Agency Advantage 27: Karl Sakas on the Power of Managing Client Expectations

Agency Advantage 27: Karl Sakas on the Power of Managing Client Expectations

Karl Sakas has been working in the digital marketing industry since he was 15 years old, and today he draws on that experience to help fast growing agencies scale profitably by avoiding the common growing pains.

Through his Raleigh, North Carolina-based consultancy, Sakas and Company, Karl has worked with clients in 19 different countries and 6 continents (still waiting for that Antarctica dev shop, though), and has seen it all. In today’s chat, he pulls back the curtain to show us the strategies he implements to help agency owners take back control of their agency and scale profitably.

Learning to manage client expectations is crucial for digital agencies, says @KarlSakas (PODCAST) Click To Tweet

If you’re already stressed out with your current projects and scared about things spiraling out of control as you grow, then get out your pen and paper because Karl lays out everything you need to take back control of your agency.

SPOILER: Karl is giving away a signed copy of his book, The In-Demand Marketing Agency. For more details on how you can enter, go to the bottom of this post.

Key Takeaways

Set your expectations from the very beginning (3:30 – 15:15)

While we all love ranting about the latest “crazy client” story, few agency owners want to accept that sometimes they are to blame for their client’s behavior. Most problems stem from the beginning of the relationship when you first bring a client on board.

Many of your clients may be working with an agency for the first time, while others have worked with agencies before, but each agency has their own way of doing things. From day one you are training your clients how to treat you, so you need to make it clear how you work. If you don’t have a set way of working (whether it is billing, the approval process, rush rates, etc.) then you let the client’s behavior takeover. If you’re lucky, this works fine, but other times it leads to the stories you read on sites like Clients From Hell.

In an agency, you are delivering projects every day, so if you fly by the seat of your pants, you’ll probably do okay because you know what you’re doing. Your clients, however, do not do this every day, and they are coming to you expecting you, the expert, to drive the process.

This doesn’t mean you throw a 50-page document at them covering rules that you don’t even know yourself; it means you cover the basics. Start by identifying the problems that have often come up in the past (like waiting for content from the client, or launching a site without adding the Google Analytics tracking code, etc.) and establish internal controls (this could be as simple as a Google Doc that you review at the start of a new project) to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes.

By driving the process, and actually having a process, you don’t just give your client confidence that you know what you are doing, but you make your own job easier by making sure things stay on track.

If you don’t like process, it’s hard to successfully run an agency (17:30 – 31:45)

While many people start their agency because they wanted to break free of the corporate world, the fact remains that unless they also embrace the importance of processes, running an agency is going to be a daily struggle. Processes don’t have to weigh you down, instead, they help save you from yourself by taking the decisions out of your hands.

You can have a policy for anything, but here are some of the importance areas to start with:

  • Turnaround time
  • What counts as a rush rate (and what your rush rate is)
  • How you bill for mileage and travel time
  • Whether or not you bill for phone calls
  • When you start work (do you require a deposit? If not, you should)

So much of the conflict in the client and agency relationship comes from surprises and most of that can be avoided by being as upfront as you can about everything. You don’t always have to go by the book, but you want to at least have a book to fall back on.

Be intentional (37:10 – 41:00)

If you’re resistant to process and want to make it up as you go, that’s always an option, but your life is going to suck as a result. It’s hard to grow when you are constantly putting out fires that could have been prevented with proper planning. Don’t make your life harder than it needs to be.

When dealing with a new client, especially when you aren’t flush with cash, it’s easy to acquiesce on some of their outlandish requests and behavior. It’s a lot easier than having the hard conversation of explaining what behavior is and isn’t okay, but in the long run, you are going to pay for this.

There are always going to be problems, but that doesn’t mean you should just throw in the towel instead of trying to solve them. With an attitude of continuous improvement, you can treat these problems as learning experiments and build processes to avoid them from happening again.

After every project, Karl recommends that you debrief by asking yourself 3 questions:

  1. What worked?
  2. What didn’t work?
  3. What are we going to do differently next time?

While it may seem like too big of a mess to clean up right now, as you slowly pick away at it and improve the way you run your business, you are going to find yourself relieved at just how much easier things can be when you develop your processes and establish those expectations from the very beginning.

Want to learn more?

Karl has more than 160 different articles covering every facet of running and growing a digital agency over on his site, I’ve linked a few of the articles mentioned below but check out the resources section of Karl’s site to get a full list of all the content he has available.

If you’re just looking for a simple way to get started, check out Karl’s article on Reaching Your Goals Faster with an Advance Retrospective.

There is a ton there, so give yourself some time to reflect on the lessons instead of trying to consume everything in one sitting.

Resources mentioned

Win a signed copy of Karl’s book, The In-Demand Marketing Agency

To enter to win a free, signed copy of Karl’s book, The In-Demand Marketing Agency, you just need to do one thing: Leave a comment below and tell me your favorite takeaway from the show

On Wednesday, June 22nd, I’ll pick the winner at random and announce it in the podcast newsletter. So, make sure you subscribe using the form:

  • Diane Smithfield

    The debriefing after a project is so simple but something I never thought of formally doing. I’m going to try it out as soon as this next project wraps up. Excited to see how it goes!

  • Excellent podcast. I am a generalist now looking for a niche market. Thanks Kurt for sharing your experience.

  • Charles

    Biggest takeaway: As much as I don’t want to admit it, a lot of my client problems stem from not having good guidelines and processes in place which I need to improve. Thanks, Karl.

  • Bill Reed

    Great guest! My biggest takeaway wasn’t so much about managing client expectations (even though that is crucial), instead it was on the importance of constantly putting yourself out there. I struggle to be consistent with my blog, so when I hear about Karl have over 150 essays on his site, I was blown away. I can totally see the value in it, and I’m going to bring my blog back to life because of it 🙂

    • Andy Baldacci

      Yup! I’ve been guilty of the same thing many times myself. When there are so many things going on at once, it can be hard to focus on just one thing, but consistent, deliberate action prevails in the end. Thanks for the comment, Bill!

  • Thanks for another actionable episode! My biggest takeaway: see what goes wrong during a project, then see how you can prevent it in the future by amending your processes. I do this to an extent now, but I’m often juggling so many projects that I don’t take as much time as I should to revise our processes during or after a project.

    • Andy Baldacci

      Chad, I know exactly what you mean. When you finish one project it can be so hard to find the time to just catch your breath when you know there are 1,000 other things you need to do. I’ve found that for things like this, you just need to force yourself to make the time, otherwise it’s going to be really hard to make changes. Thanks for the comment!