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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.

Teaching Your Team To Manage Client Expectations – The Key To Client Satisfaction

manage client expectations

Welcome back! If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m a huge proponent of learning to manage your clients effectively. This is because it’s something many agencies struggle with – it’s rare to meet a client in my coaching practice that has no room to improve in this area.

Part of the reason why so many businesses struggle with effective client management is that their staff’s beliefs lead them astray. While they may not consciously think so, many fall into the trap of thinking that great service =  saying ”yes” to all client demands. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly if you’re aiming to build an agency that competes on quality (not just on price).  

Keeping customers is way cheaper than finding new ones. Better client management breeds stronger retention rates, additional sales, higher prices, more satisfied customers and a less stressful experience all around. If you neglect to improve your skills in this area, your business will suffer in the long-term.

We give our staff technical training to do their job but many agencies do not do the same when it comes to effective client management. With that in mind, let’s dive in and talk about how you can do this.

Your Team Are a Vital Part of The Process

In the early days of your agency, you probably spent a great deal of time working directly with clients. Whether you were listening to their concerns or delivering on important projects, you had hands-on input into the process of “client management”.

If you constantly said yes to your clients when you really should have been asking for more money or politely reminding them of your scope of work agreement, you quickly saw the results of that approach. Forced to do more work for no extra pay, you learned your lesson: there’s more to client management than simply always saying YES!

However, as an agency scales up and the day-to-day management of clients is passed down other staff, there’s a shift in dynamics. Navigating sticky client situations is tough enough for you, as you’ve got the business’ reputation and longevity to think about. But your staff have to deal with an additional pressure… pleasing the boss (i.e. you).

This is particularly true of junior staff in the agency. They want to be seen as skilled and competent by senior staff, and client perceptions of them factor into this. With the words “the customer is always right” burned indelibly into their minds from years of hearing it, they’ll be as obliging as possible and try to give clients whatever they want (often without a second thought as to the impact of what they’re agreeing to).

This is not how you build a highly profitable business. Becoming a doormat for clients to walk all over inevitably leads to one outcome: you’ll be stressed, overworked, burned out, and wondering how things got so complicated.

The key to avoiding this situation is to effectively manage expectations from day 1. Perception is a reality, and it works both ways. If your team know what you expect of them, they’ll be able to work towards building your agency into the kind of business you know it can be. And if your clients have unrealistic expectations regarding quality, the scope of work, or delivery times, they’ll perpetually be dissatisfied.

One of the most significant areas of expectation management your team need training on is the difference between “standards” and “extras”.

Standards vs Extras – Avoiding Scope Creep and Unrealistic Client Expectations

You have to set out a clearly defined scope of work agreement at the commencement of any project. Without this, you could be left trying to deliver on the client’s vague vision, wondering if the price you initially quoted them is going to cover the ever-increasing demands they’re placing upon you.

With a scope of work in place, you’ll be able to look back on it and figure out if what the client is asking for is a standard (i.e. already part of your agreement), or if it’s an extra (it’s beyond the scope of the current agreement).

It’s important that your team understands that they shouldn’t feel obliged to deliver extras for free. Doing so will condition clients to expect the same in the future. Before you know it, those extras have become implicit standards. And if you suddenly decide to skip out on these extras one month, what’s the likely result?

Client dissatisfaction, as their expectations have not been met. Going the extra mile is all well and good, but when that becomes the norm, it ceases to be extra… and is soon seen as par for the course.

A clear upfront agreement, laying out what’s part of a monthly retainer or project (and what isn’t) is key. Beyond that, your agreement should also contain details as to how any extras will be billed. The most common approach would simply be charged a flat rate per hour or per additional deliverable completed.

Of course, you don’t always have to charge clients for these extras. Occasionally doing a little bit more for free (if it’s valuable to the client) can be a good strategy to boost long-term retention, or to upsell them on a new level of service. The key here is to ensure that they understand they’re getting something for free and that they’re not under the impression it’s going to be a standard from that point on.

An example of how you could deliver an extra without being put on the hook for delivery in the future:

“This month, at no extra cost to you, we’ve produced x report/deliverable. This would typically cost in the region of ___, but as we feel your business will benefit from it (given that ____), it’s yours for no extra cost.
If you’d like to discuss adding x to your monthly service plan, just let me know and we’ll set up a time to talk about it.”  

The above is just an example – tailor it to fit your business, but remember the spirit of it: extras are great, but doing more work for no additional payment is not.

Managing Expectations Around Response Times

Beyond the work itself, you should also consider expectations/service levels around deadlines and response times. Once again, this is an area that junior staff often struggle with (so we must explicitly train them). The impulse to agree to a client request without thinking or to respond instantly to their emails/instant messages/phone calls is one that needs to be trained out of them.

If a client’s fee level means that you respond within 3 hours yet they are conditioned to expect a response within the hour – because the team always responds immediately (who has ever thought “oh I might as well answer this email now since I can”), they’ll be disappointed when you take three hours… even though that is what they are paying for!

Expectations are everything. It’s important that your staff do everything they can to ensure client expectations remain reasonable. Sometimes, that’s going to mean letting client calls go to voicemail, or allowing emails and IM’s to sit unanswered for a while. Staff may be eager to jump in and respond right away, but make sure that enthusiasm is tempered with understanding: expectations matter, so they need to be managed correctly.

Conclusion

Mastering the skills of effective client management is one of the most important things you can focus on as an agency. It’s not enough for the owners to be skilled – all the team has to be too.

Client management is a game of expectations. If clients get less than they feel they’re entitled to, satisfaction plummets. But if you can consistently give them what they expect (and a little more, provided you know how to avoid being liable for free “extras” in the future)? Your retention rates will soar.

Managing client expectations starts with a solid scope of work agreement and clear service level agreements.  Without these, you’ll flounder and could end up delivering a lot more than you bargained for.

Having this conversation with clients at the start of your relationship is important, as it sets the tone for how things will proceed. First impressions matter: the work you do in ensuring they have realistic expectations from the get-go will make satisfying them much easier, as the actual service delivered will be in line with what they expect.

Managing client expectations is fundamental, but truly effective client & account management is broader than that. That’s why I’ve written a brand new eBook on the subject.

Inside, you’ll discover my five-part framework for great client management. This could be an excellent training tool for your team, helping you to build your agency and increase your retention rates without over-servicing, constant stress and competing solely based on price.

If you’re interested, you can download a free copy by completing the form below.

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.

Scaling Your Agency: A Roadmap To Guide Your Way (Part 2)

scaling your agency

Welcome back to the second article in this series. Last time, we covered some of the most common problems you encounter when scaling your agency from “solo to small” (less than 5 employees), and how you can avoid them. If you missed that instalment, check it out here.  

This week, we’re going to look at the next stage in the process – moving from “small” to “boutique” (5 or fewer employees to 5-15 employees). Just like the last stage, there are certain challenges that routinely crop up as you start to add more employees into the mix. Let’s examine those issues in more detail.

Stage 2: Small to Boutique

If you’re ambitious, and things work out well for you, you’ll eventually reach a point where you’re ready to scale your budding agency into a slightly bigger organisation. Breaking the 5-15 employee barrier is a big milestone in any agency’s story, and with good reason: it indicates you’re moving up in the world yet it’s one of the most difficult growth phases.

The main challenge you face when you’re just starting out is making smart hiring decisions. An agency of five (with two members who don’t quite fit with the culture) is going to be hurt more by a poor hire than a bigger organisation – generally speaking. Recruiting and retaining the best talent for your agency is always an important consideration, but as you scale up your agency, another obstacle emerges: infrastructure.

Having a solid infrastructure in place is what keeps the wheels turning when you’re not standing in the room overseeing every little action. Great systems separate the winners from the also-rans… and sadly, the kind of systems that worked perfectly with a handful of employees don’t always function so well when you add more people into the mix.

I like to use the term infrastructure as a catch-all label for the processes and systems (IT, productivity, documented etc.) your business is built on. They’re foundational – without solid ground to build on, anything you construct on it will be unstable. Throw some external pressure on top, and you have a recipe for disaster.

As I often tell my coaching clients… “what got you here won’t get you there”. Manual (or no) systems work fine when your business is small, but quickly expose you when you scale up, and ultimately stop you growing.  For instance:

  • If your preferred method of communication is shouting across the desks at each other, what happens when you’re in a different room?
  • If you don’t measure time internally (because you have a handle on what’s going on), how does that work when you have 10 staff?  

The point here is that building sound systems into your business from the start is never a waste and indeed, sets you up to become the bigger agency you aspire to be. That said, there are a few specific areas you should focus on as you grow. Let’s take a look at two of those in more detail.

Area #1: Filing & Documentation Systems

  1. Ever misplaced a crucial piece of paperwork, then almost torn your hair out looking for it?
  2. Ever had to reverse-engineer a particular working process from scratch because you neglected to write it down in the first place?
  3. Ever failed to produce consistent results for clients because you did the job a slightly different way each time?

If any of the above situations sound familiar, then it’s likely your documentation systems need work. Whether that means improving your organisational skills, or getting more diligent with tracking your working processes, you need to take note – your business depends on it.

The need for meticulous filing and documentation is less noticeable when your agency is small; you probably feel you don’t need them. You have fewer clients on the books. Fewer employees, which means there’s less chance of losing things! And you have an easier time directly teaching people what they need to know vs just having them to follow a documented process which means you can ensure consistency.

But as you scale up, cracks start to appear if the foundation is weak. Maybe valuable files go missing, or new hires don’t quite understand how to do some crucial task. The net result?  The client doesn’t get a consistent experience, and this quickly damages your brand and loses you that client.

Issues like these can only be avoided by taking the time to set up your systems right from the start. Ensure you’ve got the basics down, such as:

  • Using consistent client codes/references across paper and digital files (e.g. invoices, project work, miscellaneous documents, etc.)
  • Standard processes for completing routine tasks, such as client onboarding or monthly reports.
  • Think about what online systems you can use (e.g. project management such as Asana or file sharing such as DropBox).
  • Have a documented hiring process in place. We covered one potential process in detail last week, but ensure you have a standardised way of selecting between candidates. At least when the system is in place, you’ll be able to make changes. Without concrete steps to follow, you could flounder for months on end.

The takeaway point here is to get your filing and documentation systems in place before you need them. Take it from someone who’s seen businesses who didn’t do this – you’ll regret it if you don’t.

Area #2: Managing finance

Much like the carton of expired milk you discover on your return to the office after a long weekend off, your finances get worse the longer you leave them unattended, and most entrepreneurs do not love doing their finances (hand up here, I really don’t like it!)

It’s easy to let the matter go, reasoning that you’ll take care of them once things settle down/take off/after your busy season/before the year-end etc.

But honestly – you’d be surprised how much work it takes to catch up when you fall behind. Piles of receipts, bills you’re not sure were paid, or even invoices that might be overdue: that’s just a taste of the trouble you can find yourself in without a good handle on your finances.

And if you think it’s bad when your agency is still small, you won’t believe how tricky it gets when your business scales up. More employees, more clients, and more money make things much worse if they’re placed on a weak foundation of poor finances.

There isn’t much to say here, apart from this… get a professional in to help! Whether that means hiring a part-time bookkeeper or an accountant, ensure you are on top of your finances.

Remember, one of the critical reasons agencies fail in their first 2 years is because of cash flow issues.  So you need to be on top of your invoicing and credit control, not to mention your expenses!

And a few additional points:

  • Get a reliable software solution in place for managing your accounts. Lots of agencies like to use something cloud-based such as Xero (my preferred solution) or QuickBooks. Ask your accounting professional for advice if needed.
  • Building on our earlier point about having sound filing systems – hold onto all your receipts and invoices. I use ReceiptBank for managing my expenses (which has revolutionised my handle on expenses).

Conclusion

The areas mentioned above (project management, documentation and finances) are essential if you hope to scale your agency beyond five employees. Of course, other areas matter too (e.g. communication, IT, and more), but these are the two stumbling blocks I’ve seen numerous businesses struggle with over the years.

Weak foundations are critically exposed when weight and pressure are placed upon them. If you want to avoid serious problems further down the line, take the time to build sound systems into your business now, before you need them. You’ll be glad you did.

In the next article in this series, we’ll discuss what it takes to go from “not-so-small” (10-15 employees) to medium (25-30 employees approx). Stay tuned!

The top priority for growing your profits

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?

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.

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