling your agency

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.

Stage 1: Solo to Small

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).

Making Your First Great Hire: The Process

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:

  • Figure out what kind of employee you need? An admin, client facing; a senior or junior member of staff. What will enable you to focus on the things that only you can do?
  • Figure out if you need this employee full-time, or if a part-timer/freelancer would do. This will help you to avoid spending money unnecessarily – always a bonus when your business is in these early stages.
  • Select candidates not only for their skills but also for their adaptability and cultural fit into your agency. You’ll need flexible people at this early stage as you’re still learning how to work with others, developing your processes, etc.
  • Manage your new employee’s expectations from the start. If you’re only taking them on for a month-long trial period, tell them. This will make reversing your hiring decision much easier later on if things don’t work out.
  • Invest time in setting them and you up for success. Hiring is the start not the end of the journey: put a good induction in place and meet with them regularly, to give and receive feedback, especially in the early days.
  • Make sure that you’re flexible in your approach to the work. While you’ll undoubtedly have preferences as to your preferred systems and methods of working, it’s possible your new hire will have valuable experience you can learn from. Don’t compromise your business for them, but don’t be afraid to adapt your processes if something better comes along.
  • Have a probation period that upon completion you decide whether your hire is working out well, or if you need a change. Making good hires is an inexact science, even with experience. The key here is to avoid the sunk cost fallacy – don’t feel as if you have to keep going with them because you’ve already kept them on for x length of time. That’s akin to throwing good money after bad… and that is not a good way to run a business.

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!

Is learning high up on your agenda for you and your staff in 2019?

staff retention

I am not a big fan of new year’s resolutions, so I never set any but I do set business goals for myself.  New year’s resolutions are usually pipedreams or hopes and as they say ‘a dream without a plan is just a wish’.  So setting business goals with plans behind them is the way to go.

As I outlined in my last blog post, in 2018 the 3rd biggest challenge my clients had (that I supported them to work on in our 1-2-1 coaching sessions) was how around staff retention, specifically “do we attract and retain the best staff?“.

How do I attract and retain staff?

There are a multitude of answers to this complex question, not least getting the recruitment and induction process right.  Research shows that staff are highly engaged during their first 6 months of employment and that millennials are prone to ‘job hoping’.  The same research also identifies that millennials are also highly motivated by self-development.

So is learning high up on your agenda for 2019?  Not only to keep staff engaged and retain the best talent, but also for you to ensure you are using best practice?

Invest and develop yourself and your staff

This is such a big part of retention yet is one area that is frequently overlooked by employees (‘we don’t have the time’ or ‘we don’t have the budget’, are 2 statements I frequently hear). Indeed I have had my clients ask me if I have a face to face course I delivered as an online course or if I could take a particular subject I coached them through and turn it into some kind of online learning.  It was these conversations that led me to launch a series of online courses around everything to do with starting, growing and running a successful agency (7 courses to date with plans to add at least 2 more in 2019).  Take a look here to see all 7 courses.

The advantage of online learning

There are many advantages (and a few disadvantages) to taking an online course rather than a classroom based course.  Here are 4:

  1. Everyone is busy and time poor, so an online course can be taken when you have a quieter moment or away from the office
  2. It is self-paced learning. So following on from the point above, you can start and stop the course to suit you.  You can revisit modules (and use as a reference library)
  3. It’s easy to add in an online course as part of everyone’s self development and is more cost effective than sending everyone on a classroom based course. For example, for one of my clients, I delivered some customer service training that they wanted to put all new starters through.  To bring me in each time they have some new starters was not practical but to put all the new starters through the online training course is not only practical but ensures all have had the same training and use the same techniques and ideas
  4. Lower cost – online training is much more cost effective when you look at ‘per student’ costs and of course you don’t have any hotel costs or indirect costs of having someone absent from the office for days at a time

Of course one disadvantage is that there is no interaction with the trainer or fellow students.  To help counter that I invite all my students to join my closed Facebook group where I regularly post content and also am available to answer students questions.

There is really little excuse for not planning to have learning and development on your agenda for the new year.  The benefits of increasing skills and retention make it a no brainer, so make sure you have it on your plan for 2019!

What were the biggest business challenges my clients had in 2018?

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Since we are just starting our new year, I thought it would be interesting to reflect back on 2018 and share with you the reoccurring themes and biggest business challenges that came up time and time again during my coaching sessions with clients.  So here are my top 5 (I would bet most of these were and are relevant to you in 2019).

1. How do we become more profitable?

This is usually a question that is asked early on and one of the reasons for engaging with a coach such as me.

In the agency world, there seems to be a constant mismatch between being super busy, working long hours and yet, not being profitable enough. This results in lack of investment in the business, not enough hours for the owner to work on their business, high staff turnover (if you have staff) and burnout.

As my clients know, the answer to this, whilst it’s not one thing, is definitely to sell value, outcomes and transformations and NOT time.

2. How do we win more business?

This kind of goes hand in hand with one because if you are run ragged servicing low paying challenging clients then you will have little time for new business.  So firstly, get that right so you have time to look for new business.

Secondly, know your customers (define your customer personas).  Understand their challenges (that you can solve) and market yourself against these challenges (rather than telling them how wonderful you are).

Understand their buying habits so you know where they ‘hang out’ (networking?, LinkedIn?, Facebook ads? (yep they can work for business) and so on).

Give away some value for free to demonstrate your credibility (such as a blog like this one) and build rapport with them through regular communications.

3. How do we attract and retain the best staff?

Like all the issues, this is a big one with a long answer.  So let me give you a few quick thoughts on this:

  • It starts with recruitment. Make sure you have a clear roles & responsibilities and recruit against not only the R&R but also your culture – to get the best fit
  • Have a strong induction place (there is no room for a ‘sink or swim’ mentality) – giving them and you the best chance for success
  • Have regular check ins – once probation is over you still need to create a safe space; regular 1-2-1 meetings to give and receive feedback
  • Train and develop yourself and your team
  • Make sure you reward, and recognition schemes are fair, competitive and balanced (and consider the needs of the demographics within your organisation)

4. How do we cut through the noise of competition in the market place?

  • It’s so much easier to be successful when you have a clear niche rather than trying to be a generalist
  • A niched business has a clearly defined market place and clear competitors

5. How do we grow in a sustainable way?

This is all about getting your structure/infrastructure right, so you have room for growth. I always tell my clients to build their business structures today for the business they want to be tomorrow – that way you can grow in a managed sustainable way. If you don’t have the structures in place and grow rapidly, you are just as likely to shrink as rapidly – and have a stressful time in doing so!

So they are the top 5 challenges that I helped my clients solve in 2018.  Will they be the same in 2019?  Did I miss anything?  Do let me know by dropping a comment or sending me a message.

Giving new staff the best chance to succeed

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You’re understaffed and everyone is maxxed out. You finally find a good candidate to fill the vacancy. They start and you breath a sigh of relief now that the post filled and the pressure is relieved. You leave them to get on with things but quickly realise they are not quite what you thought they would be and they realise the Company isn’t quite what they expected. Things don’t quite work out and you find yourselves back to square 1. Does this sound familiar?

I am amazed that this scenario often happens and unwittingly, staff are set up to fail rather than succeed. In order to give a new member of staff the best chance of success you need to map out their first few months so both you and they know what to expect and what ‘good’ looks like in their role. They need to know their priorities for each month, what the outputs of each task are and how they are measured. This way you can ensure that yours and their expectations are met. Management needs to take the time to mentor and ‘buddy’ them so they can ‘learn the ropes’ and settle into their new role and environment as seamlessly and quickly as possible. In a larger organisation there is usually a formalised induction process (although this can be very HR heavy rather than role specific) but in SMEs this is often lacking.

This is a perfect example of one of my favourite expressions: “Slow down to speed up”.  Spend the time at the start getting it right to ensure you and your business moves forward faster in the mid to long run. Invest time in hiring the right staff (if you cut corners or take the cheapest route, you usually end up with a compromise) and then invest time in getting them settled in and up to speed to reap the benefits later on.

Staff attraction and retention is a huge issue for business at the moment. It’s a candidates market so getting it right is crucial. However, hiring the right person is just the start of the process.  So how good is your induction process and what other tips do you have?

How good are you at juggling?

Da Costa Coaching can help you stay organised

How good are your circus skills?  Well if you run your own business you will know that juggling skills are a prerequisite (and if you don’t recognise this you will soon be in trouble).  In fact it is one of the reasons so many start ups fail in their first year.

It’s not enough to have a great idea for a business and to have researched there is demand for your product/service, you need to be able to spin a whole load of plates or juggle lots of balls at the same time.

So what juggling skills do you need exactly?  There are 3 key areas you’ll need to be good at juggling:

  1. Be great at delivery your business today – to keep your clients you will need to deliver a great product / service and continually delight your clients
  2. Keep focused on where the business will come from tomorrow – businesses who rest of their laurels and rely on the business they currently have, are headed for trouble, so no matter how busy you are delivering today’s business, you need to pay attention as to where business in the future will come from.
  3. Finally, if you have staff, then you also need to put focus on managing, developing and keeping them – staff retention in 2015 is the number 1 biggest challenges for UK business, so staff retention should be at the top of your agenda

Avoiding those peaks and troughs (or ‘dont smash the plates’)

So the main thing you need to juggle is time.  And time is in short supply so getting structured becomes super important.  Allocating time to working on the business (strategy) and managing staff is as important as delivering client work (revenue).  And the first two can’t go out the window when you get busy with client work because if they do, what will you do when clients eventually stop working with you (and trust me, at some point they will)?  Those companies who proudly tell me they are super busy and get all their business through referrals so don’t need to do any kind of sales or marketing, will eventually find themselves in a trough and it’s at this point that businesses make poor decisions.

A business in the trough will be desperate to get more work and do one of 2 things:  they either discount to win business or take the wrong kind of work on.  Both scenarios are examples of poor decision making and will eventually lead to more balls being dropped, short term client relationships and poor staff retention.

So how good a juggler are you?  It’s a skill I would definitely recommend gaining.

Get your social media presence sorted (part 2)

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I wrote on this topic a while back and since it was really popular, I thought I would add some further thoughts.

In the 21st century, a crucial part of attracting and retaining the best staff is to ensure you have a strong, clear and up to date online presence. The Z Generation (those born after the millennium) sees social media at the centre of their communities. A report by Sparks & Honey, a US advertising agency describes this generation as the “first tribe of true digital natives” or “screenagers”. But unlike the older Gen Y, they are smarter, safer, more mature and want to change the world. This is also why CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) policies are more than just good for positive PR but crucial for attracting and retaining the younger, Z generation who want to “make a difference in the world”.

Glassdoor Research shows that when candidates have access to information about a job and company—before deciding whether to apply or accept a job offer—employers have seen an average of 22 percent reduction in turnover. The tide is already shifting with employees having more voice with the social channels. Review portals like Glassdoor and independent surveys that rank companies in terms of employee satisfaction have become important tools for potential employees checking out employers.

Of course your social media presence isn’t just about staff, it has to engage with all your stakeholders, including current and potential customers. The importance of social media is not just because of the Z-Gens but also due to the prominence of mobile devices and the X gens/baby boomers also using social media more frequently.

The success gap is widening between businesses that are using social media in an informal, ad hoc manner and those taking a more planned, strategic approach.

This has significant implications:

  • Businesses that use social media strategically are more satisfied with the results than ad hoc users, who are more skeptical about the value of social media.
  • Businesses that use social media as part of a planned corporate approach are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to anticipate revenue growth than ad hoc users.

So how does your social media strategy fit in with your marketing plan – and how strategic v adhoc is it? And how are you measuring and adapting your online presence? Want to find out more then get in touch.

Get your social media presence sorted

staff retention

2015 will prove an challenging year for attracting and retaining top talent.  As part of this, a key agenda activity for HR and marketing will be to ensure your social media presence is up to date, attractive and reflective of the aspirations of your business.

The next generation of job seekers are looking beyond job boards and now engages with potential employers on social media sites.  Glassdoor research shows that when candidates have access to information about a job and company, before deciding whether to apply or accept a job offer, employers have seen an average of 22 percent reduction in turnover. The tide is already shifting with employees having more voice with the social channels through review portals like Glassdoor and independent surveys that rank companies in terms of employee satisfaction.

So does your social media presence reflect the image you want to give to a potential new employee?

Here are a few thoughts:

Twitter – an excellent way to communicate to lots of candidates. Here’s a few pointers to get you started:

  • Mix it up a bit: Mix your tweets up to keep your followers engaged. Try tweeting industry and company news, as well as careers advice and current vacancies.
  • Get everyone tweeting: This gives a good perception of collaboration and personality which are attractive traits from a jobseeker’s perspective.
  • Set up a schedule: Tweeting too regularly can be annoying. Aim for once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once in the evening.
  • Re-tweet others: It’s not all about you. Re-tweet others to build credibility and trust.

Facebook – is a perfect medium to give your employer brand a boost. Here’s how to make it work for you:

  • Share photos: Share photos of events, charity fundraisers, employee birthdays and award ceremonies.
  • Communicate in a human way: If jobseekers post questions respond in a friendly way.
  • Get people talking: Don’t just shout about how great you are. Post useful content for your fans and ask questions to get the conversation going.
  • Make it a team effort: Give your colleagues the freedom to contribute to your page.  Satisfied and happy employees are the best brand ambassadors out there.

LinkedIn – is a great way to build your company’s credibility in the eyes of the job seeker. Here’s how:

  • Create a company page: You can attract followers, create a careers section and update your company status.
  • Join relevant groups: Join in the conversation and then promote your company as an employer of choice by contributing to discussions, providing advice and sharing news.
  • Create a company group: This is an excellent way to help prospective employees feel a sense of belonging long before the application process begins.

Let’s discuss how this works for your business.

Is retention at the top of your agenda for 2015?

Like a fish out of water

A recent survey shows that 1 in 3 staff will be look for a new job in 2015. While this may be a good sign for those looking to hire this year, it also means that staff retention is going to be a challenge and needs to be at the top of your agenda in 2015.

So let’s look at the reasons staff leave and some ideas on how to retain them.

Five main reasons why employees leave

1. It doesn’t feel good around here – This can include any number of issues to do with the corporate culture and the physical working environment.

2. I am not valued and don’t get the support I need to get my job done – Many people don’t feel personally valued. When people don’t feel engaged or appreciated, all the money in the world won’t keep them. People want to do a good job yet can feel constrained to do so because of lack of manager support.

3. Lack of opportunity for advancement – Advancement doesn’t necessarily mean promotion. More often, it means personal and professional growth. People want to be better tomorrow than they are today.

4. Personal growth – Personal growth constitutes a very strong driver in today’s workforce, particularly with the younger generation. People coming out of college often identify training as the primary criterion for choosing their first company. Companies that cut back on their training departments have a lot of catching up to do in order to attract good people.

5. Low compensation or recognition – People want fair pay but contrary to most managers’ beliefs money rarely comes first when deciding whether to stay or go. Employees want opportunities to grow and learn, to advance in their careers and to work on challenging and interesting projects. They want to be recognised and appreciated for their efforts. A certain percentage of people will always chase more income but the majority of workers look at non-monetary reasons first.

So that’s the bad stuff, now lets look at some retention strategies.

Five staff retention strategies

1. Have a clear mission and defined set of values – Having a clear mission and ‘lived’ values will help you attract and retain the right staff who buy into the values. Younger staff want to feel they are part of something exciting that they believe in. Use your values to help your recruitment process and recruit against values as much as you recruit the ability to do the job.

2. Give employees ownership – Has anyone ever enjoyed being micromanaged? People work best (and are happiest) when they have ownership, when they can solve problems their way and express their individuality. This doesn’t mean making everyone equal but ensuring work is delegating when and where it should and can be.

3. Develop your staff – Staff development strategies deal with personal and professional growth. Good employees want to develop new knowledge and skills in order to improve their value in the marketplace and enhance their own self-esteem.

4. Create a healthy working environment – Creating and maintaining a workplace that attracts, retains and nourishes good people is crucial for staff retention. This covers a host of areas such as a safe, pleasant, inspiring work environment to creating clear, logical and consistent operating policies and procedures.

It’s not healthy to work like a dog. Companies with superior retention rates are the ones that recognise that wellness is essential to productivity.

5. Develop creative compensation schemes – Effective compensation schemes stem from one fundamental principle: money alone will not retain most employees. In the old days, companies essentially paid people for their time. Today, more and more companies pay for performance – in every position, not just sales. To retain employees, your compensation plan needs to incorporate this trend.

Smart employers use a variety of hard (monetary) and soft (non-monetary) employee compensation strategies to make it difficult for other companies to steal their people away.

So what is your 2015 staff retention strategy looking like? How high up the management team’s agenda is it?  Want some help?  Get in touch.