This is a place for thinking out loud, reflecting, and sharing ideas. Notes are a window into my process, thoughts, inspiration, and experiments. Explore visual gallery.
This is a place for thinking out loud, reflecting, and sharing ideas. Notes are a window into my process, thoughts, inspiration, and experiments. Explore visual gallery.
When my Pop-Pop worked at Wendy's for the last decade or so of his life, he would receive tons of customer comment cards each week. Customers loved seeing him during their visit and wanted management to know.
My Pop-Pop was easy to love, but I can only imagine that those comment cards impacted how his manager viewed him as an employee, giving him feedback if there was any and taking care of him in more ways than one. The comment cards provided insight into Pop-Pop's impact on customers that his manager may not see otherwise.
I was thinking about Pop-Pop's comment cards a couple of weeks ago while reimagining our project debrief process. We're not serving hamburgers and fries, but I have a feeling that integrating client feedback would help us take our service to the next level.
Our project debrief process invites the team to share their perspective on the project. If there is notable client feedback during the project (via calls, emails, NPS, or other channels), it will often make its way into the discussion, but there's no guarantee. The feedback we receive is often like a Yelp review: the client is either ecstatic about their experience or so unhappy that they feel compelled to let us know. There's rarely a middle ground.
If we want to improve how we work and serve our clients, client feedback is just as important, if not more, than how our team thinks the project went. In that way, a project debrief should consider the perspective of everyone involved, including clients.
I imagine a system where clients, like Wendy's customers, have a specific channel to share feedback throughout every project they work on with us. Each milestone could end with a prompt follow-up where we ask clients to rate our meetings and share if they feel like we hit the mark. As the feedback comes in, we can review it and decide on any next actions.
By the end of the project, we'll have improved our collaboration and grown in the process. When it comes time for the project debrief, we can take out all of the "cards" to remind ourselves how the project actually went, discussing what we can do to repeat the best parts and improve upon the challenges.
Several years ago now, we committed to 360° performance reviews (employees reviewing each other in addition to their manager). For a while, reviews happened every quarter. This cadence became difficult for both the team and management to run efficiently. Many team members would ask for an extension, which was tough within three months, or they would get it done, but their responses lacked substance. The process also required a lot of time from managers.
Now, we conduct performance reviews semi-annually. The team provides solid feedback, and the process is straightforward. But like many things, you solve one problem, then you surface another.
Despite a robust performance review process, we have had under-performing employees given Performance Improvement Plans (PIP) and employees who ask their manager how their performing. This makes me think there's an opportunity to revisit our semi-annual performance review process, and maybe that means saying goodbye.
Every day, team members experience one another, and naturally, they have feedback for each other. When they do, there are several ways the feedback may get handled:
Whichever approach the employee takes, there's no direct tie to the other employee's performance review unless it's around that time of year or the manager takes note. This is one of the reasons I believe in promoting the manager feedback channel because, at a minimum, the manager is in the loop.
Kate, Director of Client Services, and I recently discussed a framework for addressing feedback for her team following her Upward Feedback session. Given the sheer number of people the Client Services team interacts with daily to manage clients and project teams, it is not uncommon for Kate to receive feedback from her team's co-workers or Barrel leadership.
Like any manager, Kate may not have been involved in the situation where the feedback was derived. Rather than play messenger and deliver the feedback for them, we agreed that she'd start setting up a chat between herself and the parties involved. She'd facilitate the conversation, take notes, and follow up with written notes afterward to confirm alignment.
There are two key benefits to this process:
The question remains, what about performance reviews?
In a perfect world where this is happening across the agency, performance reviews and PIPs might no longer be necessary. We wouldn't need specified times in the year to gather and address feedback because feedback would be happening daily. We wouldn't need a process to document and give feedback to an underperforming employee because feedback would be addressed and documented daily.
There is a lot to consider with a change like this, but the possibilities are exciting. I love the idea that no one ever gets a performance improvement plan because, in essence, we're all on one from the start, looking to get better every day. A shift like this could normalize feedback and further promote a performance culture.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard through the grapevine that a client had a horrible call with a partner we referred. After hearing about the experience from two team members separately, I decided to reach out to the partner to get their take, especially since I had brought the partner on board. I sent them this email:
We connected your team with [client] recently. We heard from them that the call didn't go well. They seemed to be upset with how your team handled the discussion.
We don't have much more info, so I'm reaching out to you for any thoughts you have on the call and any insight for future referrals.
Without getting into detail, the partner apologized, figured out who led the call with our client, and reviewed a recording of the client meeting. I had no idea they recorded all their calls. Here's a snippet from their response:
"Let me firstly apologize for the experience that your client had. It seems that [client] reached out directly on our website, and as a result, your client was routed to one of our junior members of the Account Executive team. They are newer and used to working with small businesses.
I reviewed the call. It seems like there was some misalignment between what your client was looking for and what we were pitching. I can see why they were frustrated."
The partner ended up re-assigning the Account Executive and reaching out to our client to apologize and make it right. I was impressed.
Now and again, we record calls, but by no means is it an agency practice. Since this experience, I can see many of the benefits that recording calls may provide. Here are a few that come to mind:
Implementing this across the team is a simple practice we can put in place. Before that happens, my main focus is making sure there's team alignment on the intent and creating a system for accessing calls as needed.
Next time I have to call my credit card company, I'll smile when I hear "This call is being recorded for quality assurance."
An exciting update we're in the process of rolling out across new retainer contracts (and eventually, existing ones) is giving them an end date. Yes, it's a small change, but we're optimistic about the impact it will have.
Over the years, we've managed retainers in various ways — cadence, pricing, etc. A shared challenge has been finding consistent opportunities to revisit the terms and make any needed adjustments. We've tried various tactics to prompt the conversation, but nothing sticks. Instead, simply adding a contract end date forces us to check in and say, "Hey Client, let's align on how to continue forward." One might say that we designed a system that was working against us.
Now, you might be thinking a never-ending contract is a good problem to have. In theory, a contract for X dollars per month that goes on forever sounds like a dream. Maybe for Planet Fitness gym memberships, but not in the agency business. Nothing is forever.
Another challenge with never-ending contracts is that we cast them as monthly recurring revenue (MRR) into the future with no set period. If anything changes (attrition, change in hours, etc.), our projections immediately look different - sometimes, this significantly impacts our outlook for better or worse.
A few months ago, we discovered that one of our clients was on a contract signed three years prior. Unfortunately, we learned that the number of hours they were paying for was... anecdotal. Not only were we under-invoicing, but we were also consistently over-budget. (Talk about an uncomfortable client conversation). A contract end date wouldn't have solved all of these issues, but at the least, we would have checked in to make sure we had alignment on terms!
Of course, much of this is a hypothesis. We won't know until we try, but I'm excited to try. So far, our approach is to start most retainers with a three month period with the option to renew for another three months or until EOY.
At the end of the three months, some other advantages we see are to:
In hindsight, I think we were partially afraid to prompt these conversations, thinking that staying quiet would keep contracts going. For one, that just didn't happen. Second, if a client is going to reduce budget (or hours), a conversation can only help bring it to our attention sooner. It will show we are proactive and want the client to get the most value from our collaboration.
I was chatting with Kate, our Director of Client Services, last week and had an idea about our SOWs (scopes of work). What changes if we look at them like an SOP (standard operating procedure) for the project?
The SOW is a source of truth for the team on a given project. It is a document the team (assumes they) can rely on to understand everything the client has hired us to do. Maybe this seems obvious, but trust me, a lot can fall through the cracks! In that way, the SOW is an inflection point for us to enact change in how we function, collaborate, and deliver projects - and we can use it to our advantage!
In looking at SOWs as SOPs, we force ourselves to map out how we see the project getting done and align with the client on that process. Yes, the client is buying the outcome of our work, but every project is collaborative. They want someone they'll enjoy working with — they're also buying us and our process.
While this mindset is in draft mode for me, there's a lot we're already doing to get as granular as possible in our SOWS, so I'm confident we're on the right track. For now, here are my initial thoughts on some primary categories to include in our SOWS that will help us think about them more like SOPs:
A little over a year ago, we created a new discipline at Barrel called Client Services, comprised of account managers and account directors. They would be responsible for managing and growing our client accounts while also overseeing the design process. The existing Production team (responsible for managing all aspects of a project at the time) became Project Management and focused on owning the development aspect of our projects.
We initially made the change to allow both teams to go deeper in their respective areas, envisioning better project delivery, profitability, and client growth and retention. While we saw momentum with Client Services managing client priorities and finding opportunities to increase our value-add, our process became disjointed and siloed. It felt a bit like single project teams were operating as two teams:
Despite our efforts to bring these teams together through joint check-ins and shared milestones, it was clear that our plan wasn't working out as intended. We observed it in projects, and then the team started providing the same feedback.
In late February, we were in an unfortunate position financially and faced layoffs for the first time in Barrel history. In conjunction with the changes to the team, we decided to consolidate Project Management into Client Services. We thought that by bringing these functions under one roof, we'd be able to re-unite aspects of our process while improving in the areas we initially identified: better project delivery, profitability, and client growth and retention.
Since then, I've been working with our Director of Client Services, Kate, to re-envision Client Services with Project Management as a function. I've enjoyed exploring this future vision through various workshops to one-on-ones with employees and industry colleagues.
Last Monday, we completed an important milestone. Kate and I shared the outcome of our roles and responsibilities workshops with the team: a diagram outlining the role of Account Management and Project Management within Client Services.
Here's a high-level look:
Account Management is the "Client Rep" who owns the client relationship. Their key responsibility is:
Project Management is the "Team Captain" who owns internal team collaboration. Their key responsibility is:
These concepts will act as a foundation for the structure of Client Services roles and account teams. As a next step, we will be writing job descriptions for the current Client Services roles. In the meantime, we hope that these concepts can help each team member understand where they fit and navigate any ambiguous situations. Over the next several months, our aim is that every role on Client Services is just as clear to the team as a designer or developer.
When we set out on this journey in March, it was important for Kate and I that the Client Services team felt involved in the future we were creating. Last Monday, it felt great to hear multiple team members share this sentiment, remarking on how these concepts feel like a surprise but an accurate synthesis of past conversations.
Between the changes on Client Services, improvements to how we work, and new systems for managing accounts, I'm eager to see where we are later this year.
This week, we're putting the final touches on a proposal for an exciting website redesign opportunity. When I joined a call with the team the other day to review progress, I heard them talking about our chances of winning, knowing we are up against a handful of other agencies.
Winning new deals is top of mind for everyone for a few reasons:
For more context on #3, one of the prospective clients chose an agency they've worked with before; the other went with a smaller studio that they felt fit better with their small team. And yet, both clients told us they were happy with our proposals, pricing, timeline, etc. Although we were unhappy to lose out on these projects, I don't think there was much more we could do to improve our chances.
The reality is that we can't control the outcome of a proposal. The choice is not up to us! While we want to win, fixating on it won't get us anywhere. Instead, there's a question I like to ask: Are we putting our best foot forward?
As much as we'd like to treat going after new business like a game, it's not. We all have strategies, but there are no rules. There are wins and losses, but the opponents rarely know each other is in the game. So, for me, worrying about winning isn't worth the energy.
The question, "Are we putting our best foot forward?" prompts us to look inward and focus on what we can control. It asks us to think more deeply about our approach vs. getting distracted debating what we think might lead to a win.
To put our best foot forward, we must uncover:
With this information on hand, putting our best foot forward means that we've decided we can deliver on the client's outcome within their budget and timeline while maintaining our target margin. If we don't know the budget and the timeline is loose, we must be confident that our approach will deliver value.
From here, the process ahead can be full of bumps and turns, emails and calls, but ultimately, ends with a proposal. Throughout it all, there are some guiding questions to ensure we're putting our best foot forward.
If we can answer "yes" to each question, we can go to sleep knowing we did everything we could with the information available to us. Whether we win or lose, we can take the feedback (aka new information) and decide how we might consider it in future proposals.
Although I've written this through the lens of new client proposals, most of it applies to growing relationships with existing clients through new projects. I shared some thoughts in last week's newsletter about better aligning our Business Development and Client Services teams.
Before I close out, I'd like to share a post I wrote back in March 2021 called "Always Perform Like You're In An Arena." It centers around advice my Dad used to give me when I performed. It talks about the many aspects of performance in our lives and the importance of harnessing our inner drive:
"It didn't matter if there were two or 2,000 people in the audience; what mattered was that I gave it my all."
I can't help but see the parallels to "performing" for our clients, putting our best foot forward, taking the feedback, and getting better along the way.
Last week, I began new programming to continue preparing for my first Strongman competition in July. The first workout on Tuesday was tough enough that I went to bed asking myself why my legs were so tired.
I thought back to the workout just a few hours before and started doing the math. Of the workout's four parts, the first was deadlifts for five rounds, six reps each. My fatigue started to make more sense when I added it up - that's 30 reps at 275 lbs (for context, just shy of 2x my bodyweight).
I laid in bed, wondering how I would have perceived the workout if I went into it anchored on completing 30 reps instead of pushing through five sets of six. It wouldn't have been any tougher, but there's no doubt that my mind would have made it out to be that much more ambitious.
Tuesday's workout reminded me not to get intimidated by the big picture, and instead, focus on the progress I can make by anchoring myself on the small steps. Whether I'm working on an ambitious project at Barrel or have a lot to get done at home, I'll always gain more by asking myself where to start rather than looking at everything, fearing that I won't make it to the end.
I'm excited to get our Director of Client Services, Kate, more involved in new business over the next few months. This initiative has been on my mind for a while but was not a priority. I have a feeling that as this collaboration grows, we'll look back and wonder how we ever operated before.
In an agency (and probably many other businesses), I often see tension between the Sales and Delivery teams. If Sales is doing their job, they're listening to the customer, providing solutions that will help them progress on their goals, and in the end, scoring new business. The tension is not with any of this; it is when those deals land on the delivery team's desks and the questions pour in (sometimes, only in our minds).
Why did Sales commit to this approach? We haven't done this before.
Why did we commit to this timeline? We have no time.
How is this going to help the client's business?
While the Sales team attempts to innovate and better serve customers might be working, the Delivery team feels stuck figuring out how to deliver on those outcomes. Here lies the gap.
Over the years, we've come at this in many different ways, from improving project onboarding to inviting the team into scoping projects to folks like myself working with the team to evolve our process. Some of these efforts have been more successful than others, but I'd argue that few have gotten to the source of the tension.
At Barrel, our Business Development (aka Sales) team's responsibility is to connect with prospective clients, learn about their business, and sign work with them. The purpose of our Client Services team is to provide top-notch service to current clients, understand their business, and increase our value-add through new work.
When you look at it this way, Business Development and Client Services serve a similar purpose and should operate in harmony.
Given Client Service's experience in seeing through the deals that the Business Development team lands, there's a huge opportunity to connect the dots, bringing lessons learned to new projects that will create smoother engagements for our clients and team. Beyond that, getting Client Services involved earlier will continue to streamline the transition for new clients as they get acquainted with our ways of working.
As enthusiastic as I am about Kate's involvement, I'm reluctant to prescribe how to get involved. Kate, Dan (Director of Business Development), and I agreed that having her shadow the process, for now, is a good starting point. I look forward to seeing where we go from here.
These days, I'm more involved in new business conversations with clients than I have been for a while. It's been fun to get back in action and work closely with Dan, our Director of Business Development.
After a call last week, I had a few observations to share with Dan that I thought might be helpful for him on future calls. While Dan and I have been through a lot together, I wasn't sure how to share this feedback without coming off the wrong way — despite them being short, specific points.
Upon further thought, I realized that Dan probably had observations that would be helpful for me. I've gotten feedback in the past, but it was often shared with his manager, our CEO Peter, and then shared with me. Sometimes, Dan and I would talk it through, but not always.
It was late Friday, so I decided to send Dan an email (and let him know ahead of time on Slack) with the notes. Here is an excerpt from my email:
It turns out that Dan did not only agree with my comments, but he had notes for me. He shared that he'd wanted to share them in the past but wasn't sure how to present them. All of Dan's notes were helpful for me to keep in mind for the future. After all, the best way to get feedback is from those who observe us. We can't always see what others can.
I'm excited to continue this practice with Dan and grateful for the feedback so far. I only wish I'd made this move sooner!
Progress on agency process enhancements can feel like an uphill battle when it seems like every moment of the day is consumed by client work and meetings.
We say, "if only there were more hours in the day." We work late. We try to shift the team's schedule to make time. It's taxing on ourselves and the team, but we keep trying anyway.
After going down a similar route one too many times, I've learned that having this kind of time is a luxury, and the chances are that if the core team has that much of it, the agency is likely on the wrong path.
So, what do we do? Never evolve our process?
There's a lot to gain through controlled experiments rather than trying to create time for the team to go into a corner and design the "perfect" process.
During my time leading the Design team, I used this approach to change our process several times. I'd take the time to get feedback from team members to identify the most critical opportunity for change. I'd point the team toward the vision and work with them on the next client project to give it a try. We'd take any learnings to our next client project and so on.
Sometimes, it only took us weeks to have a new, tested process that most folks understood and could now get documented for the rest of the team. Contrast that with months of trying to find time to "work on our process," only to come out on the other side with something that no one has experienced yet and may not deliver any value.
We're currently in the midst of many changes to how we work. I've been keeping this approach top of mind, taking our time to think through solutions but being bold about testing in the real world.
If I ever catch myself daydreaming about a world where all clients are happy and all projects are frictionless, I remind myself of the valuable lessons I've learned from client feedback and project setbacks. Call me crazy, but I'd rather grow through tough moments than become weak over time without any friction.
All that said, I'm happy to report that last week ended strong with a win on a project marked by a series of ups and downs. Without getting lost in the details, this project is a website for a new brand. Throughout the process, it has been easy to point at the client's growing team and evolving brand as reasons for delayed progress.
"Client feedback isn't consolidated."
"Client keeps changing their minds on requirements."
"Client is not aligned on the purpose of this website."
I commend the team on all we've done to support the client on these roadblocks. While we've made incremental progress, the design process has felt like climbing a mountain that grows steeper with every step.
About a month ago, I prompted a call with the client to get their take on our collaboration thus far. Though they acknowledged their internal challenges, it was clear that they were not yet happy with our work. I met with the team to discuss, and we came back with revised designs, but in the client's words, the list of feedback kept growing longer, not shorter.
A couple of weeks ago, a different stakeholder reached out to chat. I wasn't sure what to expect, so I mentally prepared for every scenario. On the call, the client asked if we'd be open to switching the designer on the project. I listened as they described the diminishing energy on client calls and the feeling that they were on the brink of trying to dictate the designs. The good news is that they believed in us and wanted to make it work.
I'll cut to the chase and say that we onboarded a new designer a week ago, scrapped the designs, and presented new concepts early last week. To quote the client, the designs "helped us to see how our brand can shine through, and they inspired us to see the possibilities of what we can build together."
While this project tale has a happy ending, I always find it helpful to take stock of the lessons. In this case, there's a bunch.
As a team, it's led to conversations about client communication, our design approach, and how to handle tough client and team conversations.
As for me, there are a few personal lessons I'll be taking with me.
In late February, we were in a difficult position and had to downsize the team to move the business forward. (Read Edition No. 077: Facing Tough Decisions) Over the last couple of months, we've received feedback about the team's perception of the layoffs, mostly in one-on-ones and through our Team Leads.
While we thought concerns were addressed in one-on-one conversations, the Team Leads recently shared that they felt there were still gaps worth addressing team-wide. A common theme was that the layoffs seemed sudden. There are aspects to these situations that will always come as a surprise to the team; however, the Partners and I were curious about what opportunities there might be to educate the team.
After chatting through the Team Lead's concerns, we agreed that outlining what led to the layoffs from a business perspective would be helpful. While we're transparent with the team about the agency's finances through quarterly updates, we hadn't explicitly connected the dots between the layoffs and our financial performance.
In our April Monthly Team Meeting on Thursday, we used a portion of our time to dig into what led to the layoffs through the numbers, showing how delayed projects, over-serviced accounts, and rising freelance costs are a recipe for disaster. It's always hard to tell how folks receive these conversations, but a few people shared appreciation as we closed out the meeting. I also sent out a feedback form today for any additional thoughts or questions.
Helping the team understand how our business operates continues to be important as we grow and evolve as an agency. Some folks may write off business concepts as unnecessary for those steeped in the day-to-day work; however, we believe it is valuable for everyone from the CEO to interns. Down the line, we hope that these efforts will help our team see how daily decisions can impact the agency's trajectory and growth.
We can't expect a single presentation to close the gaps, but it's a step in the right direction. I am eager to create more opportunities to discuss similar topics as a team down the line.
On Monday, I attended our Design Director Christine's first 2022 Upward Feedback session with her team: the Design team. We run this process twice per year. After a manager's direct reports submit feedback via Lattice, the manager runs a meeting to review the comments openly with the entire group. Since experimenting with this format last year (read: Conducting My First Upward Feedback Survey), these sessions have been a powerful tool for managers to capture feedback themes and identify opportunity areas for their performance.
One of the themes highlighted in Christine's session stood out to me. Her team shared that while she's great at creating space to provide feedback on the agency, they don't always feel in tune with company-wide initiatives and how or if their feedback has contributed.
This feedback got me thinking about my time leading the design team before Christine took over. As Creative Director and Partner, I would naturally share updates (from my conversations with the other partners) with Christine and the Design team. It didn't matter if these updates were ideas or future decisions; I would give everyone a heads up on whatever seemed important enough. Looking back, this channel of communication helped keep designers in the know.
While Christine's Upward Feedback session surfaced the topic, I take it as valuable for all the Team Leads and a good reminder for me as Chief Experience Officer, now managing the Team Leads of our executing teams. As a Partner team, we often focus on writing team-wide memos and touching upon updates in team-wide meetings. I still believe these are important, but I see an opportunity to mentor our Team Leads on their communication, closing the gap between conversations with leadership and conversations they have with their teams.
The Team Leads are the glue between the Partner and the executing teams. It is up to us to share a vision and invite them to take part in shaping where the agency is going, but it can't stop there. While the Partners may interface with the executing team, the Team Leads are the guide. Helping them communicate agency progress and vision will be critical for us to work as one, or as we say, one Barrel.
It's hard to believe it's only been six months since we created the Executive Sponsor role on accounts. In my October 2021 note, I described the role like this: "[Executive Sponsors] are a designated Barrel representative to periodically facilitate one-on-one conversations with the client's key stakeholder, typically C-Suite. In some ways, the Executive Sponsor can act as a third-party participant, offering a unique perspective without being caught in the details of the day-to-day. They are there to listen and offer up ideas on how to strengthen collaboration."
Establishing Executive Sponsors took some time, but at this point, it's hard to imagine our work without them. There are plenty of opportunities to evolve the role; however, I've been happy to hear positive feedback from the team and clients alike. Both sides share the same sentiment: it is helpful for someone to take the time to pull out of the work and look at the collaboration as a whole.
As an Executive Sponsor myself, one of the aspects I've valued most is getting real-time feedback from an array of clients. Rather than guessing what we can do to improve, I've enjoyed jumping into conversations head-first and asking the tough questions. From there, I've been to identify themes across clients and work with the team to make changes that can create a real impact. Many of these are currently in motion.
After weeks like last week, I'm especially grateful that we recognized the need for this new channel with clients. Unfortunately, one of our clients has been unhappy with a piece of our work, but luckily, they reached out to me, and we now have the chance to work through it. In another case, a client shared some of the challenges they're facing and ideas on how we can help them succeed.