This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is a weekly newsletter sent on Mondays. In every edition, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Published posts do not include all details shared via email to subscribers. Subscribe here.
"The theme of this book is that the key to professional success is not just technical mastery of one’s discipline (which is, of course, essential), but also the ability to work with clients in such a way as to earn their trust and gain their confidence."
From "The Trusted Advisor" by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, Robert M. Galford [Book]
Last week I had a call with a prospective client who shared how their current website isn't performing for them and is frustrating to manage. It's worth noting that the client hadn't prompted the call—we did as part of our outbound targeting campaigns. So, while the client had enough interest to chat with us, they weren't necessarily in a position to kick off a project with a new agency.
As the call went on, I got the idea that as dissatisfied as they were, they weren't interested in parting with their current agency. When I talked about the unique ways we've collaborated with client teams and their partners, their eyes lit up. Well, they weren't on camera, so I'm assuming by the sound of their voice. They shared how they would love to keep their current developer because of the low cost but loved the potential of bringing us on to help them work through their current challenges.
I'm not sure if or when this deal will pan out, but I left the call thinking about the many ways we've collaborated with our clients over the years. We've designed our process to be modular so it can bend to fit our client's needs while maintaining the integrity of what we do.
There's an interesting distinction between an agency's services and how they provide them to their clients. For instance, we say we offer e-commerce website redesigns. Most of the time, this means we're providing strategy, UX/UI, and development. However, we just kicked off a design-only website redesign project.
In new business conversations, I try to gauge how much to elaborate on how we provide our services to clients, depending on the client's situation. When I do, clients are often surprised we're not an all-or-nothing shop that will only take on projects we can own fully. We don't measure potential projects by how they will make us look. We're more interested in understanding the client's goals to see how we might add value in whatever form that takes.
After the call last week, I was curious to sit down and explore some common unique use cases we've seen over the years, specifically focused on new websites, website redesigns, and website optimization projects.
Sometimes clients come to us with a design team already on board, whether internally or with another agency. We also get referrals from design and branding agencies looking for help taking what they've established for the brand to the client's website.
In either case, we spend time upfront aligning on where we can be most helpful. Most of the time, we'll handle everything from auditing the existing website (if relevant) to providing a strategy for website architecture and content structure across pages via wireframes. Once this work is complete, we'll hand our files to the in-house or agency design team to apply the brand look and feel. We ensure all stakeholders, including the agency, are part of this process from Day 1, so we're not setting ourselves up for unwanted surprises.
We're actually beginning a similar project this week where we're also handling the website development. While we won't create the final designs, we'll support the design agency in designing responsive states for different devices. We'll also give them a guide on how to prep their files for our development team, including a style guide.
On a different recent project, we acted more as a design consultant. The client's team designed the entire website, and our team built it, but throughout the process, our Design Director workshopped the designs on a series of calls. They needed our guidance on UX and e-commerce best practices.
We've had plenty of clients come to us with a growing business and effective team, but making progress on large initiatives is difficult due to bandwidth issues.
Most of the time, these opportunities turn into ongoing retainer engagements. Not always, but often. The reason is that the focus of these engagements is becoming integrated into the client's team, speaking the same language, using the same tools, etc. We do this to a degree on fixed-fee projects; however, the clients are likely looking for us to lead them on processes and tools. In Scenario #2, clients typically have an established way of working.
As part of our onboarding for retainers, we'll make time to audit their current website so we have an understanding of their current tech stack and how everything works together. From there, we'll get to work on tackling their initiatives. We'll do weekly sessions to workshop with their team and run monthly planning to keep priorities on track.
In fixed-fee engagements, we may not need to conduct a full audit of their website, especially if we're only handling design. Either way, we'll work with the client to align on requirements before we begin.
Regardless of engagement type, clients with this scenario likely have a Product Manager or Director of E-commerce managing a team who works on the website. Tight communication with this person and their team is critical to ensure no conflicts with our designs, launches, etc., and their work.
In these scenarios, we'll act as a strategy and design partner. Our work will range from research and audits to wireframes and visual designs. Much like Scenario #1, our goal is to treat the in-house or agency team as an extension of our team. One of the first sessions we schedule is with the development team to align on how they expect us to hand off our design files later in the project.
Throughout the engagement, we'll get the development team involved in reviewing our work to provide feedback. We try to model our process to what it's like working with our in-house developers, which means giving them the opportunity to weigh in on what we're designing before it's shared with them to build.
What's interesting about Scenario #4 is how client-led these engagements are. We've been working with a client like this for many years now. We have a project manager on the account; however, the client's product manager drives the roadmap. We have a dedicated team who works with the product manager directly.
We've also been able to scale up and down with their needs. For instance, there have been periods where design is more needed but not enough to necessitate a dedicated designer. So, we created a weekly schedule with office hours for this person to meet with the product manager and workshop initiatives together.
A key to making this engagement successful was building a system for internal review of the work created with the client because although they're acting as the project lead, they expect the quality of our agency. Doing this in a way that doesn't add unnecessary oversight or roadblocks has taken time to figure out, but at this point, it's great to see it working as a well-oiled machine.
When clients come to us with designs complete, it's helpful to align on whether or not the original designer will be involved. More often than not, the client is looking for our help in refining the designs to meet their goals. If this case, we'll treat the designs as our own, making improvements for user experience and best practices. We also typically handle all the responsive design work and annotations for our development team.
In situations when the designer is still involved, we'll align on how or if our design team is needed. Sometimes, they're not; our Client Services and developers will help guide them.
Which two tasks can I focus on this week to achieve the greatest impact? What are some smaller tasks that I have been avoiding but can be tackled in just a few minutes?