BL&T No. 142: Client Considerations When Selecting An Agency

Agency Leadership

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"It is important to note that while goods are consumed, services are experienced. The professional service provider is (or should be) as much in the business of managing the client’s experience with respect to professional services as in the business of executing technical tasks."

From "Managing The Professional Services Firm" by David H. Maister [Book]  


We were happy to see an increase in new business wins last week. We signed one of our biggest deals this year on Friday—a great way to start the long weekend. We have also received verbal wins for two other projects, with one contract in progress and the other awaiting approval. Two additional projects are still in contract negotiation, but one client has already initiated a good partnership by sending us the first payment.

We continue to see clients taking their time to make decisions and keep close eyes on how they allocate funds. It's not that they haven't before, but it seems every decision is under more scrutiny. I was chatting with a tech partner today who mentioned seeing the same among merchants, sharing how a merchant labored over a $100/mo contract with several layers of approval.

New business may feel like a rollercoaster ride, but I've learned that letting it whip us around is no way to make progress. I've found calm and positivity in focusing on pushing forward, gathering feedback, controlling what we can control, and getting better along the way. I think we'll look back on this time and be grateful for how it inspired us to innovate, challenge ourselves, and strengthen relationships.

All that said, I've been thinking about what goes into a prospective client's decision to hire an agency. In this post, I'll explore the factors I hear most often.

  • Agency Background & Proven Track Record
  • Pricing
  • Process & Approach
  • Rapport & Team
  • Relevant work
  • Scalability & Client Autonomy
  • Timeline
  • Promptness

Some of these carry more weight than others, but I like to think about it like this: if it comes down to two agencies, what will tip the scale in our favor? There are other nuances and areas I won't cover here that may be relevant for different clients, projects, and situations. Heck, I'm thinking of more as I write this.

Agency Background & Proven Track Record

Some prospective clients care more than others about agency background (e.g. founding story, client roster, years in business); however, most all want to see how the agency has helped drive results for other brands.

We've been improving how we talk about ourselves, better highlighting our history and experience in proposal slides, but demonstrating a proven track record can come in various forms. The most common are probably showing project results with metrics/data and having strong client references.

We used to include more data and metrics in our case studies, but they never seemed to resonate much with prospective clients. When I saw renowned Pixar animator/writer Matthew Luhn speak at Recharge's ChargeX Conference this year, he talked about how people remembered compelling stories more than numbers and data. We at how we talk about our work and how it impacted our clients, but there's plenty of opportunity to improve.

At one point, we featured quotes from clients in our proposal decks. As a customer, I'm always wary of testimonials on a brand's website, while scouring the reviews always makes an impact. I see our featured quotes similar to these testimonials while sharing client references are more akin to reviews. We've been experimenting with how and when we share client references during the sales process and are developing a system around managing client references.

Regardless of background, data, and references, the power of a trusted friend or advisor recommending the agency still trumps all.


Losing a deal after sending a proposal never feels good, but losing solely on pricing feels worse. I feel similar when hiring folks. It's helpful to get the salary conversation out of the way upfront before going too deep, falling "in love," and realizing you can't afford to hire them.

Plenty of prospective clients don't know what a website should cost, but most know what they'd be willing to or can spend. If the client is nervous about getting taken advantage of or looking for the lowest bid, getting them to share what's on their minds can be challenging. I find that gauging their reaction to a budget range on our first call is helpful before working on a proposal or continuing conversations. Sometimes, we'll even ask them to get feedback from their team if other decision-makers aren't present. If we cannot hit their target budget, we won't continue the conversation or will refer them to someone in our network.

Another tactic we've found in managing budget conversations is sharing more than one approach/pricing option. The goal is to create more dialogue around the approach and encourage the client to weigh our options against each other vs. us against another agency.

Process & Approach

With decisions under more scrutiny, we're seeing a heightened focus on our process and approach. Last week, a prospective client mentioned how our proposal stood out among 10+ agencies because of how closely it aligned with their needs. As part of putting together our proposal, we'd taken the time to meet with their branding partner to align on the requirements and how we would incorporate them into our work. Just a day before, we lost a potential project because the client felt another agency's creative approach was a better fit. In either case, process and approach are vital to a client's agency selection process.

When it comes to process, clients often try to gauge what it will be like to work with the agency and how in-depth their work will go. More sophisticated clients with in-house teams might have preferred tools and ways of working, so they may also value an agency's willingness to bend and integrate with them. Occasionally, we forego our toolset and adopt a client's.

While the process is how we get the work done, the approach is how we navigate and tackle the client's unique challenges and complexities.

The project approach is, of course, an opportunity for the agency to show the client they understand the objectives and how to fulfill them, but sometimes, that's not enough. We've been experimenting with upfront ideation to identify other ways to help the client achieve their goals, beyond the project brief. It paid off with a recent win where the client cited this as a reason they chose us over the other agency.

Some projects seem straightforward enough to put together an approach after the first call, and if the timeline is tight, we do. However, it's been great to find other ways to engage the client and work through an approach together. The sizeable deal we signed last Friday required several internal and client workshops to arrive at a scope of work everyone was satisfied with.

One area we haven't spent much time in, and I'm eager to explore, is showing how our approach will drive ROI for the client. If done right, it can be a great way to build trust and confidence.

Rapport & Team

When the sales process goes well, we become more of an advisor to the client than a hired gun. They enjoy their conversations with us and get value from our interactions. While this is positive, clients are always concerned they'll get less attention when the contract is signed, and the team they meet won't be as attentive to their needs.

We've made a lot of progress in smoothing out our onboarding process over the years, but beyond that, we're more strategic about how and when we get the team involved during new business. The goal is that if they're joining calls, they have something to say and can add value. It's a great way to create meaningful interactions between the client and our team members before signing. It also makes way for a smoother start to the project.

During the sales process, we're upfront about how we'll staff the project team and how everyone will be involved. We even include this in our slide decks which have alleviated most questions on team structure and staffing.

Relevant Work

In the past, I viewed relevant work in a somewhat one-dimensional manner. For example, if we were discussing a client in the fashion industry, I believed that including fashion-related case studies was critical, and failure to do so would likely result in losing the opportunity. While there is some truth to this, there are multiple perspectives to consider when determining what constitutes relevant work, depending on what the client values most.

When gathering the appropriate work samples, I consider several categories, including:

  1. Industry
  2. Type of problem/solution
  3. Design style
  4. Platform
  5. Project Approach
  6. Type of client (stage of business, team structure, etc.)

This broader perspective has enabled us to think outside the box and showcase a more diverse range of work. However, we rarely share why we include specific case studies with clients. I believe that adding this context would be a valuable addition, as it helps clients make connections between the case studies and their own needs.

Scalability & Client Autonomy

Interestingly, while clients want an agency that can support their growing needs, they also want to be capable of managing their website autonomously after launch. Striking the right balance requires understanding the client's priorities. For instance, some clients frequently run promotions that necessitate significant changes to the homepage. They prefer not to engage with an agency every week, nor can they afford the time. Identifying these insights early in the process allows us to create a more compelling approach and minimize scope creep.

Regarding scalability, clients want assurance that the agency can accommodate their future requirements. Usually, this is as simple as confirming we can. For ongoing maintenance, some clients have specific post-launch initiatives in mind, while others want to ensure they are not left at sea once the site goes live.

Although we have developed retainer packages over the years, it is challenging to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. We often create customized retainers once we fully understand the client's needs, knowing we can scale up resources if necessary. There have been instances where we initially proposed a standard retainer, only to find ourselves with unused hours that we had to find ways to utilize—not ideal.


The importance of the timeline varies depending on the project's urgency and any associated events driving the speed. When there is no specific event, it is not uncommon for clients to respond with "yesterday" when asked about their desired launch date.

If the timeline is crucial, we include a visual timeline in our proposals to illustrate how the project's phases will unfold over the coming months. If the timeline has more flexibility, we provide a range of months for the project and delve into the details once the project is confirmed.

In cases where we are taking over from another agency or working in an agile-like manner on specific initiatives, we might include a clear breakdown of how the project will unfold starting from Week 1.


Being prompt and communicative is one of those qualities clients notice when it's on point or terrible, not in-between. In the early interactions between an agency and client, the client's impression of how the agency operates is impacted by how it feels to communicate with them because there's not much else to go on.

Promptness can be as simple as quickly replying to emails or as nuanced as knowing to pick up the phone to resolve and make contract negotiation easier. I've enjoyed doing the latter more often lately. Promptness is interesting because even a well-intentioned agency putting in all the work can lose out if their communication with the client is poor.

Thought Starter

Where am I falling short in addressing what matters most to my prospective clients?


The E-Commerce Corner

Read here: Making Delayed Subscription Shipments Easy Drives Retention & Revenue

Join My Newsletter

Every Monday, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Details