Agency Journey Episode 15 (Y15M6)

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The past month has been a whirlwind of activity at Barrel, not to mention a number of stressful happenings at home especially with our two young ones (e.g. sleep regressions, potty training mishaps, school challenges, getting sick, etc.). I’m so grateful for Thanksgiving and the chance to rest up and slow things down a little bit before one last push to end 2021.

About Agency Journey: This is a monthly series detailing the happenings of my agency Barrel, founded in 2006. You can find previous episodes here.


Containing and Putting Out Fires

Driving much of the craziness at work have been unexpected fires across various projects. These issues have been long-coming in hindsight but feel like they crept up on us and smacked us out of nowhere. The common underlying reason for all these issues is that we simply did not staff these projects up with proper personnel. When people left or were shuffled around, we overestimated our ability to get things done by stretching roles or hoping someone would cover. The results for these understaffed projects have been consistent across the board: timeline delays, buggy product, missing features, and worried (and outraged) clients.

The velocity and urgency of these fires have necessitated deep partner involvement. Sei-Wook, Wes, Lucas, and myself have all found ourselves jumping into projects to figure out where things went wrong, prioritize resourcing to support these at-risk accounts, and assume direct communication with clients to assure they are getting our full attention. We’ve been working closely with project teams to realign on scope, hammer out new timelines, and to call in favors of friends and outside contractors to help move things along.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve found ourselves here with some projects. However, there is a silver lining to all this–the lessons learned from this wave of fires will bring out some serious changes that will make us stronger in the long run. The key, of course, is getting through all of this and not letting things drag on for too long.

I’ll expand on the lessons when I talk about achieving our hiring goals, but to distill it into a single thought, it’s this: don’t skimp out on having the right people staffed for an engagement, and never put our staff in a situation where they feel like they’re stretched too thin and without support.

New Launches & New Wins

If Barrel is a forest and we’re experiencing some wildfires that take up a great bulk of our attention, it’s worth noting that there’s still a large chunk of forest that’s doing quite well and thriving.

Barrel website project launches

A screenshot of some recent launches. From left to right: Visionist, Station, Warm & Wonderful, and Gyles & George.

We had some really great website launches for clients this quarter:

  • Station, a startup furniture business based in Phoenix, Arizona, launched their first ecommerce presence. They sell beautiful, design-forward desks that you can customize in various ways. We worked with their team to create a robust user experience to allow customers to explore endless customization options.
  • Visionist, a retailer for high-end eyewear, launched their ecommerce website. We also worked with their team on the brand strategy and visual identity.
  • For our client Rowing Blazers, we helped launch two spin-off ecommerce websites featuring iconic sweaters, Warm & Wonderful and Gyles & George.
  • We also delivered fall and holiday campaign work for Gap, collaborating with their creative team and exploring concepts and treatments.

One the new business end, we picked up new clients. They include: a wine curation service that partners with top small-production wineries, a company that’s growing as an online concierge for women’s hormone and reproductive health, a new pet care brand, and a brand that provides prescription grade & personalized hair loss solution.

I’m really excited to see the work our team delivers for these brands, and also looking forward to developing long-term relationships with these clients.

Achieving Hiring Goals

One of the most impactful changes we made this year was in making the decision to turn our Client Services group into the primary client-facing discipline while evolving what was formerly the Production team (staffed by Producers) into a Project Management team that would interface primarily with our Software Engineering team. This transition has taken us quite some time and it has not been easy. We had people who disagreed with the move and left the company. We’ve also had to contend with murkiness in responsibilities. Most challenging of all, we’ve had a very tough time dealing with staffing. We’ve constantly been short-staffed on the Client Services front as well as the Project Management front.

At the start of October, I outlined a couple of hiring goals for the team: we would hire at least 2 new team members for the Client Services team (an Account Director and an Account Manager) and at least 3 new people for the Project Management team, all by the end of October. At the time, these felt like very ambitious goals, especially since we had difficulty sourcing candidates to interview in the first place.

Things especially came to a head in mid-to-late October when a member of our Client Services team and a member of our Project Management team quit within a week of each other. They had been on multiple projects together, and serious holes would need to be filled right away. Some of their accounts were already being underserved and at risk because these team members were stretched too thin. We simply were not moving fast enough (or with enough urgency) to plug in holes or provide support. As mentioned in the section about fires above, the Barrel partners jumped in wherever we could offer help.

While we managed the fallout of the unexpected attrition, the team trudged on with recruiting and interviewing. By end of October, we managed to land 2 people for the Client Services team and 1 new project manager. I extended our goal deadline to the end of November and reiterated the urgency with which we needed to fill these roles.

Thankfully, the team came through with some really great finds, and we ended up hiring 4 new project managers. We also added an additional account manager to the Client Services team, bringing the total new hires on that team to 3. Seven new team members to help fill what has been a glaring gap for us. Three of these team members have already started and we’re excited for the other four to begin. Already, we can sense the difference it makes to have properly staffed project teams where clients can reliably get responsive attention and thoughtful answers.

Top of Mind

Sharpening My Focus in Key Areas

The recent spate of fires have served as a strong wake-up call for me. I mentioned last month about how the leadership team grew too distant from the core activities of serving clients and delivering on our promises. Over the past couple months, I’ve focused my attention on four key areas. Anything outside of these, I’ve tried my best to delegate or ignore. I thought I’d share these areas and what specifically happens within each.

1. Removing roadblocks for the team

A huge learning from triaging our at-risk projects was the fact that many problems arise from indecision. I believe solving our staffing situation with proper Client Services personnel will resolve most of these instances, but there will always be certain situations, especially arising from difficult conversations with clients, where someone needs to make the call about sensitive questions like:

  • Are we going to eat the cost and do something for a client or push back?
  • Are we going to incur additional cost to bring on a contractor to make the deadline?
  • Are we going to have a conversation with the client about pushing the launch date due to delays?
  • Are we going to ask for more money because the client asked for 3 more weeks to take care of something on their end that delays the project?

We assumed that the team could navigate these questions on their own, but we saw cases where these issues would not be addressed and become much bigger issues later. One way I can help is to assume responsibility and make the decision while also offering to deliver any bad news directly to the client. I know our team will be more than capable of doing this themselves, but I want to make it as easy as possible for them to see me as a readily available resource for these situations. And them asking for my help, if I do this right, should never feel like a ding but instead, just a way to move things along.

The other area is around resourcing. While we’ve brought in a highly capable resource manager, it’s clear that everyone still has to vie for limited resources and often face challenges in getting help in a timely manner. The long-term solve to alleviate this is to ensure that our team is practicing better upfront planning across all projects and giving themselves ramp-up time to get their desired resources. But I also know that we’ll always have a handful of urgent, last-minute needs that have to be resourced.

Where I can come in handy is in helping to prioritize and push through certain resourcing requests over others. By having a better grasp of situations, being aware of the nature of client relationships, and knowing what’s at risk, I can use my influence as CEO to ensure that a certain project needs immediate attention and that we may need to borrow specific personnel to get certain things done. As we continue to scale, we’ll see different team members gain the authority and high-level exposure necessary to help make these calls. For now, I can do my best to step in when absolutely necessary to help an under-resourced project get the support it needs to move forward.

2. Deepening relationships with clients

I’ve been spending more time connecting with our clients, catching up on how their businesses are doing, and getting feedback from them on how we’ve been doing as their agency partner. Never do these conversations feel like a waste of time. They are opportunities to get to know our clients more intimately and to learn more about the challenges they face.

As I mentioned in my blog post about networking, I see these conversations not as a time to sell them on doing more work with us, but as ways to gather intel and signals on where I can try to add more value. These may come in the form of intros to other people in my network, in sharing anecdotes about things that have worked well for other clients, and in following up with links to helpful resources relevant to their business.

I’ve regret not having done enough of these over the past couple of years, but moving forward, I intend to make these interactions a much larger part of my job.

3. Sales and marketing strategy

In October and November, we had some rough stretches where we found out that we lost nearly a dozen deals. These added up to millions in potential new work. In hindsight, some deals we probably should have been tighter with our qualification process and not pursued at all. But overall, the data was overwhelming: something in our sales process needed tweaking.

One tweak we made is to increase the number of interactions with new prospects throughout the sales process. We may have rushed to get to a proposal too quickly on some deals, not giving ourselves enough time with prospects to develop a relationship beyond the strictly transactional. We’ve been introducing more thorough intake calls as well as interactive workshops to increase the time spent with prospects. We’ve also pulled in more Barrel team members into the sales process, letting prospects meet folks who might actually work on the projects.

Our Director of Business Development Dan Fleishaker has done a great job of creating a fine-tuned sales team that quickly qualifies our dozen or so inbound leads per week and quickly mobilizes our internal team to tackle new opportunities. My involvement here is to continue our collaboration in identifying and addressing any blindspots and to keep challenging ourselves to move beyond our reliance on inbound sales while improving our overall win rate. Here are some other sales-related topics we’ve discussed and will make more movement on in the coming weeks and months:

  • Rethinking our outbound sales strategy and engaging a new lead generation firm
  • Revisiting our New Business Qualification Matrix and tightening our direct-to-consumer ecommerce positioning
  • Implementing a quarterly debrief to review our learnings from all the deals we pursued
  • Enhancing discussions around impact and strategy by including diagnostics, analytics, and KPI-driven outcomes into our sales conversations

On the marketing side, we’ve gotten much better at consistently sharing our work and content on LinkedIn, and we’ve also been steadily attracting email sign-ups with DTC Patterns, our resource of UX and marketing insights based on real purchases. I think we can do more in 2022 to get earned media placements and speaking engagements (panels, roundtables, etc.) for our team leaders. These will supplement the showcasing of our work with credibility-building social proof. I’ll continue to oversee our messaging and to cultivate relationships that will lead to PR and speaking opportunities.

4. Honing and repeating the Barrel story and message

In The Motive, Patrick Lencioni writes about how the CEO must embrace the role of being “Chief Reminder Offer” and continue to communicate the key messages that align the organization to a common purpose.

One activity I take very seriously is the 1-on-1 CEO onboarding that I do with all new hires. This is an hourlong conversations where I walk new team members through the workings of our business and introduce them to The Barrel Way, which includes our Vision, Mission, Core Values, and Maxims. I then walk them through our five-year plan and the areas where we are working to strengthen the business and address our weaknesses.

I don’t expect people to fully retain all that we go over, but the 1-on-1 is an opportunity to introduce language and concepts that we repeat in different team meetings and communications. The most valuable part of the 1-on-1 are the questions that arise from the new team members and any comments they may make about their expectations, their previous experience, and what they’re most looking forward to. I’ve continued to make revisions to the onboarding deck and to hone my messaging based on the interactions.

One opportunity I see in this area is to increase the frequency with which I communicate with the overall team. And rather than lengthy emails, I think I can do a better job of communicating with more bite-sized comms on a regular basis, tying in parts of The Barrel Way where possible, and repeating common themes that are important to our goals (e.g. improving client experience and achieving more consistent project delivery). I’ll have to think of a structure that makes the most sense here and experiment.

Key Takeaway

If I had to choose just one of the four areas shared above, removing roadblocks for the team would be the pick. This wasn’t something that occurred to me as clearly before, but I realize now that a strong culture is one in which great people are given the support to do great work. Helping prioritize what they need to work on, marshaling resources when people are overextended, and stepping in where necessary to help make difficult decisions – these are actions that signal what’s important, and that’s what really defines culture.

Shared with Partners

“Soldiers and athletes know from experience that the most dangerous opponent is one who lost the last contest but has the humility to learn why—and the discipline to correct their weaknesses.” (Stanley McChrystal and Anna Butrico, Risk)

I’m reminded of both the fires we’ve had to contend with on projects as well as the many losses on the new business front–these are valuable experiences that I know we’ll learn from and use to correct our weaknesses.

“A man wants to walk across the land, but the earth is covered with thorns. He has two options—one is to pave his road, to tame all of nature into compliance. The other is to make sandals. Making sandals is the internal solution. Like the Soft Zone, it does not base success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience.” (Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning)

This perspective resonates with me: rather than brute-forcing top-down control over everything, working on the “internal solution” of a stronger and more adaptable mind feels like a more sustainable solution for the long-run. In business, I interpret this as paying more attention to the culture and daily behaviors vs. trying to enact onerous top-down policies in an effort to control people.

“An Owner is engaged and involved in the planning, execution, measurement, and corrections necessary to proactively lead and manage the business and employees. Owners add value primarily through leverage (team) and measurement (dashboards and financial analysis). Growth and control are balanced because the rules of delegation (vs. abdication) are being followed. An Owner focuses on creating a structure or machine that relies on various moving parts all synchronistically doing their job to achieve a common outcome.” (Keith J. Cunningham, The Road Less Stupid)

We’ve been working hard to solve for the leverage piece, by hiring team members to fill gaps that existing in the org. We’ve been inconsistent across the org on the measurement front. This quote is a good reminder of the further improvements we can make to installing more visible accountability in the org. But first, the priority is to make sure we have the people firmly in place and not stretched thin.

“Addressing the problem of motivation in a professional firm requires an examination of all of the firm’s managerial systems and practices, from recruiting, through work assignments, performance appraisal and feedback, promotion, and outplacement.” (David H. Maister, Managing the Professional Service Firm)

Managing the Professional Service Firm is a book I still reference every couple of weeks. It’s an endless source of inspiration and ideas. It breaks down challenging questions like “how do I keep my employees motivated?” into practical, systems-based approaches. No magic bullets, but instead, a total commitment to making many good decisions and continually showing up for employees and clients.

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