Lessons Learned in Agency

It’s been almost 8 years since I started this whole “Josh Can Help” thing and I’ve been doing client web development (aka “agency development”) throughout that time. There were times where I loved what I was doing and took a lot of personal satisfaction from helping people create a “proper” web presence. There have been other times where I was ready to give it all up and go start an izakaya restaurant. At the end of the day, though, I love working on the web and, given the right combination of work, type of client, and focus on myself, I can always find happiness in what I create and in the day-to-day tasks that fill up my working hours.

My wife and I recently went through the design process for a complete renovation of our house which made me think very critically about the client process as a whole and service in general. I ended up learning a lot about how service can be provided, refined, and improved across the board. I find an uncanny number of similarities between architecture/construction and software creation, so much so that when I talk to a contractor, you’d be hard-pressed to tell who is banging on the keyboard and who is swinging the hammer.

In an effort to think more deeply about these lessons and maybe help you come to your own conclusions, here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the years about clients, creation, and how the two come together.

How It Looks Matters More than You Think.

10808566_343460455825191_1725630061_nIf you’re a web designer, the site has to look good for you to consider it a success. If you’re a developer, the site has to work well for you to consider it a success. If you’re an SEO/PPC consultant, the site needs to rank well for you to consider it a success.If you’re a conversion rate expert, the site needs to convert well for you to consider it a success. If you’re on a project team, then it all needs to work.

But if you own and operate the site, if the URL is on your business card that you hand out at conferences, it needs to represent you in a way that you’re happy with. Looking good, working well, ranking, and selling are important but the website, and the brand, needs to feel right. It doesn’t matter what your agency tells you about modern practices and mobile friendliness and on-page text, if you don’t feel great about showing people what you paid for, you’re not going to feel like you succeeded.

This has been a massive source of frustration for me and so many others that I’ve worked with in the past. We’re the experts, we know what works and what doesn’t! Why won’t they just listen?

They won’t listen because you’re basically making the clothes that their business wears. It doesn’t matter what the trends are or what color is hot right now or what [insert relevant celebrity here] is wearing. If it doesn’t fit or just looks funny to them, they won’t want to wear it. And trying to get your client to provide suggestions for how to fix it won’t work either; you’ll end up with a frankenstein that no one likes.

Let’s be honest: some clients are difficult and some just don’t know what they want. But, in the end, it’s up to you to solve the problem and create something that works for you and the person paying the bills. Coming up with a “meh” solution to client feedback because nothing comes to you right then doesn’t help anyone. Take a step back, take some time with the layout, look at other sites in the industry, and ask questions. Your job as an agency provider is a solution generator, not a weak compromise generator.

Sidenote here: the idea that you should always find a workable solution to the problems you face is, like everything in agency, tied to the budget you have to work with. If you consistently find yourself in a situation where you’re sweating about the budget while just trying to get the client to accept something, then you’re not charging enough. More on that later in this post.

On that aesthetic note …

Incomplete Client Releases are a Mistake.

11377861_1623284101251926_295580694_nHere’s a story for you: I was working with a client who wanted their site to be more mobile-friendly. There was not a huge budget available and, as a hybrid project manager/developer, I had to come up with simple solutions to make the site work better on a mobile phone. I was working with a great developer who was spread thin across other projects that were far more interesting than this minor overhaul. We were falling behind on what was a short project and I decided to show an incomplete version to the client to gauge his reaction to our progress so far.

Huge mistake.

The client berated us for shoddy work and threatened to pull the entire contract. At the end of our work, he was pleased but this left a nasty black mark on our reputation with him.

His reaction certainly could have been more measured but I was glad to get the negative feedback because I learned a very important lesson. It’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to give a non-technical person the full context of incomplete work; all they will see is a poor outcome. Even if you’re in an early stage with more work to be done, seeing something unfinished can leave a lasting mark.

This extends a bit to wireframes, the unstyled layouts that many developers (myself very much included) create to inform functionality and get early buy-off on the project. No matter how much explaining I do, wireframes are always disappointing to see for a client and lead to a lot of irrelevant questions. For me, these are so critical to my process that I still use them but it takes an immense amount of context and coaching to get the client to see them in the right light. It’s also important to get the details right by including good images, a logo if there is one, and the same colors you’ll be using on the final design.

Set Good Expectations.

11429781_775813295872909_283929478_nThis seems like a no-brainer but there are important nuances here that are often overlooked.

An initial project plan with your proposal is the no-brainer part. Set rational deadlines and a proposed launch date to make sure everyone knows what needs to be ready when. This answers the always-present “when do we launch” question and helps you by giving something to fall back on when things slide. Include dates for content, graphic elements, and review meetings. Make sure your whole team agrees on it before you send it over. Then, make your dates contingent on an action, like an initial deposit. Then, if one deliverable slides by 2 weeks, the other dates slide as well.

At each step of the project, send what’s coming up and exactly what you’re expecting. If you need content for several sections, send a spreadsheet of the individual items you need with notes and blank spaces for delivery and sign-off dates. Assuming that your client knows exactly what you need and when based on a sitemap is a recipe for disappointment and difficult conversations. If you need it, ask for it. If you don’t get it, re-state it and send reminders. Don’t send a note the day before and expect that it’s complete. The fact is, this project is probably much more on the forefront of your mind than the harried contact you have on the client side, particularly if you’re working with high-level decision-makers. There’s a big gray area between MIA and harassment; make sure you know where on that spectrum your client needs you.

Taking this a step further, make sure your meetings have very clear agendas and what you need answered is put at the top. I’ve experimented (defined here as making many mistakes and trying hard to learn from them) with different types of communication with clients and what doesn’t typically work is a massive list of complex questions sent over email. For whatever reason, these tend to be either ignored or answered incompletely. And, in the end, that’s my fault. I should be requesting a phone call or sending in small, digestible batches with clear instructions. Without that, you’re just another vague to-do item.

Lastly, make sure what you present to a client is drowning in context. I mentioned wireframes above as a great example of this. Without a clear statement about what these are and how we use them, your client will be lost and frustrated, whether they show it or not. If you’re sending a site for testing or review, tell them what works and what doesn’t, how they should test it, what you’re looking for, what sections are critical. It’s easy to fall into the “they know what’s important” trap here but you’re only making your life harder.

Educate Incessantly.

924055_993139194035301_1576746067_nOne of my pet peeves when I talk to a domain expert is the use of jargon without explanation. Go ahead and use the words you’re comfortable with but don’t assume I have any idea what you’re talking about. The best doctors I’ve ever seen use the terminology but follow up immediately with a layman explanation. That way I both know what the hell they’re talking about and I also learn something as well.

This can be tricky to deal with because you have one of two options:

  1. Explain everything thoroughly and risk getting an “I know that already” response
  2. Explain minimally and risk that you lost them along the way

I default to the first one for a few reasons:

  • You can always couch it in “stop me if you know this already”
  • I would much rather have someone feel smart and say so than feel dumb and not say anything
  • You now know a little bit more about what your client knows

I skipped straight to the “how” here but I think the more important thing to think about is the “what.” Does your client need to know about what, exactly, goes into make a web page load quickly? Unless it affects their workflow (posting images correctly, not adding myriad plugins, etc), I say no. Digging deep on image optimization and page caching and reduced assets is going to take up valuable time and likely glaze over more than one set of eyes.

But when you’re getting into how to change content and how to write properly for the web and how to choose graphics, this is where you want to spend time. In my experience, more people doing a job, any job, want to do it well. I was not the most motivated person in my late teens but it made me feel great when I was a barista and a regular customer would request that I make their coffee. I could do something well and someone was recognizing me for it.

In that vein, help your client do what they do well. Help them conform to the design guidelines you set when you designed the site. Help them understand your process, why something looks a certain way, why you left the slider off of the homepage, why that button is so large. Teach them about how the different components come together to create a great sales funnel online. You might not have perfectly defensible reasons for everything, and that’s fine. Make sure your client understands the reasons you do have so they learn a little something along the way and can feel confident you’re not just piecing together random things you’ve seen on other sites.

Choose Your Clients and Projects Wisely.

923787_1490054247918173_585223084_nIn a perfect world, this wouldn’t require any additional explanation but since we both have a running mental list of global problems, I’ll continue.

When you’re just getting started down the agency road, it’s hard to be picky. You’re looking for income, work to show off, and experience. You also haven’t refined that gut instinct for who to work with and who to avoid. As such, you’re going to end up working for people that just aren’t a good fit for you. This could be:

  • Vast differences in personality quirks, the kind of thing you can blow off if you’re socializing somewhere but leave you trapped now that there’s money involved
  • Philosophical gaps in how to treat people or how to present yourself online or any number of intangible beliefs and approaches
  • Budget disagreements, the dreaded “this shouldn’t be that hard, Facebook can do it” conversation

I truly believe you can learn a massive amount about yourself and your work from every project you take on and this should continually refine your decision-making process. If you find yourself facing the same type of client or same budget issues or same unproductive conversations, you’re not learning, you’re just spinning your wheels. If you had a good (or just OK) feeling about something and it didn’t turn out well, take some time once the project is complete and think about the assumptions you made and why things didn’t turn out as you had expected. Be critical. Was it your approach? Was it the budget you were working with? Was it a poor choice in technology? Let these lessons sink in.

What you’re looking to understand, in the long term, is what types of people and projects you mesh well with and what types just aren’t your thing. You’re looking to develop an instinct that will let you say “no” quickly to things that you don’t have a good feeling about. As an example, red flags I look for are:

  • Immediate or inordinate concentration on cost – I run a business (and a family budget) too so I get that there are limitations. But the key here is value. I can do 100 hours of work someone that ends up being worth 10x what they paid me. That same 100 hours could be used for a pet project that generates next to nothing. The work I did is the same but the value of what I produced is different. If I feel like I’m adding a lot of value, I’m going to feel a lot better about charging a rate I’m happy with.
  • Immediate or inordinate concentration on deadlines – There are organizations that operate at a speed higher than what their employees can handle and create a harried culture that everyone involved gets used to. There are so few web-based things in this world that are actually urgent and, as an agency, you’re unlikely to be working on them. One urgent deadline in 5 projects is fine but if everything is on fire, I’m going to be looking for the exit.
  • No talk about anything other than work – I like to stay focused and I like people that help me stay productive, particularly during meetings. A red flag for me, though, is an initial meeting or two where no personal information is exchanged and the overall tone was dull. People who like what they do, even a little bit, will merge their work and personal selves together, you’ll hear a bit about their family or their hobbies or somewhere they went recently. You definitely want to work with people that like their jobs.

This is an incomplete list, of course, but these are key ones that I keep coming back to. The point is, each project gets you closer and closer to the concept of an “ideal client/project,” something you use to make decisions about who to work with and what to work on. This isn’t a goal, something that you accomplish and then move on, it’s a process that continues as your skills, perspective, and life changes.

Make Good Recommendations.

277d12f0077111e3951b22000ae9142b_7It took me a long time to truly understand the important difference between strategy and tactics. Put succinctly, strategy is the “what to do” and tactics are the “how to do it.” It always seemed to me that the two were intrinsically tied tightly together, so much so that that thinking about one naturally leads you to thinking about the other. With close to 200 clients/projects under my belt, I feel differently.

For a long time, I was paid to simply do a job: build a site, add a feature, solve a technical problem. I looked at my work, and how to generate that work, like a trouble ticket. I thought about lead forms potential customers could fill out that would point me right to what they needed done. I kept a meticulous library of code snippets and starter WordPress themes that would let me easily recreate something I had done before. When I helped to plan a site, I would default to techniques I had used before, ensuring that each site I built would operate as I expected with minimal issues. I wanted an easily repeatable pattern I could sell and use over and over.

What started to become clear is that my value as a service provider had a lot more to do with how I approached each site build than with how I actually built the site. When I help a designer craft something that not only looked great but was easy to manage in a CMS, I become far more valuable than someone who just cuts up a PSD into a WordPress theme. When I help a developer understand the code they’re writing, I am a resource rather than someone who’s just lightening the workload. When I help a business owner navigate the complicated world of search engines, conversions, and customer engagement, I’m part of their team, more than just the “web guy” they keep on retainer. Helping people navigating the “what” puts you in a far better position to take care of the “how.”

I’m not advocating for picking up every skill on the planet to be all roles to all clients, I think that approach is a mistake as a service provider (much better suited to someone employed by a specific company but that’s a whole different post). What I am saying is that if you have a few years of experience building sites then you have the knowledge and the capability to become more than someone banging out HTML and CSS. Your experience needs to be used to help find the best solution and build the site, not just a site. If 25% of the budget is being spent on a section of the site that sees 1% of the traffic, speak up. If you’re building a site targeting people in the 20’s and no one has mentioned small screens, make them listen. If a few small tweaks will make posting content 50% faster, tell them. You might be wrong and you might be shot down but your opinion matters.

What am I missing?

Putting it all together, if you:

  • … choose your clients and projects mindfully, you’re more willing and able to…
  • … make great recommendations and help create something amazing. As you’re working through the project…
  • … setting solid expectations will help you work better with your client, leaving time to…
  • … educate them about what you’re building and why. When you reach this kind of relationship …
  • … you’ll truly care how the project looks and functions, beyond just your desire to have a slick portfolio, and …
  • … it will be much easier and more satisfying to deliver something finished. The final stage of testing, tweaking, and training will have more meaning and feel less like a slog.

I think a lot, probably too much, about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and how these two combine to help me create a life that’s satisfying and manageable. I think anyone can find happiness in their work and I believe that happiness comes from a combination of changing the environment around you when you can and changing your mindset when you can’t. I’ve had amazing highs and crushing lows over the last 8 years working with technology but the low points have gotten farther and farther apart. I’m sure part of this has to do with being ~20% older and becoming a father, but I believe that most of it has come from constant reframing, mindful decisions, and taking pride in what I do. There is no perfect job, no perfect life, and no perfect partner in life until you decide that what you already have could be perfect.

I’d love to hear about how you do what you do and how you’ve made it better over the years.

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  1. Rudy Harper

    September 27, 2016 at 3:03 pm  •  Reply

    Rudy Harper says:

    Very good. I enjoy reading about what others are experiencing in client interactions. I am calling many prospects per day, quite a number of these in the ad agency world and i am surprised regarding the expertise in communication and how it relates directly to success [measured in this instance by types and numbers of clients].

  2. Marjorie Ray

    September 13, 2015 at 10:00 am  •  Reply

    Marjorie Ray says:

    Thanks Josh, this is a very helpful article. I love the term “solution generator.” I agree with so many things you wrote. I’m trying to figure out the Educate Incessantly piece (automate?) and also want to get better at demonstrating the value I provide based on my experience, past projects, and my constant upkeep with the digital landscape.


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