20 Insightful Business Lessons My Agency Learned in 2016

20 insightful business lessons my agency learned in 2016

Over the past few years, our agency, Growth Spark, has come together every Friday for a meeting we call “Weekly Reflections.”

This meeting gives everyone an opportunity to open up and share not only how their week went, but any lessons learned along the way. We note those lessons week-by-week, and dedicate time throughout the year to review them as a team.

This review reveals quite a bit about our agency; why we've progressed immensely in so many areas, while continuing to bang our heads against the wall in others. It's another way we measure growth, beyond dollars, and one that’s incredibly rewarding.

Part of this review process is a write-up that we like to share with fellow agencies, that outlines the top twenty lessons we learned over the previous year.

So without further ado, here’s our take on 2016; we hope that you might be able to avoid some of our mistakes and benefit from some of our lessons!

1. Exponentially grow your sales

In all of my conversations with other agencies, one question always seems to come up: "how do you drive new business?" The funny thing is that the same answer always seems to come up as well: "via referrals."

There is no denying that referrals play a huge role in growing your pipeline as an agency. Other than good-old-fashioned networking, and delivering solid client work, we've found that there is another trick to referral marketing. The key is to identify relationships that could “exponentially refer” new business to you.

Rather than focusing on general networking,or finding people that could give one referral every-so-often, you want to identify relationships that could serve as a huge stream of new business. Could you find a handful of other agencies that could subcontract your group, for the dozens of projects per-year they can't fulfill in-house? Could you build a direct relationship with the company behind any software that you use for your clients on a regular basis, and become a “preferred vendor” of theirs?

The key is to find a way where a single relationship could lead to dozens of referrals, throughout the year. With only a handful of these types of people in your network, you could likely keep your pipeline entirely full.

2. Consume your client's brand

You've had countless sales calls in the past. You know your services, processes, and technology like the back of your hand. But how familiar are you with your next potential client's brand?

But how familiar are you with your next potential client's brand?

What if they ask you what you like or dislike about their brand? Will you be able to respond with any insight or sincerity?

Although you don't necessarily need to be the target audience of a potential client, it's helpful to have some experience or familiarity with them, prior to any sales meeting. Take the time to review their website, stroll through one of their retail locations, or at least review your contact's profile on LinkedIn. The more familiarity you have, the easier it will be to lend insight and demonstrate that you genuinely want to finds ways to help them grow.

3. Simplicity sells better than complexity

In an effort to sound professional and look like you're on top of your game, it's easy to get consumed with “proprietary methods” and “specialized frameworks.” Overly engineered descriptions of how you work, that are smothered in trademarks and registred symbols, might look impressive on your website but how effective are they in actually educating your clients?

If how you describe your services doesn't help your clients see things clearer, then you're only going to make their decision to work with you that much harder. Whether it's your process, policies, or pricing model, the simpler you can explain things to a client, the more likely they'll be able to understand your offering, and feel confident in working with you.

4. Always aim to win the deal

20 insightful business lessons my agency learned in 2016: Win the deal

We're all very eager to pull out all of the stops during the initial sales process, in order to win over a client. When we're putting together proposals or presentations, we'll go the extra mile to show them that we care about their business.

But what happens after you win that deal? Are you still willing to go the extra mile for the client?

Whether you bill by the project, hour, or on-retainer, you need to continue to “win the deal” over time. Don't think the first sale is the only time you might need to invest unbillable time into a client relationship.

What might be an unprofitable extra hour invested in over-delivering on a project, might lead to another hundred hours of future paid work. Don't get too comfortable with the state of your client relationship just because you won the deal once. Keeping winning the deal!

You might also like: Like Moths to a Flame: How to Attract (and Keep) Your Dream Clients.

5. Don't sell insurance

On-going support is a great way to add recurring revenue as an agency. Most clients, however, don't want to feel like they're just spending money and not getting some sort of return. Positioning your support offerings as insurance to handle those “just in case moments,” is not nearly as effective as aligning it with some sort of additional value your client could receive.

Rather than say you'll be there when an issue arises, demonstrate how your ongoing support efforts improve key performance metrics for the client, such as decreasing load speed, increasing average order size, etc. The more your services create solutions, and don't just negate potential problems, the more likely a client would be interested in on-going services.

6. Graduate your clients

Clients come in all shapes and sizes, as do agencies. Many of us realize this when a client is “too small for us, but what if they're too big? It's just as important to help a client find the right solution when their needs exceed your capabilities, as when your capabilities exceed their needs.

It's just as important to help a client find the right solution when their needs exceed your capabilities, as when your capabilities exceed their needs.

In fact, many fast-growing startups intentionally hire agencies early on to help with initial product development, while simultaneously trying to build their own in-house team to take over that work down-the-line.

It's OK to start a business that intentionally graduates clients to other agencies, or their own in-house teams. There is even an opportunity to turn these graduation moments into their own revenue streams, by offering training services to the client's in-house team, or cashing in on large referral fees from another agency. Figure out what's best for the client, and you'll likely find something that benefits you as well.

You might also like: The Value of Saying No to Potential Clients.

7. Get in touch with cousin Jimmy

An often repeated step in the sales process is to identify all decision makers related to a deal. You need to make sure that anyone who has a say in hiring your agency is involved in the sales process, so you can avoid a blind decision being made.

The same goes for the delivery process of your projects as well. If you're designing or developing anything that needs to be approved by the client, make sure you know exactly who’s behind the approval.

Is it an ominous CEO, who’s never appeared in a previous meeting that’s going to have final say? Does the project manager on the client-side run everything by his wife? Does the other developer loop in cousin Jimmy because he knows how to use Photoshop? Figure out exactly who's involved in the decision making process for a project, and make sure to get them involved on day one.

8. Write up a survival guide

20 insightful business lesson my agency learned in 2016: Survival guide

Something will always go wrong in a project. Sometimes it's a minor issue, and sometimes it's a complete deal breaker. Although many of these issues can't necessarily be identified at the start of the project — otherwise they wouldn't be issues — you can still put in a plan for handling the consequences of potential issues.

What happens if launch is delayed? What happens if the budget is too small? What happens if content isn't completed on time? Work with your client to run through some of these scenarios, and create a survival guide on how you agree to deal with these situations should they arise.

It's much easier to mitigate problems when the consequences of those problems have already been discussed.

9. Get back to the future

Everyone knows the value of putting together some sort of project schedule that outlines key milestones and launch targets. Everyone also knows that these schedules are rarely 100 percent accurate, and seem to almost constantly be in some sort of flux. Although time should be spent reworking these schedules during the project, how much time do you spend putting together historical schedules, based on the events that actually occurred?

How much time do you spend putting together historical schedules, based on the events that actually occurred?

Granted, the project at-hand might not benefit tremendously from having a historical schedule, but the insights gained from such a schedule could be immensely valuable for future projects. The estimates and processes outlined for future projects could all be modeled after realistic schedules, derived from these historical documents.

Don't miss out on the opportunity to learn from past mistakes with just a bit of extra documentation.

10. Schedule now or forever hold your peace

20 insightful business lessons my agency learned in 2016: Schedule

We live in a world of limited bandwidth and endless obligations. Everyone's schedule is jam-packed, so last-minute meetings and communication can often be difficult to accommodate — especially in projects with multiple parties involved.

Rather than scheduling meetings in real time, during the project, consider pre-scheduling all meetings throughout the whole project from day one. Not only does this guarantee that you have the bandwidth available from your clients, it also helps to lock-in concrete milestones that can help keep the team focused and motivated during the project.

Knowing that there is already some sort of presentation on the books can often be the difference between keeping a project schedule on track, or not.

You might also like: A Web Designer’s Guide to Project Schedules.

11. Always ask the client why

Most agencies seem to work in a collaborative manner with their clients. There is some sort of back-and-forth during the project that accommodates feedback and iteration. This ensures the client feels invested in the process, and that their voice is being heard.

Sometimes, however, that voice is not always correct. In moments where you might not agree with a client, or they might not agree with you, the most helpful question to ask is "why?"

In moments where you might not agree with a client, or they might not agree with you, the most helpful question to ask is "why?"

Trying to gain a clearer understanding as to why a client feels a certain way about something, can help ensure you gain clarity in their perspective.

When asking why, it will give you the opportunity to figure out if their feedback is coming from a place of personal bias, or is due to a business motivation. Once you figure out the why behind your client's feedback, it's easier to negotiate with them on whether that feedback should or shouldn't be included in the project.

12. Take META notes

We all tend to take notes during client and team meetings about 'what' is being said at the moment, but how often do you take notes on 'how' or 'why' something is being said? The idea of META Notetaking is to reflect on a process in real-time as a means of improving that process in the future. Did you like the phrasing of a particular question you asked the client? Do you notice that the same roadblocks seem to come up during a project? Taking notes on how you're working and not just what you're working on can be a great way to improve your effectiveness over time.

13. Mirror mirror

20 insightful business lessons my agency learned in 2016:Mirroring

There is a sales tactic known as “mirroring” that is an effective way to instantly build rapport and comfort with a prospect. The idea is to subtly mimic the body language of the other person, as closely as possible. Whether it's how they sit, how fast they speak, if they swear, or anything else communication-related, the more closely you act like them, the more comfortable they'll feel.

This idea should extend directly into the delivery of the project, as well. Notice the communication style of your client. Are they highly technical? Do they prefer written or verbal communication? Do they like lists and facts, or stories and emotion?

Try to identify elements of how they communicate, and mirror that as much as possible. It will aid in the effectiveness of the ongoing rapport, comfort, and communication you have with the client.

14. Structure unstructured conversations

The client service business depends on communication. Whether internal conversations with the team or meetings with the client, communication happens often.

Although no one wants to add another meeting to their calendar, it's important to occasionally set aside time for an unstructured conversation. The occasional meeting that's just meant for people to vent, can be a highly effective way to get at any underlying issues within a team.

Set aside a few hours with no particular agenda, other than to explore how people have felt over a given period of time. Plan to have these “structured unstructured” conversations on occasion, to be sure that lingering issues are worked through.

15. Two-way streets

As agencies, we obsess about identifying all elements involved in a project. How we'll run our process, what's in our scope, how we structure our schedule. Often, this leads to a very one-sided view of the project. One that focuses solely on what the agency needs to produce during the project. Yet, for any project to be truly successful, there’s always some level of work on the client's side.

Whether it's providing feedback, approving deliverables, sending login credentials, or anything else, clients share a significant responsibility in the success of a project.

Whether it's providing feedback, approving deliverables, sending login credentials, or anything else, clients share a significant responsibility in the success of a project.

The more clearly you can outline these responsibilities, and any associated timelines, early in the project, the more likely it will be a success.

Don't hesitate to hold them just as accountable as they hold you.

16. Clients are people too

As much as you need to hold clients accountable, there will be times when clients are upset, when they explode during a meeting, or when they fail to provide something on time. It's important to realize that clients are people too, and that they’re subject to all the same faults that we have.

When they seem to be overly negative on a deliverable, perhaps it's not a reflection of your work but a reflection of their personal life. When they fail to communicate, perhaps it's not a failure on your side, but a sign that something else is distracting them. When they seem to be riding you on a deadline, perhaps there is someone above them applying the same amount of pressure.

Don't take everything personally when dealing with your clients. Give them the space, time, and support they might need, to deal with other issues in their life that might be seeping into your relationship with them.

You might also like: Forget User Experience. Start Thinking About Client Experience.

17. Drive the bus

When your client originally hired you, it was mostly likely because they saw you as someone that could lead them to success with their business. Your design expertise, marketing capabilities, or development chops were seen as a solution to their problems. They saw you as an expert, and trusted you to solve their problem.

Once the project starts, you need to maintain that position or potentially lose the trust of the client. If you let them start making strategic decisions regarding the services you provide, services they hired you for, you run the risk of becoming just another employee. Even worse, you then let them drive the bus and potentially “get in an accident,” as they don't have the expertise necessary to make key decisions in the project.

18. Meetings come in threes

20 insightful business lessons my agency learned in 2016: Meetings in threes

When thinking about necessary client meetings during a project, it's easy to think that only those involving the client need to be scheduled. Yet, every meeting actually comes in three-parts: prep for the meeting, conducting the meeting, and debriefing on the meeting. Not to sound overly corporate, but a meeting is only as successful as the preparation that goes into it, and the follow-through that comes from it.

Proper preparation ensures there is a clear agenda, that all agency team members have been briefed on the status of the project, and that all deliverables meet the expected requirements. Proper debrief ensures there are clear next steps, discrete ownership over each, and a deadline for turnaround. The pre and post meetings don't always have to actually be physical meetings, but the activities involved with each certainly need to be addressed in order for the time you do spend with your clients to be effective.

19. Don't wait to communicate

A good agency is one that's proactively serving their clients. You always have their best interests in mind, and aren't afraid to share ideas or opportunities that could help them. If you're always sitting on the sidelines waiting for them to request something, what do you expect will happen when someone else makes a suggestion first?

The same goes for potential problems. Will you wait until things build up and turn into a major issue, or will you proactively jump in and address minor problems before they really affect the relationship? Don't wait to do anything when it comes to your clients, take charge.

20. Prune to grow

It's easy to get caught up in the “more” of growing a business. What more can you do? How many more people can you hire? Sometimes, however, the best way to grow is by doing less. Like many plants, pruning is an essential practice in cultivating a healthy business.

Sometimes, however, the best way to grow is by doing less. Like many plants, pruning is an essential practice in cultivating a healthy business.

People, processes, and practices that aren't producing results need to be pruned from time-to-time, to ensure the healthy aspects of your business can flower properly.


If there is one major takeaway I'm hoping you get from this article, it's the following: growth takes reflection.

Allocating time to examine your mistakes and lessons learned, whether personally or as a team, is a critical practice to growing an agency. The idea that 'failure is a good thing' is a message that seems to permeate modern business culture.

However, failure by itself is just failure; only when you examine and learn from that failure does it lead to possible success down-the-road.

Do you have any valuable lessons learned from 2016? Share them with us in the comments below! 

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