If you have ever worked with a digital agency without in-person meetings, the project could have went a few ways. One, maybe it went off perfectly as the project moved along on-time and on-budget. Two, maybe everything fell apart. There multiple delays in communication, continuously out of scope, and it felt like you were fixing things more than making progress. And three, somewhere in between. Where your experience falls on that scale will determine if you use that agency for a second project. But fear not, I am here with strategies to keep your next project on track, on budget, with clear communication.
The Challenge With Working With An Agency
When it comes to working with an agency, especially in a remote environment when you can’t meet in-person, one of the challenges that surface quickly is the flow of clear communication. The hard fact is an agency will have many clients, all who are in some phase of a project. If employees are the most valuable resource in an agency, those employees time is the second most valuable resource. If those employees are meeting and talking about projects, that is directly reducing the time for production of those same projects.
Tip: If you have a meeting scheduled for an hour, try this. Put together an 30 minute agenda, keep the meeting to 30 minutes. Ask the agency to use the next 30 minutes for everyone involved to focus entirely on your project, coming out of the meeting and directly into your project.
It is very important to have a conversation with the agency when starting a project. Ask how many other projects do they currently have in production and how much time they have to talk to you about your project. If they are at max capacity, your project will struggle, plan an extra 10-15% on your timeline.
Navigating The Structure Of An Agency
Every agency is different in their structure, ask your contact how they are structured, this is very important to understand. In general, and optimized agency is built with a structure like this:
New Business Development: This is most likely the first person you will talk to, they will be your consultant, determine your scope of work and develop an cost estimate for you. In a smaller agency, or if you are a big project for them, this could be an agency principle.
Tip: If you put in the extra effort and built out your own detailed scope of work, your cost estimate will be much more accurate as there will be less guesswork in the details.
Account or Project Manager: This will be your main point of contact for the agency after you have signed the agreement. In many agencies this will be the same person. It is important to clarify the structure of these positions, as one person doing both jobs has benefits and challenges. Knowing the structure will help you work with this format more efficiency.
- One person doing both jobs, mainly focused toward project management. They will always have the latest information on your project, but it will be more operationally focused conversations. This means keep your questions focused, ask specific questions about the project, and have what they need ready. Do not distract the PM with new ideas and new feature request, it will slow down the project.
- Two people, account manager and project manager. This is my preferred structure, and this is why. Your project manager will be the operational manager, actionable information flowing through the production team and out to you as the client. The account manager will be your go-to, talking about new ideas, working on possible scope changes, and your friend “on the inside”. They will not always have the latest information on your project, that is the PM’s job. So, it is important before you talk to the account manager, give them a list of what you want to talk about at least 24 hours before the meeting. This way, they can be prepared with the information from the PM.
Production Team: These are the creators, the artist, the developers, they are the ones bringing your ideas to life. You do not want the production team in your meetings, other than an initial kickoff meeting where you can set the vision for them. If they are meeting with you, they are not working on your project. The project managers and/or the account managers know how to work best with this team.
Ways To Communicate With An Agency
Depending on who you are working with, they will have preferred methods of communication. The account manager will communicate with you differently than a project manager most likely. Ask each of them how they communicate best. here are some things to talk about.
- Zoom or video conference: This should be saved for scheduled, agenda driven meetings.
- Phone: You should give a heads up when you will call and what it will be about. This will help them answer your questions.
- Chat app: Many agencies will use Slack, Google Chat, Skype, or something similar. This should be your main communication channel for quick information and short questions/answers.
- Project management system such as Asana: This is where you want important information. It is there for everyone to see, and usually the production team will be in there as well. Any actionable information should be here. You can usually log in to your project, or reply to tickets by email directly.
- Email: This is the most common communication method, it is not usually the best. It’s easy for you to send an email to your contact, but they might have many other clients sending email. Your email might get lost, delayed, or miss an key deadline in the production teams schedule because your contact is busy in a meeting. Email is the easiest, it is not the best.
Tip: Use video screen recording when replying. Use a plugin like Screencastify and record your comments while showing on the screen. It is the most effective and clearest way to communicate, plus it will save you and the agency a lot of time.
Understanding The Workflow And How To Optimize It
Many times agencies are balancing multiple projects, deadlines that are happening every day, scope changes, client meetings, new sales meetings, company meetings, and all of the unknowns that come fast. When you think about how your project fits in with everything else, it comes down to 4 things.
- What is the overall deadline?
- How long is it going to take to complete?
- Do we have everything we need?
- How fast can the customer respond?
Let’s break all of those things down, but let’s start with the most important. If you guessed number 3, you are right! If an agency has everything they need to work on your project, you become the priority. Remember, time is the second most valuable resource. If your project is second in line in priority, and the agencies top priority project hits a wall because they are missing content such as a pages for their website or photos for a brochure, that project comes to a screeching halt and the next project in line steps up to the plate. Agencies need to keep production moving and the only way to do that is have the projects assets.
Next might be unexpected, but how fast a customer can respond makes a huge impact on the workflow. Let’s say the web developer need feedback on a wireframe or a homepage mockup. The project manager will reach out to the client, probably by email, and either ask for a meeting to review the mockup, or send you a screenshot and ask for comments. This is where projects stall. The client doesn’t get the email until a day later, sits on it for a day thinking about it, replies back a day later with vague feedback or more questions, and now your project is on hold, back in the dugout!
Tip: Give your account manager or project manager permission to text you with important and timely needs. Also give them permission to send you things that are not completely finished, such as mockups.
If you can get back to them immediately when needed, even if it’s a text reply or a phone call right back, this is what happens. When the developer ask for feedback, the project manager text you and you get right back with the answer. The developer never has a chance to switch to another client project because they got what they needed to continue. You get them the information they need immediately, and you just saved a week delay.
The overall deadline and how long it will take to complete are only important if you do not focus on number 3 and 4 above. If you don’t provide everything needed and don’t get back quickly with requested feedback, the deadline starts approaching, and the time needed starts outpacing the time remaining, which leads to the agency to start pressuring the client and a delayed project.
When Conversations Get Uncomfortable
If you get to the point of an uncomfortable conversation, first determine the cause. Below are a few common examples to consider.
- The project overview was not clear, which led to misunderstanding about the project
- The initial timeline was not realistic
- Information was not provided in a timely manner, leading to delays
- There were changes in the scope of the project
- A change in the agency, such as a key employee leaving or sickness
- Project management was not effective
There could be many other reasons, but the most important thing is to not point fingers at anyone and create additional tension. When a relationship takes a bad turn and starts to go off the rails, so does the project. Find out what the cause or causes were, address them in a respectful manner with the appropriate agency director (or on the flip side, the client key contact). Take the extra step and suggest a plan to get things back on track, and make a solid plan going forward with key check-ins on milestones. This should all be documented in a project management system, or at minimum a cloud based document like Google Docs. This way, it is always available and accessible for key personnel to check in and review the last documented information and the next check-in.
If you understand the process the agency works in, and you understand how and when to optimize your time and communication, projects will go smooth, relationships will flourish, and you will