“We want higher profile, better paid work”

Chasing a pot of gold — (Rainbow by https://www.flickr.com/photos/mariana_maia/)

As an agency owner, have you ever said that? I know when I was running a fully fledged web development agency it was something I often said and heard.

Nowadays, in my role of helping clients find the right digital agencies, it’s evident that some of those who are pitching for the work on offer are doing so because it represents a step up in either income, challenge or profile compared to what they’ve done previously.

Agencies are often on the look-out for projects which raises their profile, or offers higher value, more complex, challenging or engaging work. But despite having the undoubted brand, design, comms or content skills, they often fall short of winning based on some of the tech, or, if they win the work, find that new or unforeseen technical challenges erode that job’s profitability. Based on my own experience I’d say this is an unavoidable growing pain when running an agency.

Also, higher value work often goes beyond the point of just getting a site to launch. The launch of a phase one, or a minimum viable product (MVP) is often just the starting point in what ideally will be a long term relationship, where what you deploy for the client improves and iterates over time. This provides a growth opportunity for agencies, because it allows them to earn throughout the whole product lifecycle, but it does require agencies to start working in a different way.

What I see

I come across a lot of very talented, committed, niche digital agencies, focused on offering an attentive service to clients. Those agencies typically might focus on brand, design or content, often targeting specific sectors; sectors in which the agency owners might have some impressive big business experience.

More often than not, to build out the solutions created for clients they’ll be using Wordpress as a content management system (CMS). With over 31% of the web’s top million sites platformed on Wordpress, and given its extreme ease of use, wide range of plug-ins and the plethora of cost-effective hosting solutions that exist for it, this is often a no-brainer decision.

For those agencies this often means that a level of the design and development work can be done in-house, with the rest subbed out to the huge number of Wordpress freelancers that exist, based on the features that might be the most complex, or which need a certain style of design, or, just to manage the workload. Maybe that sounds like your agency?

The challenges

When I’m helping suppliers select an agency I often see a lot of challenges with niche agencies based around the fact that there’s often limited breadth and depth of technical know-how in-house.
Do you have the skills in-house?

To be able to demonstrate that you can improve a web solution beyond launch most likely you’ll need to be able to show that your development resource is ring-fenced. If it looks like too much of your development is outsourced, clients may get rightly nervous about you not having the resource or the relevant skills at the point they want their next iteration worked on.

It’s very easy to flush out agencies that have no credible means of being able to provide support and thus be fairly confident that they’re not working in an environment where they are iteratively improving the solutions they’ve built, at best, in anything other than an ad-hoc way.

Assuming, if we’re across the table from each other at a pitch, when I ask, ‘How do you manage support?’ that you don’t answer with ‘Support is a web hosting company concern.’ (Yes, really, some people have….), there are other signs that show a lack of depth here.

Every time an agency brings on a long term client, it increases its ongoing support burden. While support in itself creates an additional income stream, those revenues can only be maximised and requests dealt with if there’s some kind of process that enables issues to be allocated to available resources. So, when in a pitch suppliers answer by saying ‘clients just mail or call us (because we offer that personal service)’, this belies a lack of process and suggests that the agency is not really versed in doing the type of work the client is trying to assign.

By acceptance we are talking about quality assurance (QA) and user acceptance testing (UAT). In a pitch, any answer to a client question on how you manage acceptance cannot include that your developers do it. Or really anyone on the build part of the project team. Ideally you want software tested by people who perform that function for a living.

Iterative on-going work can only really happen in an environment where some process which governs acceptance testing for new features is baked in alongside some additional process for regression testing key essential features. If you do this properly you reduce the likelihood of a client emailing or calling in a bug. That in turn saves essential developer time (especially when that developer may already be entrenched in the next project) and helps you build scale within your development team. Doing this is evidence of having a process that allows you to do structured iterative work for clients.

I see a lot of agencies, that don’t do acceptance very well, get user acceptance testing confused with usability testing, often proposing the latter at the end of a project as a means of managing acceptance. The danger here is that those users (who are then often drawn from a client’s target market) are talking about what they want from the website (which should have been established before the build) rather than be able test that what was built works. So, when I hear agencies talk about usability testing at this stage of a project in a pitch that rings alarm bells with me.

Knowing what your agency’s standpoint is on stress and penetration testing is also key. To a certain extent, if you’re using well known plug-ins on a Wordpress install, where all the code is up to date, on a well resourced slice from someone like WPEngine, then you’ve gone a long way to ensuring that code is performany and secure, and are in a better position to assess the need, and pros and cons of doing additional security and penetration testing, based on factors like audience size, business risk, mission criticality etc. But you have to have a view on it, and be able to demonstrate your agency’s position on it when asked. If you can’t, then it’s clear this is a road down which you’ve not trod before.

Resolving these challenges

So, how do you, in a growing, resource constrained agency, develop your ability to have genuine continuity with your development team and a process by which you can manage support and acceptance?

The key is to do so slowly, simply and in staged steps using exactly the same sort of processes and tools that many other agencies do.

Look at tools you can use to manage in-bound support requests. You may even be able to unify this with the tools you use to manage project tasks. Beyond setting these up (either self-hosted or in the cloud) think also about how you manage client access, and then what this means to how you’ll use this tool internally (like the language and detail you’ll use to describe issues if those tickets are to be read by client and agency team members). Basecamp, Jira, Trello, Zendesk are all worth looking at.

Tracking the time spent on support is invaluable. Look at tools like Toggl or Harvest. You’ll also want to document for clients the starting point of a support service level agreement (SLA) so it’s clear to team members on both sides how requests are dealt with. Response and fix times need to be considered, as well as how you prioritise issues based on severity. Once you have an SLA in place, you’re potentially adding more tasks to your account managers list of responsibilities as well; there are lots of things to think about here in terms of managing and maximising a support revenue stream.

Acceptance is something you can credibly outsource, and get kudos from prospective clients by demonstrating that you’re willing to let a third-party judge the quality of the work you produce. Companies like Zoonou can do that for you, as well as advise you on how to best set up scripts for automated regression testing, stress and pen testing, as well as make sure that you comply with best practice in terms of accessibility.

Ring-fencing your development resources is harder. In lieu of having full-time devs on the books (or until you can get to that stage), other options are to look to reduce freelance rates by offering longer, fixed-term retainers, and finding the professionals who see a value in having a percentage of their income on that basis which they can rely on. Where the resources are harder to lock down, encourage freelancers to offer you the same sort of support frameworks that you are looking to bed in with clients.

Can I help you with this?

Yes, if you’d like me to.

In terms of quick wins, if you need to short-cut a lot of this and get up and running, I can help you get proven solutions, documents and processes in place quite easily.

In terms of something more considered, having just closed the ‘web agency’ part of miggle after 12 years, largely to focus on helping clients make better supplier decisions in the first instance, my hunch is that many small to medium sized agencies find the technical aspects of product, project and account management a challenge. As such they perhaps miss out on opportunities to run projects more efficiently and spot areas where existing clients might be encouraged to invest more.

I realise that for agency owners fixing this requires some level of investment and commitment, with no guarantees of returns. So, to reduce risk I offer my services out to agencies on a draw down basis (like how we’ve traditionally sold support), so spend can be controlled. Also, if we can identify some measurable goals, I’m always open to structuring fees based on performance, reducing risk further.

If you’d like to arrange a time to chat or meet up please get in touch with me via info@miggle.co.uk.

Dad and Husband who loves the great outdoors. Own @miggle, digital product management consultancy.