Running a business means that you’re contracting with clients to provide services. Those services obviously cost a set amount of money and come with defined deliverables. They’re paying a fee and they expect to get what you tell them you’re going to give them.
As a startup, you did everything. Once you expand, it’s natural to move out of operations and to focus more on sales. As a small business owner, it can be easy to fall into the trap of signing a contract and then tossing the signed contract over the fence to your operations team. You’ve got more deals to get signed and more people to prospect, so tossing over the fence is the easy thing to do. But when you do that, you’re really hoping that they can figure it out on their own.
As a digital marketing agency, we provide social media, SEO, and online advertising services on a monthly basis. In our contracts, we specify deliverable dates at a very high level like “three times a week” or “once a month”. That’s by design because before someone signs a contract we don’t want to overwhelm the prospective client, or ourselves, trying to figure out exactly when deliverables are due. It’s just not important when we draft contracts. Being less specific speeds up the business development cycle and removes roadblocks to getting deals signed.
But when operations gets a hold of the contract, they need to be very specific about the day we’re going to provide the deliverable. And by specific, I mean an exact date like, say, May 15th. Operations needs to be at that level of granularity so that we know precisely when our deliverables are due, otherwise, no one knows. If the 15th comes and goes and we do not produce our deliverable then red flags need to go up and sirens need to be going off in our office.
Another concept that we’ve grappled with in the past is onboarding clients. Onboarding is a period of time that occurs at the beginning of a client engagement. During that period, we will hold a kickoff meeting with the client, conduct research on their industry and offering, and nail the digital marketing strategy that will define all the work we do thereafter. We also need access to systems like email servers, email list, existing social media accounts, and their website hosting server.
Depending on your industry and the kind of work that you do, things may be slightly different for you. We onboard a client then continuously provide services for months or years. But let’s say that you sell windows. Before you can install the windows you will have to schedule the installation appointment. Before that, you have to order the windows. But before you can even order the windows, you have to go out to the client’s house and measure, which means first scheduling an appointment. And before you can do that, you have to transition the contract and expectations to your operations team so they know who to call and what they owe the customer.
All of that takes time.
That time at the beginning of a project or client engagement is what I’m talking about when I say onboarding. Onboarding must be accounted for when you bring on a new client, especially if you have promised deliverables at a certain frequency like we do. So your onboarding timeline must be accounted for *before* promising a deliverable. Otherwise, you will promise a date that is unrealistic.
We’ve found that there are two critical transitions in the life cycle of a new client.
We nailed the first transition point – moving a prospective client to onboarding – a long time ago. We have meticulously documented all the steps that are required.
What we haven’t done as well, until recently, is the later transition – going from onboarding to normal operations.
We recently lost a client because we did not have a good grasp of that transition, and in particular, how it affects the initiation of deliverables. We lost track of the fact that deliverables were promised, but could not be delivered during onboarding. The consequence was that deliverables inevitably slid beyond the onboarding period. We intuitively knew that would be the case, but we failed to properly predict the impact that onboarding would have on the initiation of deliverables. Further, and worse, we failed to communicate what we intuitively knew – that deliverables wouldn’t start until onboarding concluded.
One of the things that I can’t stress enough, and was a hard lesson for us to learn, is for you to account for client onboarding and set the expectation for how onboarding will affect deliverables. Do this from the very beginning of your relationship with the client.
The worst way to react to any business problem is to ignore it. The symptoms may go away, but the underlying problem won’t disappear for good until you address it.
Every time we lose a client we hold a “lessons learned” meeting with everyone that was involved in the project. For this past client that we lost, the lessons learned meeting was an hour and a half long and there were six of us in the meeting. We dug into the issues and asked the toughest question of ourselves…Was it the client’s fault or ours? In the end, it’s always our fault. If we properly set expectations and met those expectations, then we should never lose a client due to something we did or failed to do.
What we got out of that lessons learned meeting was that we needed to change our process in 2-3 key ways. Doing so will ensure that that particular problem will never happen again.
That’s the key…you never want the problem to occur again. A clear process is what will ensure it doesn’t.
We implemented the changes to our process. Immediately. It’s important that when you know something needs to change that you make the change as fast as humanly possible.
Business problems are often looked at negatively. Everyone wishes that things would just run smoothly at all times.
But there is a very positive side to having problems. It means that you are growing in ways that you had not yet anticipated. Pushing outside of your comfort zone, and outside of your company’s comfort zone, is the only way that you’ll grow. Each time you push into new territory, you’re likely to experience a problem. New problems should signal to you that you’ve transitioned over a significant threshold and into new territory.
The important thing is to recognize that problems are going to occur as you grow. As painful as they are – they’re not called growing pains for nothing – they should be seen as a sign of success. If you address them properly and ensure they don’t happen again, then they are an opportunity for you to learn and get better. Imagine never making that mistake again.
For us, with this lost client, that was the case. They were a larger, more mature, organization than we were used to dealing with. They had higher standards and expected a robust schedule of deliverables that we had not produced for our smaller clients before. Bigger clients have bigger needs. That’s a good thing. I want those kinds of problems. Now that we’ve solved the problem, I’m ready for the next big client.
The new clients that you will acquire after learning these very hard lessons will appreciate you even more than your past clients did. It’s unfortunate that the old clients had to suffer through the pain of your learning experience, but it’s necessary to go to that pain.
Feel the pain and take it all in. It should be the last time you feel that pain.
Enjoy the grind.
Erik J. Olson is the Founder & CEO of Array Digital—a marketing agency that enables its clients to achieve their dreams, fulfill their missions, and impact more lives with their services.