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The Time-Travelling Agency Owner – Lessons From the Past to Change Your Future (Part 3)

business growth

Welcome back to the third 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 something you’ve probably experienced before. It’s a costly error I made early on in my agency career: taking the trial and error route instead of learning from the experience of others.

Thankfully, my business lived to tell the tale (despite some poor choices along the way), but I know my path to 25 staff, seven figures in revenue and an eventual sale would have been much smoother if I had just taken a smarter approach.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the start of the story, and see why this lesson matters.

Trial and Error – Not Always The Best Approach

I started my agency back in 1993. Having already spent a number of years in industry, I had youthful confidence on my side that running my own agency would work.  In a few short years we were able to grow the business to 10 employees (with a decent client base to boot).

Guiding the business in these early days was exciting. Every decision brought with it the opportunity to learn something new. And when our agency was still small, I could afford to go with my gut and make the choice I felt was best: worst-case scenario, I learned a valuable lesson moving forward and avoided making that same mistake in the future.

It’s all well and good going with your gut when you’re leading a small team. But I found that as the agency got larger, the situations facing me were getting more and more complicated. I couldn’t readily apply my previous experience in industry to what lay before me. Hiring my first few employees worked out great, but adding further members to our team was a challenge. I ended up making some errors in judgement, taking on staff that weren’t right for the company. Not delegating enough (sound familiar?).  Not focusing on the right things to move the Agency forward. This resulted in a much bumpier road to growth that it needed to be,

My old approach – based on trial and error and going with my gut – was no longer appropriate for the kinds of decisions I was making. With employees and clients depending on me to make smart moves, I needed guidance. I needed someone to advise me on these critical matters. I needed training and support so I could learn to manage my staff better (rather than just winging it).

As you can probably guess, I kicked that particular can down the road for a long time. I didn’t think I had the money to spare for training or coaching. I thought we could figure it out ourselves if we gave it enough time (and tbh, coaching wasn’t that well known in the early 2000s).

While it was possible we could figure it out by ourselves, the reality was that it was costing us more money in missed opportunities than we saved by skimping out in this area.

But I digress. Let’s refocus here and get back to what matters.

The Purpose of This Article Series

When it comes down to it, I’m creating this article series with one main goal in mind:

To help you avoid making the kinds of mistakes that I and so many other business owners have made in the past. The kinds of mistakes that cost you time, money and valuable opportunities. The kinds of mistakes that hurt your business badly without giving anything of value in return.

Simply by reading materials like this, you’re already further ahead than I was back when I was mired in my “trial and error” approach to business. By learning from the experiences of others, we can discover what works & what doesn’t work faster than we could on our own.

I’m not disparaging the value of trial and error and listening to your gut instincts, in helping you make better decisions. In fact, I believe that experience is a crucial part of effective decision-making – but it should be combined with learning from other people’s experience too – especially those who have ‘been there and done it.’

Taking a trial and error approach to making an important decision is like desperately tearing into a haystack with your bare hands in search of the needle inside. Learning from the experience of others, on the other hand, is like using a powerful electromagnet to pull that needle to you, saving a boatload of time and energy in the process.

How To Learn From The Experiences Of Others

So you’re sold on the value of learning from others… but for whatever reason, you’re not in a position to seek out a formal coach at this time. If that’s you, don’t fret. You can benefit tremendously from the experiences of others in many different ways, including:

  • Read blogs, newspapers, and industry publications. LinkedIn is a great place to find compelling, well-written content that can help you take your business to the next level.
  • Read the biographies of successful business people to get an insight into how they made decisions. Contemporary or historical, there’s a lot to be learned from the lives of others. Don’t worry if they’re in different industries to you: the principles of sound decision-making are the same, regardless of the space you find yourself in.
  • Listen to podcasts and interviews with business owners you respect. (I love Amy Porterfield’s weekly podcasts)
  • Network with other business owners – either in your local area or via social platforms like LinkedIn. Having friends you can informally bounce things off of can be a great help when you’re faced with a tough decision.
  • Invest in high-value training courses (either in-person or online) for you and your team. Anything that will save or give you more time and money is worth looking into.

Conclusion

There’s a time and place for learning through your own experience. I’ve seen this in my coaching practice: while clients often rely on me for advice, the final decision rests with them, but they value the fact that I have ‘walked in their shoes’. Experience is vital in making better choices, and simple “trial and error” is one way to accumulate this experience.

However, relying on your gut – to the detriment of learning from the experiences of others – is a fools’ game. Learning from others could take the form of reading their content, listening to their interviews, investing in their training or simply talking to them. No matter how you do it, getting outside perspective is valuable.

Don’t make the mistake I and so many other business owners have made in the past. Learning from the experiences of others will allow you to shortcut your learning curve, and this will enable you to build your business faster and easier than ever before.

In the next article, we’ll talk about the fourth (and final) mistake I made as an agency owner, and recap everything we’ve covered in this series. Stay tuned!

When The Waters Turn Red, Will Your Clients Be There To Pull You Out?

client retention

If you make an effort to keep up-to-date with useful research in the area of business theory, there’s a good chance you’ve come across “Blue Ocean Strategy”. In their 2005 book Blue Ocean Strategy, researchers W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne argued that markets can be split into two distinct categories: blue oceans and red oceans.

Simply put, a blue ocean is a market that is emerging, profitable, and not yet packed with competitors that turn survival into an all-out dogfight. In contrast, a red ocean is an existing market where established competitors struggle to eke out a reasonable market share, and new entrants have a slim chance of succeeding. The red colour of the ocean alludes to the kind of waters sharks feed in – a grim analogy for business competition, but fairly accurate!

In this article, we’re not going to focus on discussing the differences between blue oceans and red oceans, and how you can apply this knowledge in your business (that’s a topic for another day). Instead, we’re going to look at one particular factor that will influence your ability to survive in a tough, crowded market.

The global market

The reality is that business is getting more and more competitive with every passing year. Waves of globalisation have spurred on increasing interconnectivity between countries around the world. This creates a situation where you’re not just competing with a handful of companies in your local area – or even in your country – anymore. Instead, you’re trying to keep up with competitors on a global scale.

And this reality of increased competition from all sides is prevalent in the agency space. Depending on the kind of service you provide, you might be insulated from this to a certain extent (e.g. local recruitment agencies have little to fear from foreign competitors – although they have their own challenges, such as competing with online agencies like Monster). However, there’s other sectors that are very prone to disruption from the wider environment: think design, marketing, or business consultancy services. The kind of work these agencies focus on is easy to do in a “remote” (i.e. online) capacity, leaving the door wide open to potential competitors.

Sometimes these competing agencies are located in lower-cost regions of the world, where they can afford to charge much lower prices than you can. Maybe they offer a novel approach to delivering the same results to your clients. Maybe they can even deliver better ones with their methods. The water is getting redder by the day. Without a proper strategy in place, you could be in for a nasty surprise in the near future.

When you’re operating in this kind of environment, how do you compete? How do you stand out among this competition, and create a business that’s sustainable in the long-term?

The answer is simple…

You need to focus on building great customer relationships. And by this, I mean that you should focus on increasing customer retention rates, and growing the service you provide to your existing clients.

Of course, customer relationships are just one half of the equation. The other half is knowing exactly what niche of the market your services are perfect for. But we’ll leave that topic for another day, and instead zone in on the value of effective client management.

Being able to retain & grow your existing clients is a powerful skillset, one that you must develop if you hope to build your agency. It can make the difference between swimming alone in shark-infested waters, and having an ally pull you onto their boat, stopping the beasts from sinking their teeth into you.

But developing this skillset isn’t easy. If you’re the head of a large agency, the leader of a client-facing team (or even if you’re a one-man band), it’s quite possible that you haven’t taken the time to really work on client management best practices for your staff or yourself. With everything else you have on your plate, giving your staff training you feel might be a bit redundant seems like a huge waste of time.

And if it was the case that your staff already possessed these skills, I’d agree with you – it would be a waste to give them specific training in this area. But the skills of effective client management aren’t exactly common knowledge. Maybe you’ve seen this first-hand in your own business. Maybe you’ve experienced this first-hand  (e.g. that time when you weren’t sure how to handle a client that asked for too much while giving too little in return).

Don’t make the same mistakes!

In my coaching practice, I’ve seen the same issues playing out time and again in agencies around the world. The fundamental approach many of them take to client management is flawed, setting them up to do unprofitable work, work too long for too little pay, and to stress constantly over keeping their clients happy.

To bring things back around to our idea of a “red ocean”… these kinds of agencies are floundering in blood-red waters, hoping that their indifferent allies (clients) will paddle over and rescue them – but they can’t be certain what’s going to happen.

It’s the same in your business. If you’re not confident that you can retain a client, you’ll do one of two things:

  1. You’ll bend over backwards to keep these clients happy. This leads to them expecting more and more from you over the long-term, creating unrealistic expectations for your work moving forward… and eventually, creating enormous dissatisfaction when you can’t live up to these flawed standards.
  2. You won’t commit your resources to producing the kind of great work you need to do as an agency. Why would you waste time and energy on a client that might leave you in the next month or two?

Both of these scenarios lead to the same conclusion – your clients move onto another agency if your output doesn’t quite meet their standards. That’s not to say that your work is bad in this scenario. It’s a case of their expectations being too unrealistic, or that you’re stretched too thin trying to over-service countless clients to deliver truly great work.  

We both know that retaining and growing your best clients is the path to business success. Even think of something as fundamental as your customer acquisition cost. That’s a sunk cost you have to incur every time you go out and hunt for new business. Based on that alone, getting more money from your existing customers will be more profitable than finding new ones.

You can’t afford to paddle around unprotected in the red ocean of a fiercely competitive market. It’s better to have a stable, safe location to survey that waters from, allowing you to dive in when you need to (but protecting you when you don’t).

Rather than having a large pool of potential rescuers (who may or may or not pull through for you when you need them), wouldn’t you rather know you could rely on help from a handful of bigger boats – and be sure they’d be there for you?

That’s what it means to retain clients and grow your existing accounts.

You don’t worry about constantly acquiring new business to replace those customers that walk out the door and never come back.

You don’t have to worry about satisfying those demanding clients that barely move the needle when it comes to your bottom line.

And you won’t have to worry about losing your best clients – because you possess the skills required to keep them truly happy with your work.

We’ve already talked about how over-servicing is a fools game, one that we all get caught up in at some stage. However, there’s a difference between knowing something and being able to put that knowledge into practice.

That’s why I created the FREE Client Management Masterclass. Based on my experience in the agency space (first as the owner of a 7-figure agency, then later as a coach and mentor to 200+ agencies across multiple sectors), I’ve produced a free 30-minute video training session that can be used to take your client management skills (and those of your employees) to the next level.

The Client Management Masterclass went live on Monday 18th March, and streams directly to your computer, tablet or phone. In the Masterclass, I reveal my Three Pillar Approach to effective client management, teaching you how to get paid what you’re worth, manage client expectations up front (to avoid conflict and negative situations), and boost retention rates to supercharge your profitability.

I’ve accumulated these client management best practices over the past 25 years, based on my observations of what creates the most impact for my coaching clients. Anything you learn here is proven to work across a variety of industries, and will likely be of benefit to your business too.

Additionally, all attendees of this Masterclass will be given the chance to sign up for my brand new Client & Account Management Mastery Course, featuring exclusive video training, in-depth tricks of the trade, and access to a private mastermind group, where you’ll get the chance to ask me your questions on a weekly live Q & A. This is like hiring me to coach you in-person (which typically costs £2000+, depending on your needs). Further details of that will follow at the end of the Masterclass.

The Client Management Masterclass is available for viewing now. If you’re interested in learning more about it, please go here. If you register in the next week, you’ll be eligible an additional FREE bonus (more details at the end of the Masterclass).

How Much Is Bad Client Management Costing You?

client management

Scope creep: when you just can’t say no.  

The answer to today’s question about client management should come as no surprise to you if you’ve been in this agency space for any length of time:

It’s costing you a lot.

Of course, your understanding of “good” and “bad” client management could be very different to mine, or that of my clients. But in my experience – both as an agency owner for over 10 years, and now as a coach to 200+ agencies – I’ve seen the same few errors being made by businesses all across the world.   

These errors aren’t always huge, obvious mistakes that are easy to fix. Sometimes they’re hard to spot – like a culture of just trying to please a customer at all costs.. And sometimes you think things are going just fine (despite all evidence to the contrary).

The most common trap I see agency owners & staff falling into – time and again – is thinking that you have to supplicate to clients in order for them to be satisfied. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth… and in this article, we’re going to unravel this insidious lie and expose it for what it is: a limiting paradigm that holds your agency back from being all it can be.

When Saying “Yes” Now Means Saying “No” Later On

One of the most commonly trotted-out business cliches is “the customer is always right”. We’ve heard this a thousand times from a thousand people, all repeating what they believe to be true: in order to make your clients happy, you have to give them whatever they ask for.

While that kind of mentality might fly in the retail or hospitality industries, it doesn’t apply to your agency. In fact, thinking that it does will leave you stressed out, underpaid, and even starting to resent the work you’re doing – all because you lack the ability to say “no” when it really matters.

In my work as a business coach, I’ve often found that there’s a disconnect between the vision of the owners/managers and the actions of their client-facing staff. For some reason, managers just assume that their account teams  will know how to deal with clients properly, and so don’t offer them any substantial training on this subject (the kind that they need if you want your agency to flourish).

The basics of customer service are easy to pick up. They’re beaten into every call centre rep, retail employee and waiter/waitress in the country. But what about something more advanced? Something more appropriate for a high-value business like yours? It’s harder to come by.

Specifically, I’ve seen this disconnect between top-level vision and bottom-level implementation play out in the way employees handle client requests. Without being explicitly told how they should deal with a given situation, your employees will often defer to doing what they feel is best – abiding by the rule that “the customer is always right” and giving them whatever they want.

So when that client rings up and needs a particular piece of work completed on a short deadline, your employees agree to it, thinking that they have to say yes. They don’t think about whether this request is included in previously agreed fees, the fact they’re over-servicing this client, or that they’re creating unrealistic expectations moving forward. They just say yes because they were taught that the customer is always right – and no one told them any different.

And saying yes to this client’s demands mean that you can’t say yes when it really matters – when better opportunities come along, or when your dream client walks through the door. Instead, your answer is a no by default because you are already at full capacity with underpaying projects.

That’s what bad client management is costing you: the chance to build a better business, to serve your ideal clients, and to scale your agency into something that works for you (instead of the other way around).

And if you’re a one-man band, you’re not excluded from this discussion. As a solopreneur, you’re responsible for both directing your business with a big-picture vision… and for actually doing the hard work required to service your clients. The disconnect between how you want to handle your clients and how you actually treat them can often leave you stuck in a place you don’t want to be: working too long, for too little pay, with too much stress involved.

These same lessons apply whether you’re a solopreneur, leading a small team, or running a large agency – unless you learn to handle clients effectively, you’re going to limit your business and make life much harder than it needs to be.

Of course, over-servicing isn’t a big deal if it only happens once… but in my experience, these things don’t happen just once. Clients can get used to having work done on demand, so they start to send in similar requests more often. Gradually, their respect for your processes, your business and your time start to erode.

After a while, you’re not two partners working together on a mutually beneficial project anymore. Instead, you’ve been forced into a supplier/customer relationship, where you have much less power than your client.

While supplier/customer relationships work in certain industries (i.e. if your local supermarket only allowed you to shop by appointment, you’d soon find a new one), they’re bad news for your agency.

The work you do is valuable. It takes time, and you have many different clients to service. You can’t afford to let one client dominate your business – unless they’re big enough to warrant this attention, of course (although the dangers of ‘putting all your eggs’ in one basket is a topic for another blog post).

Instead of merely being seen as a supplier, you want to be seen as a partner: a trusted, professional expert that delivers valuable work from a place of equal respect. If you can successfully establish this position for yourself, then you’ll be able to get paid what you’re worth, waste less time racking up unbillable hours, and stop stressing out about the mounting obligations you never should have agreed to in the first place. The scales will be balanced, both sides perfectly equal to one another.

Establishing this position is easier said than done, however. There’s a number of different moving parts you need to consider.

  • And (most importantly) you need to make sure that your team are on the same page. If you position yourself as a respected, professional agency, but your staff constantly supplicate to clients, giving them whatever they want with no respect for their own time… what does that tell your clients?

It tells them you don’t deserve respect. That you’re not worth a premium price, and that you’re there to work for them – not with them, as equals.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this basic mistake cause problems for agencies aspiring to achieve more. Driven, ambitious top-level managers are a powerful asset – but without staff that are properly equipped with effective client management practices, they’re worth far less.

This is such a big topic and common conversation that I am excited to be delivering a LIVE webinar next Monday 18th at 4pm (UK time) entitled The Client Management Masterclass. Based on my experience in the agency space (first as the owner of a 7-figure agency, then later as a coach and mentor to 200+ agencies across multiple sectors). I’ll reveal my Three Pillar Approach to effective client management, teaching you how to get paid what you’re worth, manage client expectations up front (to avoid conflict and negative situations), and boost retention rates to supercharge your profitability. So if you would like to join the 45min masterclass, hop over to Facebook and join my Agency Growth Mastermind Group (from where the masterclass will take place)

I’ve accumulated these client management best practices over the past 25 years, based on my observations of what creates the most impact for my coaching clients. Anything you learn here is proven to work across a variety of industries, and will likely be of benefit to your business too.

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

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!

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?

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

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

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.

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!

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