3 Steps To Growing Your Agency Without Destroying It's Soul

Most owners of growing agencies are pretty focused on generating as much new business as their agency can handle. With a growing whip-smart team and the promise of a long-awaited payday, shiny new client opportunities are the things that dreams are made of. But have you ever had a massive client opportunity come your way that didn’t quite feel right.

When actually faced with a really large and possibly high-profile new client opportunity, it can be hard to be objective about how well they match your business or your strategy. After all, who would turn away a huge wad of cash just because it doesn’t fit perfectly in their pocket?

Sustained (and sustainable) agency growth is about so much more than finding and adding new clients to your workload. It’s about finding the right clients and the right kind of work for your business. And as hard as it is to hear, the wrong kinds of clients can actually seriously impede your growth, can cost you money and will probably turn your whip-smart kicking-it team into mere shadows of their former selves.

So to help you get this right, we’ve outlined three small but powerful things you can do to get ready for some seriously good growth, and stay true to your agency while you’re at it.

1. Stop taking work outside your sweet spot

Saying yes to all new client opportunities is a big no-no for a business with stealth growth plans, but it’s a hard habit to break – especially when this strategy has seen you nicely through your start-up phase.

While it’s sometimes tempting to take on anything for cash-flow, client work that is outside of your sweet spot will cost your business time and money, as your people need more time to understand their business and industry, and staff often need more support to feel that they’re doing the right thing.

If you find this hard, follow this simple process. Create a Sweet Spot List of:

  1. All of the services you’re completely amazing at delivering
  2. The exact kinds of businesses where you’ve got a great track record (think both industry and size here)

Now the tricky bit: breaking the habit. Choose a short timeframe, such as three months, for a trial period. Then make an agreement with yourself and your team that for just those three months, you will ONLY take work on your Sweet Spot List. Not as scary as a long-term commitment, right? But it gives you the opportunity to see what life is like when you only take on work that 100% suits your agency.

2. Only take on clients you’ll love working with

Interestingly, clients outside your sweet spot are not just those outside of your industry and specialty area. They’re also the kind of client personality that you prefer to avoid. You know the kind — the ‘Do it your selfer’ client who knows what they want, and just wants you to execute, or the ‘flip-flopper’ who does serial 180s on your agreed approach on a weekly basis. Painful.

So how do you turn this around and only work for the kinds of clients that you can get remarkable results for?  Luckily, the answer is in a fairly simple, but powerful process, known as a Client Qualification Checklist.  It helps you filter out unwanted leads at sales qualification stage – right across your business.

Sounds simple right? But there’s a neat little trick to this. Don’t just include the usual suspects of budget, authority, need, and timing on your list. Include other aspects of client demeanour and attitude that are also important to you and your agency. Here are some examples:

  • willingness to take advice
  • a belief in the kind of solution that you offer
  • proximity to your offices
  • trust in your agency’s ability to fill the need (and anything else you deem important to your agency’s success)
  • a good track record of working with previous agencies or consultants
  • an understanding of the importance of marketing

This is a nice job to do as a team over pizza and beer. Pull everyone into a room, and find out what makes a great client. Split the lists into essentials i.e. will have a direct impact on staff happiness and profit, and nice-to-haves i.e. will help you prioritise your opportunities at sales stage.

Then, get everyone to come up with the Warning Signs – the sure-fire giveaways that clients don’t meet a certain criteria, and add your own too. You’ll find it’s not just the process to a powerful document, but can also be a great way to blow off some tricky client frustration. Pull it all into a checklist with a logical positive and negative scoring system. Start using it and calibrating it regularly with your sales team.

Finally, sit back and reimagine a future where only the best clients can get through your sales process and onto your books: think great results, happy team and profitable agency.

3. Move from a project to retainer mentality

Projects can be lovely pieces of work, and a delivery method your agency is used to. But a project-based mentality can be a real growth-stifler for an agency. Spending all of your waking hours looking for the next piece of work, scheduling it and managing contracts, and none of your time working on optimising and growing client engagements and up-skilling your staff is just not conducive to long-term growth. Plus, it is hard to forecast client work or team capacity further than three months in advance. Not exactly a long-term view, right?

So how do you eject yourself from the projects rat-mill and leap onto the retainer bandwagon? Here’s a short playbook to kick off long-term client retainers.

  1. Decide on a term during which you know you’ll be able to deliver amazing value and that is not too intimidating a commitment for your clients; e.g. three, six or nine months.

  2. Design three tiered pricing packages for that timeframe that each demonstrate two key things:
    1. Example deliverables (e.g. campaign plan, 4 blogs, one white paper, all social posting and SEO management, and constant tracking and results analysis), and
    2. Expected outcomes e.g. 10 marketing qualified leads, 1 new customer worth $100,000 based on client’s current lead to customer conversion rate and average deal size.

  3. Build the sales pitch – because this agreement is about even more than great results. Clients are busy and have so much to manage, and retainers offer a kind of peace of mind and certainty that at least part of their portfolio is taken care of. Benefits include certainty, a plan that goes beyond the month and looks after more long-term goals for the client, strategic partnerships and dedicated teams who are proactively looking for opportunity to leverage current assets.

  4. Set up internal processes such as timesheets and project management systems to manage a retainer. You’ll need to think about monthly budgets instead of project budgets, and be very clear around your monthly timelines and what you can deliver, when.

  5. Try the model out on a couple of well-qualified leads. You may need to tweak your packages and timeframes based on your prospects’ feedback, but soon you’ll find a package that appeals to your client base, and you’ll have an amazing asset that will help you grow your business more steadily.

Moving from a project to a retainer model is one of the most powerful things an agency can do to prepare itself for sustained growth. It frees you up to optimise delivery, recruit to service the clients, and gives you a real chance to show your clients what you can do. And, it helps you make the most of your marketing investment, by increasing the value of every client you win.

*This post was originally published on Mumbrella.

Ryan Bonnici

Ryan Bonnici

Ryan Bonnici is the Senior Director of Global Marketing at HubSpot. He’s an experienced digital marketing leader having held roles previously at Salesforce, ExactTarget, Microsoft and Qantas Airways. He's an experienced digital marketing consultant having worked with a wide range of businesses from thermal clothing sales to executive coaching services. For more frequent updates, follow him on Facebook (@growthguy) or Twitter (@ryanbonnici)