In this interview, I’m talking with Galen Vinter of ClientFlow, who shares how to fix the pain that is client communication.

Galen is a front-end developer by trade, but after working at a startup for a few years, he ventured out on his own as a consultant. While he was able to quickly build up a client base, he found that managing client interactions was a different problem entirely.

Support teams have help desks, sales people have CRMs, and project managers have task management systems, but there isn’t anything built for people who manage clients.

Learn how to improve your client communication with @gvinter (PODCAST) Click To Tweet

He quickly learned that delivering a great product for your client is crucial to success, but that’s only half of what ultimately makes a project successful. The other half is managing their expectations from the start and ensuring that you stick to them, delivering a great experience.

Through a lot of trial and error, Galen has developed a system to make client communication easy, and he is here to share that system with us today.

If your clients ever hold you up, but you don’t know how to tell them it’s their fault that you missed the deadline, then this episode is for you.

Download a full transcript of the interview with Galen: Get it right here.

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Key Takeaways

Pitfalls of client management [3:00-5:00]

CRM, help desk, and task management software are game-changers for managing specific business functions, but they don’t address a fundamental challenge facing agencies: client management.

Managing his consulting clients, Galen quickly found that too often, already busy clients were being pigeon-holed into creating another account and another password — just to stay on top of what’s going on. Using all-in-one tools like Basecamp to manage projects and communication, Galen noticed that clients weren’t really engaged in the software, and were holding up projects as a result. “They said, ‘You know what? I don’t want to log into this every two weeks and re-figure out how to use it.’”

At the same time, traditional email communication isn’t well-suited for client management, either. Agency work is collaborative, and keeping the right people on the right threads is challenging. Things can easily fall through the cracks. Client communication is siloed in multiple conversations, and agency managers don’t have enough insight to truly understand how projects are going.

These lessons formed the basis of Galen’s work creating ClientFlow for agencies: 1) client communication shouldn’t be siloed in inboxes, and 2) clients shouldn’t have to log into something to communicate with their agency.

Most agencies don’t know how to tell clients, “It’s your fault” [6:00-9:00]

In Galen’s experience, most agencies are pretty good at delivering on time but are held back in some way, shape, or form by client delays. But when clients keep the lights on, and new business depends on their referrals, it’s hard to tell them, “hey, you’re holding this up,” or “you dropped the ball.” Galen quickly realized that in order to keep projects running on time, agencies need a better way to communicate with clients — without just adding another tool they’re unlikely to really use anyhow.

By communicating with clients more effectively, agencies can help eliminate the need for the uncomfortable “Hey, you’re holding this up” conversation entirely.

Never start from scratch [17:00-25:00]

Galen takes agencies to task for starting projects from scratch. Clients are hiring you for a reason, he says. There’s no reason why you should waste time thinking about the kind of wireframe you should build when you already know what works best.

“Here’s the thing,” says Galen. “There’s only 10 different ways to style a homepage.” Agencies do themselves — and their clients — a disservice pretending otherwise. Time is wasted, and work is over-complicated. You need to come into projects demonstrating a certain level of institutional knowledge, so you spend less time on research and ideation and more time  creating actual value.

How you communicate institutional knowledge is vital to setting expectations at the outset, too. According to Galen, by sharing their processes before jumping into work, agencies help create lasting (and more profitable) partnerships and avoid hiccups.

Here’s the full transcript of the episode:

Andy Baldacci:Galen, thanks for coming on the show today.
Galen Vinter:Thanks for having me.
Andy Baldacci:I think a lot of my listeners would say that running an agency is great if it weren’t for all the clients. I think it’s something that a lot of people feel because it can get overwhelming. You can help make client communication run more smoothly for agency owners and for the client. Before we dive into the meat of the show, can you just share your quick 60-second backstory for our listeners who aren’t as familiar with you?
Galen Vinter:Yeah, sure. I’m based in Boston. I worked with a company, a startup, called Placester for several years before setting off on my own to do some consulting work – I’m a front end developer by trade – and spent a little bit less than a year consulting.
[00:01:00]I had some issues with client management, in particular. They surprised me. They seemed great because I had 3 to 4 awesome clients, and so I thought the world was made for me. There’s this really, really simple but universal communication issues I was having with clients, and it wasn’t being fixed by the tools I had. That’s what launched me into building what is now ClientFlow.
Andy Baldacci:What were those problems? What is wrong with the way most agencies are handling client management?
Galen Vinter:Part of the problem is there just haven’t been any good tools available. I think that there are good tools out there, but not good tools specifically for people in client services. Support people have help desks, sales people have CRMs, project managers have task management systems, but people who manage clients, have communication that’s high output, high input going both ways, don’t really have a tool up until this point that supported that relationship.
Andy Baldacci:

[00:02:00]

Yeah, because when you were on Brian Casel’s podcast, I heard him say that he uses I think it was Help Scout for a lot of the stuff. It was like that’s not a tool that, I guess, could work, but it’s clearly not built for this situation.
Galen Vinter:They’re based in Boston. They’re brilliant. They’re totally brilliant. I love those guys, but I was really surprised when I realized that, too. It’s not actually uncommon to hear that, though. The more you talk to agencies that are trying to productize especially, they’re trying to say, “We have certain types of communications, certain types of processes that are really only supported if we hack other solutions that aren’t necessarily meant for us, but fit 80%, maybe 60% of what we’re trying to do.”
Andy Baldacci:What are those things that the current tools miss? If I’m using just standard help desk software to run my client communications, what aren’t I getting out of it?
Galen Vinter:

[00:03:00]

Help desks, for example, are setup to be a one-to-one conversation. The idea is that there’s many tickets coming in and you want to assign that to one support person and then get a response back as quickly as possible and close out that ticket. That isn’t really normal client interaction.
In the real world, anyone who does client services knows that if there’s multiple people on your team, at some point you’re going to be pulling multiple people into a conversation at once, and oftentimes there are multiple people on the client side, too. You’re having more of a many-to-many conversation on a day-to-day situation with clients.
Help desks aren’t traditionally built for that. They’re built to have tickets passed among teammates, but it’d be really inefficient for support teams to have software that encourages multiple people to be interacting on every ticket.
Andy Baldacci:Right. How are you handling this day-to-day client interaction when you were doing your own freelancing?
Galen Vinter:

[00:04:00]

Yeah, I was working directly out of email for a while. Then, as I started working with … I would pair with a designer or another product designer, we would use Basecamp sometimes. Basecamp is used by I don’t even know how many people. They released some of their numbers, but not all of them … Everyone in our industry has bounced off of Basecamp at some point in time.
They build really awesome software, too. Their new software V3, Version 3, of their platform is really interesting, too, but it’s a very specific flavor of project management and it’s an all-in-one solution, not specifically for client management.
[00:05:00]Those were the 2 things we bounced back and forth between, but the problem was that in email, I’d have to remember to CC people or things would get thrown in a loop. In Basecamp, half of my clients would say, “No, I don’t use that. I don’t want to create an account, I don’t want to create a password. I don’t know what that is,” or what was even worse than them just saying no was them signing up and then not using it.
That’s what one of those problems where you don’t even see it coming until you just realize, “Oh, my client is not engaged in this because they just don’t like the tool.” They refuse without putting their foot down, but just by lack of use. They said, “You know what? I don’t want to log into this every 2 weeks and re-figure out how to use it.”
Andy Baldacci:What is the impact of that? In my mind, is it something that you can just … It’s just stressful to deal with as the agency owner, or does it have a bigger on the actual delivery of the project and keeping this client relationship? How does this … The impact to client?
Galen Vinter:

[00:06:00]

The agencies I talk to really say that they so rarely are late on delivering anything. The reason why things run late, and oftentimes a lot of the agencies say most things run late, and it’s they run late in some way, shape, or form because the client is holding them up. That’s their conclusion.
They don’t have a really solid way of saying, “Hey, you’re holding us up,” because that’s rude. That’s not a great way to get repeat business to say, “Hey, guys. It’s your fault again. It’s your fault again. We’ve got to keep this moving.” They find other ways to make sure that they don’t lose money on these projects that just aren’t really sustainable and that don’t build good relationships.
Andy Baldacci:What are the ways that they try to make sure that they aren’t losing money on those projects? How do they handle that?
Galen Vinter:

[00:07:00]

Anyone who’s run an agency knows you had budgets, you just had projects, and you say, “Hey, this is probably going to cost us $20,000 to do. We need to make some margins. Let’s call it $25,000. Then I’m assuming that the client is probably going to cause this much backup, and so let’s just toss another $5,000 on it, just for prosaic measure,” because if the client really does back you up that much, you start getting into this dangerous territory where you can start losing money on projects.
When you only have so many clients at a time, there are much higher stakes. To me, it reminds me of if people knew how much they pay healthcare in charitable donations, if they knew how much that went to administrative costs, they would scream. They’d be furious. I think that the same thing ends up happening in the agency world.
[00:08:00]I don’t think agencies want to do it. I don’t think that agencies believe that that’s a great method, but I think that it’s somewhat justified. It’s a shared responsibility. The client isn’t always participating as much as they should be, and that’s a totally normal thing because they have their own work to deal with. They’re thinking, “Hey, I’m hiring these people to do something. Why am I spending so much time on it?”
At the same time it’s agency’s fault. The agencies often don’t have the processes in place to at the get-go say, “Hey, these are our processes, this is the plan, and this is how we do things. We need you to go with us on these things because if you don’t, it’s not going to work. It’s just not going to add up.”
Andy Baldacci:It seems like that mindset is one that sets aside agencies that are getting by and agencies that are really thriving. The ones that are able to have that clear set of processes to make things work and they’re able to set expectations upfront and communicate those to the clients, because, you’re right, agencies often want to blame the clients, but if you haven’t made it clear what they’re supposed to do, why it matters, and how they can do it, that’s your fault.
[00:09:00]The other thing is it seems like even if they have those processes in place, it’s the actual enforcing, the actual executing, actually making sure you’re not making your client’s life hell by giving them just another tool they have to use, just for you, and this and that.
Galen Vinter:Yeah. The first thing you said was basically client work would be great if it wasn’t for the clients. I think the funny thing is that people who run agencies do that for a living and the clients are clients for a living. That’s not what they specialize at.
Andy Baldacci:Right.
Galen Vinter:That really makes it the fault of the agency for not helping the client be better clients.
Andy Baldacci:I agree entirely. It’s like it’s something that it’s easy to complain about, and every once in a while you do have a bad client and you need to vent. I get that, but, you’re right, they’re not professional clients. They’re coming to you, you’re supposed to be the expert. They’re paying you to help guide them through this. When you let the process go on its own, you’re not really doing your job.
Galen Vinter:

[00:10:00]

Yeah. The goal is to … Agencies are trying to build great experiences for clients. That’s what matters the most, because regardless of whether a project turns out good or great or excellent, the client will come back for more business or will refer you out if, at the end of the day, they’re just like, “That really worked. I trust them, I trust that they’ll come back and do a good job again. I would trust them with my friends.” That’s the kind of experience you want.
That experience isn’t built by showing them a great portfolio, it’s not built by delivering something excellent. That helps and that makes a big difference, but that’s really only half of what makes a project successful. The other half is really building the experience and helping them with expectations.
Andy Baldacci:Let’s dive into that a bit. I get what the agencies are doing wrong, but what should they be doing differently specifically? What steps should they be taking to create this great experience?
[00:11:00]

Galen Vinter:

Yeah. From a high level, it’s really about communications. The clients experience 2 things in a project. They experience the communication, talking to you, or emailing with you or calling, having video conferences. Then they experience the end product. Those are the two major experiences in every project. The third one is the funny one, which is money leaving their bank account. Nothing you can do about that. That’s what that is.
You have those 2 experiences to deal with. You can build a great product for them, a great project, but the rest of it is really about communication. It’s about communication around goals, it’s around saying expectations, it’s around regular updates, it’s around explaining the kinds of nuances that your agency inherently knows, but a client wouldn’t necessarily know.
[00:12:00]I was actually on a call with an agency out of Europe this morning. I was talking to one of the project managers and he said, “I feel like I’m a taxi cab operator, where call people call me and then I send the taxi to them, I send one of my people to them to talk to them.” He’s like, “I need a way to actually know what those conversations are. I have no insight into what they are. They’re just happening. They go and the taxi ride is taken. Then they come back and they say, ‘Yeah, got it. The ride’s over. It was successful.'” He just has no insight.
[00:13:00]Without that general insight, without knowing what the pieces are of the communication, you can’t even start to fix the communication pieces because most agencies have multiple people working, having multiple email conversations that are across multiple inboxes. They’re siloed, unless, of course, there’s some sort of everyone CC’ing and taking care of that, but that doesn’t even fix the problem of saying, “Hey, just show me all the conversations they’ve ever had with a client.” There’s just no way to do that right now.
Andy Baldacci:I know how you helped this. I don’t want to jump the gun and just mainly talk about the great things that ClientFlow can do. Let’s talk about what can an agency do to at least try to address this on their own?
Galen Vinter:Totally. There’s an agency called Thoughtbot based in Boston. Now they’re all over the place. They’re super impressive. The thing that always stood up for me with them is that they publicly published this document called The Playbook.
[00:14:00]That playbook is their whole entire process from beginning to end. It includes the way they design, the way they develop. It includes the way they pass things off to clients. It includes the way that they manage clients. They have literally a document they can hand over to absolutely anyone. It’s readable by anyone of any technical level and they can understand basically how a project will go from start to finish with them. That’s incredibly powerful. There’s no better way to set expectations than to literally give them your whole entire playbook.
[00:15:00]One of the things that I think about in terms of if I had more bandwidth, what would I work on, it would be actually helping people build playbooks for their agencies because I think that if people had a way of putting down the processes they actually want to go through during projects with clients, and then they were able to express those and document those for the client to see on a regular bases, then refer back to them when you hit a hiccup, I think that most projects would go significant better because it would hold both the client and the agency more accountable.
Andy Baldacci:Yeah, I couldn’t agree more.  was talking with one of my guests a couple of months back, Nate McGuire. He runs basically an on-demand development shop. He basically white labels his service, so he partners with bigger agencies. His big thing was that he’s able to get quotes to them within 24 hours and he guarantees them.
The only way he can do that without losing his shirt is by having very strictly defined processes. He knows how every step is going to go. He knows that he’s going to produce a consistent result every project. The agencies he’s partners with would see that as well. He’s grown tremendously from that.
[00:16:00]What parts of the process do you think agencies are messing up right now? I agree process is important to know where to begin, where to end, where everything is in between, but where do you think they’re slipping up right now?
Galen Vinter:Oh, man.
Andy Baldacci:I know there’s a time it’s like a strawman as well, but it’s one of those things where you get into the specifics a little bit. For an agency who’s … Because I know a lot of agencies started out freelancing, they’re creative types, and they grew, they get more projects by word of mouth, and they just do things as they come without much eye for process at all. It’s like if you don’t have much to work with, where would you start?
Galen Vinter:

[00:17:00]

I would start with really breaking down the types of … Really doing an introspective exercise, where you’re figuring out the kind of agency you want to be and the types of projects you want. That means niching down probably to more … Figuring out … This is probably talk to other people who are much better at talking about this type of thing on this podcast. Actually, I know I’ve heard at least one. I think that’s step one. Know who you are is definitely step one.
I would say step two is … Oh, jeez. I think if you are an agency, you come in with a certain amount of knowledge. There’s a reason why people are hiring you. I think it’s really important to never start from scratch. I know that there are a lot of projects that are strategic and that require unique thinking from the ground level, but I think that it’s really painful to see agencies start from scratch in a project and not bring to a project and in the view of the client, “Here are the things that we already know. Here are the things that we’ve done in other projects that are … ,” what we consider institutional knowledge.
[00:18:00]That’s part of the reason why you want us is because we’ve been here and done that. Let’s get us 50% into the project with the knowledge and save on research, save on whatever. That’s one of those things that I think that a lot of agencies are busy closing the deal and busy helping the client think big about what it could be, and instead they should probably … What I would hope to see more of would be seeing more tangibles, seeing more of what they bring to the table as opposed to what they could bring, because anyone who’s hired an agency or bought real estate or rented real estate knows that you’re just not going to get the full 110% that you imagined because you start learning more as you go through any process like this.
You come up the other side with something different. It’s not necessarily worse, it’s just different. I think that things like institutional knowledge that can come from the agency side can really help improve the expectations from start to finish on client projects.
[00:19:00]

Andy Baldacci:

Not to go on a complete tangent about real estate, but coming from the Boston market, it’s almost hard not to, where it’s like in Boston, for the listeners that don’t know, the standard for renting an apartment is that you pay basically 4 months’ rent on move in, you pay first and last month’s rent, a one month security deposit, and then you, the tenant, pays the realtor one month fee. You would think that when you’re paying usually a couple thousand bucks to a realtor, they would have, like you were saying, some institutional knowledge to help you with this, but oftentimes they don’t.
That’s actually how I ended up near where you’re living now is because I just went to one of the newer buildings, didn’t have to deal with a realtor and just avoided it because I was just done with the process. It’s like clients oftentimes have similar frustrations when dealing with agencies, that they’re not getting the treatment they deserve. It’s being treated like they’re just turning in another project. You’re right, it’s frustrating.
[00:20:00]

Galen Vinter:

Yeah, totally. I was having lunch with a friend, who runs an agency here in Boston, last week. They’ve done a really wonderful job of niching down and thinking deeply on some really big, big name projects. It’s really impressive to watch them over the last, I think, 3 or 4 years, I think 5 years now, grow as an agency.
[00:21:00]They’re coming to a point again where they’re saying, “Hey, we want to do the next thing, but let’s really think hard about what that next thing is before we just jump into it. We really want to know what we should expect and also the types of clients that we want to actually attract, because if we just go in without some reasonable expectation again, we’re going to be surprised, and probably not in a good way.” Going in not just open-minded, but really, I don’t know, with more on your back, really knowing more of the institutional knowledge. I can’t stop [inaudible 21:06].
Andy Baldacci:I think that’s right. As you get narrower and focused, it’s easier to have real institutional knowledge. When you’re a generalist doing anything and everything that someone brings to you, you’ll learn some best practices that can apply, in theory, to most things, but you don’t gain a lot of those institutional knowledge that works specifically within this niche, you’ve worked with a dozen other clients who do similar things, you know what works. It would almost be like being a realtor that specializes in a specific neighborhood, or something like that. I think that’s super important.
When agencies are able to embrace these principles and implement it in their business, how does that change things? How does it make things easier for them, for their client? What is it like if an agency does this perfectly, like Thoughtbot as an example? How are things different with them?
[00:22:00]

Galen Vinter:

I’ve never worked directly with them, so I could only imagine the head start it gives them, but I think about it as really a head start. I think that a lot of agencies worry about it feeling like a head start and feeling like they promised that they’d build a house from scratch and, really, they delivered the frame on a truck. They’re worried what that would look like.
When they say they’re a creative agency, but really they walked in after 2 days with some basic wire frames just to see … They’d be like, “Oh, here are these wire frames. We want to know what you guys think of this so we’re on the same page about where this is going,” and they’re like, “You did that in 2 days? We’re paying you an unbelievable … You already had those.” It’s like, “No, no, no.”
Here’s the thing, there’s only 10 different ways to style a homepage. It seems like there’s a million, but there’s really only 10. Let’s start from there. We know that. Most people would actually bill you for 3 weeks just to pretend like they’re re-styling these 10. Let’s just give you the 10 and start … It’s a huge head start.
[00:23:00]The guy I just mentioned, actually, one of the things he said was they bill him weekly. He just said he loves giving money back on a budget because it keeps them honest and it really shows the client that they really care about their client’s goals and that, at the end of the day, the only needed 15 hours for 20 hours of research. They really came to a solid conclusion. They’re like, “Let’s take those 5 hours and put it somewhere else,” or whatever it is, however you sum up your hours or your weeks or whatever.
It’s just one of those things where it’s like, “Hey, we do not start from square one. We start a couple of steps in.” That’s important, but it’s also important with any part of client work to explain to your client why something is the way it is. Institutional knowledge isn’t something you just plop in front of the client and then say, “You’re welcome.” It’s one of those [crosstalk 23:52] you say, “Hey, this is one of the reasons why you hire us, because we have this.”
[00:24:00]

Andy Baldacci:

That goes back to what you were saying before, is you’re a professional with what you do, you’re an expert. The client doesn’t even know immediately why it’s such a big deal, the institutional knowledge. Like you said, if you just show up with a few options, they don’t know how much work it is just to get down to those options.
Galen Vinter:Totally.
Andy Baldacci:When you’re able to educate them on that, that, you’re right, a head start is the best of putting it. I also think that the other point you touched on about how being honest and how being efficient and how using your institutional knowledge leverage your assets and free up time. It puts you in more of a partnership with the client. That’s something that most clients don’t experience. When you can actually deliver on that, you’re really setting yourself up for a truly long term relationship.
Galen Vinter:Totally. Were you talking to Karl Sakas about that, about the-
Andy Baldacci:Yeah.
[00:25:00]

Galen Vinter:

I think he mentioned the difference between a partnership and being given work, which is like quasi-employment or whatever it is. Both types are totally okay, but knowing which type of relationship you’re actually building is also really important-
Andy Baldacci:Exactly.
Galen Vinter:Because you want to bring different tools to that project.
Andy Baldacci:Right. You can either be an order-taker, a builder, or you can be the architect, or you can be a trainer who teaches the architect. You can be any of those things, but if you don’t know which one you are, you’re going to have a really hard time building an agency.
Galen Vinter:Totally.
Andy Baldacci:Now let’s get into the solution, the product that you’ve been working, how you’re building this ClientFlow. How does ClientFlow help solve these problems?
Galen Vinter:

[00:26:00]

ClientFlow is a way for agencies, for teams to manage all communication with clients, with the clients that they have on their projects. The key there is that communication, those conversations that a team is having with clients shouldn’t be siloed in inboxes. There are 2 staples, and that’s one of them. One of them is just I’m project manager, I should just be able to see all the conversations that my team is having. There’s nothing private there. That really is what we should consider institutional knowledge.
The second piece is that we need to build something that, when we started this, we figured out that we have to build something that clients don’t have to log into. It needs to be email for them. It just needs to come to their inbox and they press “Reply” just like they would when their spouse emails in the middle of the day. It needs to be that simple. It also just can’t come via a special app. They shouldn’t have to download anything. It literally comes to their phone or wherever they are in a medium they already use.
[00:27:00]That’s like increase the amount of institutional knowledge and collaboration that’s happening internally while also increasing the amount of engagement that’s likely on the client side, because remember the clients are the ones who often are blocking the project from being successful. Every day that they wait to approve an approval request is money for an agency.
The key is to get them in a place where it’s possible to get them to own that responsibility and approve it, because you need to be able to bill them for that extra day, but you don’t want to because that, of course, is going to hurt the relationship. Agencies are always stuck with this. Do we bill them for that thing or do we just save the relationship and not bill them? You want to reduce the amount of times that happens because that’s where the padding starts.
Andy Baldacci:

[00:28:00]

I think that’s brilliant because it’s like if you think about it from the client’s perspective, you’re using Basecamp because it makes your life easier and it makes managing the project easier, but if I’m the client, this is just another thing that I have to deal with. Why do I need to create an account for this? How does this help me? You can make the argument, “It’ll make the project go smoother. It’ll make this [snap 28:01].” At the end of the day, you’re still asking the client to do more work.
If you can live within the inbox, within the tool that they’re already using, they may not love email, but they use it, it’s not something new that they have to learn how to do, then you’re getting them on board, you’re really building engagement, and you’re actually getting them to follow the procedures that you’ve built up until this point.
Galen Vinter:Exactly. Once you have all of the communication with clients in this one medium going through … For us it’s ClientFlow. For the agencies that use ClientFlow, they basically are able to streamline all communication together and say, “Hey, I know that when I search ClientFlow for all the conversations, say, in the last 5 days with this client, I know I have them all.”
[00:29:00]If I went on vacation, or I had to add a designer to a project and they had to look up these conversations, or I had to bring another project manager, whatever it is, or the agency partner wants to come in and just check in on how a project is going for whatever reason, you know that you are going to get up to date because the status of a project doesn’t actually really live in task management systems.
The status of the project actually lives in the communication, it lives in, again, the experience of the clients, the communication to the client, and their acknowledgement of what’s going on. That’s where you have to be able to attach data.
[00:30:00]Right now we consider email to be basically the equivalent of chat. It’s more synchronous and it’s more easily searched. Otherwise, it’s basically chat where it’s a black hole. It’s a black hole because it’s not easily shared and it’s not organized in terms of projects and clients. It’s organized in terms of recipients and participants, which is not just setup for client services.
The idea is to basically get the communication to a place where you can really wrap your hands all the way around it and you can say, “This is the communication we have with this client,” and then we can start qualifying it. We can start saying, “Hey, this client opens only 80% of your emails. Let’s think about why. Why aren’t they … Oh, you haven’t emailed this client in 2 weeks. Why the heck haven’t you emailed the client in 2 weeks?” The engine, once we know what communication is happening, we get to start making better decisions around managing that client’s experience by communicating with that client in different ways.
Andy Baldacci:

[00:31:00]

This was one of the times where the audio-only format does us a bit of disservice. I’m trying to think of the best way to … I’m looking at the website, I’m seeing all the screenshots, I’m seeing roughly how it works. I understand how it is different. I almost see it as a purpose-built help desk.
It’s different than a simple help desk software, but I think that’s an easier way to describe how it works, how you open threads, you can add people on, and the dashboard and all of that. Is there a way you can think of to better give a visual for what using the tool is like?
Galen Vinter:I think that’s a good one. I think that’s really fair, is that it feels like a help desk in a certain way, but the interface is setup a bit more to support you as the person who starts the conversations as opposed to someone on the outside always starting the conversations.
Andy Baldacci:Okay. That makes sense. How does this fit in with project management tools? Because I’m guessing you’re not telling people to get rid of Basecamp internally or to get rid of Trello or whatever else they’re using. How does this all fit in with that?
Galen Vinter:

[00:32:00]

Great question. This is not going to be your new task management system. We think that there are some really brilliant ones out there. Asana and Trello and Basecamp all do really interesting things, Todoist and Any.do and Azendoo and there’s just a million of them. There’s a bunch of different ways to skin the cat. There’s a lot of different interfaces out there. At the end of the day, all their APIs are basically the same.
What we’re able to do, instead of trying to create a task management system, is we’re able to integrate with them. We’re able to say … Let’s say you use Trello, “Great. Let’s quickly query Trello for all the items, all the cards that you completed in the last 2 days on this project. Let’s just grab those and put them in this thread and send those to the client,” because, really, what ClientFlow is about is the communication piece.
[00:33:00]Tasks are easy. Making a list is easy. Talking to your teammates about those lists is pretty darn easy. Talking to someone who isn’t doing the tasks is pretty hard. We’re trying to help with the translation of what you’re doing internally to helping the client understand that.
Andy Baldacci:You’re the layer in between.
Galen Vinter:Exactly, yeah. There are a bunch of specific interactions that happen between clients and agencies. There’s approvals, which is something that doesn’t usually actually have an app for it. What we do is we help you actually build an approval that has technically a due date, a bunch of content, and you send that to one or many client contacts.
[00:34:00]It hits them in the email again. They can click approve right there, or they can do it in the browser. Either way, it doesn’t require a password. Once they approve, that’s on the record for you. You have the list of every approval your agency has ever sent out and the dates that it was approved and who approved it. Why that’s important is because you need a way of showing your client that they’re not just saying, “Hey. Yeah, totally good. Keep going.”
I remember the first time that I screwed up an approval because I was trying to be really polite when I was consulting. I sent something to a client. I said, “Hey, how does that look?” That’s me who was asking for their approval so I can move to the next pace. He said, “It looks great.” I said, “Great.”
I worked for another 2 weeks on the next pace and I delivered that. He said, “I don’t think the original thing works now.” I said, “You already approved that.” He said, “No, I didn’t. I said it looks good.” It was like that light bulb moment of, “Oh, you did. You’re absolutely right. That was my fault.” That is not your fault. Whether you know what you did or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s completely my fault.” I just didn’t have a way of organizing the official approval.
[00:35:00]Again, though, it’s not just having an approval, but it’s also about showing the client that they’re responsible for it. Attaching a due date to it, it’s almost like you’re giving them a task, but it’s as simple as tasks go. They either respond to the email and start a conversation with a feedback or with questions or they’d click the approve button. It’s not exactly a complicated task, it’s still delivered directly to email, but it shows that they are responsible for something and it’s due by a certain date; otherwise the project is going to get bumped.
Andy Baldacci:It removes a lot of the ambiguity.
Galen Vinter:Exactly. It does it in a polite way.
Andy Baldacci:I know exactly what you’re talking about, is when you, as the consultant, as the agency, especially when you’re starting out, you tread carefully and, like you’re saying, you’re trying to be polite about the way you do this, but a lot of times, you don’t have to be rude, but you do need to be explicit in that I’m asking for an actual formal approval, “Is this okay to go forward?” This is a way where there’s no guessing about it. It declares exactly what the intentions are.
Galen Vinter:Exactly.
Andy Baldacci:When did you start working on this?
[00:36:00]

Galen Vinter:

Good question. I started working on the … ClientFlow is actually the second app we’ve worked on. The first one was experimental. It was basically to test some of the hypothesis we had around a client communication app. It’s called ProjectPulse [that uses 36:15] project status pages so you could send a link to clients to show them where a project was, “Hey, you have 10 milestones. Our milestone is 5. We’re halfway through the project. Everything is going great.” That’s where we figured out that, hey, first of all, it has to be delivered in email. This would be an email platform.
The second thing we learned was that we validated that clients do not want to create an account. That’s so severe that actually most clients don’t even want to go to a website. They literally just want to get something in email. That is the way to guarantee client participation. If they don’t respond to email then you should really pick new clients.
[00:37:00]I was talking to someone the other day. They were like, “My clients SMS me all the time. When are you going to integrate with Trello?” I was just like, “I don’t think you have good relationships with clients. I think that’s a different issue.” It sounds like they get to a certain point and [they’re 37:12] comfortable and it’s whatever. I was like, “That’s not what we’re trying to build right now. I don’t think that’s going to help as much as it’s going to enable the things that you don’t want them to do,” but I could be totally wrong there.
Andy Baldacci:I think that was a good point is that you’re right in that this … Not placates, but this makes it easier for the clients, but, at the same point, you still want to have a process that the clients should and do need to follow. Just saying, “Send me a letter, text me, or Snapchat me, or whatever,” that’s probably going a little too far. I do see how this all fits in. Can I go to the website right now and sign up?
Galen Vinter:

[00:38:00]

You can’t right now. We’re in private access only. We have a handful of accounts now. I actually manually on-board people right now because we really like to have a full conversation with our early users because we give them a lot of time and effort. We really say, “Hey, who are you? What are you working on? What are the problems you’re trying to solve?” We want to build features that work for you. That requires a conversation.
We basically say … If you register for an early invitation, you get an email, and it’ll say, “Hey, respond to me and let me know a little bit about you, and I’ll email back immediately. We’ll jump on Skype. Then we’ll go from there.” We’re going to probably be a month or two away from opening it up to public access so we can keep learning from our early users because we’ve been having really wonderful insights from people, having weekly conversations with some of these people. They’re just giving really great feedback.
[00:39:00]We want to continue that because we want to build a tool that really lasts and really works. That’s really important to us. If someone’s dying to get in, you can always just email me directly, galen@clientflow.io.
Andy Baldacci:Perfect. If our listeners do want to get this and they do want to check it out, should they just go to the website, sign up for getting an invitation or what? What should be their next step?
Galen Vinter:Either that or email me directly, or you can even tweet at me @gvinter, any of those work.
Andy Baldacci:What about text message? Does that work, too?
Galen Vinter:No text messages. Absolutely no text messages.
Andy Baldacci:What’s next? You said you’re working with getting people on-boarded, you’re hoping to open it to a bit wider release in the next few months, but where do you see the long term future of ClientFlow?
Galen Vinter:
[00:40:00]
I think the goal for us is to really be the … We really want to change the way agencies think about the way they do business. I really think that there’s an opportunity for agencies to realize that a great client experience is the core of their business. We want to be the people who help them realize that and help them improve their client experiences. We want to continue building tools that help them focus on building those great experiences.
Andy Baldacci:Nice. Before we say goodbye, there’s one thing I just want to ask you. For the agency who’s looking to … Maybe they’re not even at the point where they’re ready for a tool to help with this, they just need to get started building the processes. We touched on it a little bit, but what would be the one piece of advice you’d give to someone who’s really just trying to systematize their business a bit more? How should they go about doing that?
Galen Vinter:
[00:41:00]
Great question. I think that as simple as trial and error. Build a process list and then try it and fix the things that don’t work and fix them constantly. I would just really focus on niching down more because niching down can definitely be more valuable, focus on building the client experiences that you’re proud of that people will talk about. That client experience is core. Start noticing the things that clients go wide-eyed over. Then think about productizing.
Productizing allows you to build a productized service that is somewhat standard. You get to practice building processes, so you get to do the same thing over and over again a bit. It helps you reinforce the other processes, where things need to be a bit more creative and a bit more fluid.
Andy Baldacci:

[00:42:00]

Yeah. I think the productizing suggestion is great because, you’re right, it forces an agency to do the same thing day in and day out, so you have to get good at it. You have no choice. Even if you’re not going on that route, it also goes back to what you said earlier about never starting from scratch. It’s almost just a mindset that you are repeating many tasks over and over again, so at least think about how you can get better over time with that.
Galen Vinter:Exactly.
Andy Baldacci:Galen, that was a great chat. Thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Galen Vinter:Thanks for having me, Andy.
Andy Baldacci:All right, I’ll talk to you later.
Galen Vinter:Bye bye.

Want to learn more?

If you want to see how ClientFlow can help you manage your clients, head over to their website and request an invitation. And if you want to keep up with Galen’s progress, you can follow him on Twitter.

You can also download a full transcript of this episode.

Resources mentioned

Thoughtbot’s Playbook
Nate McGuire
Karl Sakas

Thanks for listening!

What tools do you use to manage your client interactions? Do things ever fall through the cracks? Share your thoughts in the comments below.