How to Sweet Talk an Agency
During the exploration call, unguided, we heard:
“We want you to be involved from the initial concept and have creative input.”
“You are the expert and we will actively listen and respect the experience you bring.”
“We’ve done our homework and took the time to organize our needs into a clear list. We worked to get the leadership on the same page. Here is exactly what the board expects and how we can all win.”
“Our budget is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars (with a specific range provided). Let’s figure out how to maximize our outcomes within that range. We also have a budget reserve to give us some breathing room if we want to change the overall scope at a later time.”
“We know there is no such thing as a truly fixed scope. We have very active and engaged stakeholders and have learned that the further we get into exploring a problem, the more we understand about the best approach. We are looking for a partner who is comfortable with an agile workflow.” [While this isn’t necessary and we work waterfall on a regular basis, agile is our preferred methodology.]
“We don’t expect you to work for free. Your time is valuable. We’d like to start by budgeting for a round of discovery.”
“This is a team effort and we know that in order to hit the deadline, we have to do our part.”
“How long will this really take with a good safety buffer? We’ve learned if we push you to do it faster, we may have to sacrifice quality, which is our number-one priority.”
“We pay consistently and on time.”
“We understand you have multiple clients (and a life) and we realize that we can’t always be the first priority every minute of every day. What we want is an accountable partner who is great at setting expectations.”
“Here’s my personal contact. If I can’t respond right away, I’ll make sure someone can.”
I enthusiastically pitched our team on the project at our weekly pipeline call. I wasn’t talking about the feature set, or brand recognition. I was gushing about the genuine commitment and professionalism of the team behind it. It’s easy to sell my team on a great partner.
Kyle and I spent the day in Chicago today presenting for a substantial rebuild of a primary property for a well-established university. I always love the flight home as it gives me the space for introspection.
I prefer an awesome client team with what could be a quotidian project over a game-changing project mired in a cultural train wreck.
The customer asked us point-blank why we were excited to work with them. I personally find the inflection happening in higher education fascinating as it offers an amazing opportunity for exploring narratives. The ivory tower has been able to operate within the status quo for a long time and is now being asked by its constituents to validate their offering. Actually, this is true for the whole industry of education, not simply this customer.
So, why am I personally excited to work on their project? The fact of the matter is that the customer’s communications team is extremely competent, and has been a consistent pleasure to work with as we shaped the scope over the past three months. That is what excites the heck out of me.
I prefer an awesome client team with what could be a quotidian project over a game-changing project mired in a cultural train wreck. We built this company to provide a great quality of life for our team and solve meaningful challenges with quality craftspersonship. Surrounding ourselves with good people, especially our wonderful clients, is a vital part of that formula.
Verbiage to Avoid When Courting the Best Agencies
You can attract someone by using right words, and you can make them run like hell by using the wrong ones. All you have to say is the phrase “spec work” to start a full-out brawl in a crowd of freelancers. Try it out some time; it’s like watching a pack of Tasmanian devils in mating season, quite the sight to behold. So what makes me flinch when on a call? Statements like these usually don’t work out too well:
- “This should be easy right? After all, it’s not rocket science.”
- “Please find an attached RFP. The deadline is this Friday. We only accept questions via email and will not be able to have a phone conversation.”
- “We had lots of trouble with our last three web development partners, they were all completely hopeless.”
- “All project decisions will be made by the committee, I’m just a manager and really have no idea what they will decide.” [To be fair, I don’t mind a committee with strong leadership.]
- “We’d like you to get started right away, but we’ll get you a contract as soon as we can. It will take at least sixty days to get you a deposit.”
- “Whip up some ideas and if I like what I see, I’ll pay you for the work you did! We just need to know you are the right partner first.”
- “I’m self-funded. Want to partner with me for equity?” [In sixteen years, we have said “yes” twice. We have yet to realize any returns on those.]
- “If you can do this for a serious discount, I have more projects for you to work on after.”
- “Our Latvian coder, Dmitrij, got half way through the project before we realized he was making a huge mess. We’ve got about a quarter of the budget left and are looking for someone to finish the project.”
- “We’ve never done a tech project before, but we have this really great idea for a website that does stuff, and, uh, it’s for recovering meth addicts over the age of 85, and we still need to work out how this will make money.”
- “Before we can talk, I need you to sign an NDA.”
What I am looking for during a call is a stakeholder who can navigate the project to success. Unreasonable expectations, lack of communication, organizational misalignment, challenges with accountability and budget shortfalls are the types of issues which we have learned to recognize and avoid.
If you are thinking of saying one of the statements above, you have my honest sympathy–we have all been there. They aren’t instant disqualifications, but like any awkward pickup line at a club, it raises all kinds of red flags.
The Ideal Agency Pickup
When reaching out initially, start with the fundamentals. We will have to ask each of these questions before deciding if a phone call is worth everyone’s time, so it will save a bit of back and forth.
Context: Who are you?
Introduce yourself! It is friendly and polite. I like to know who I am going to spend my time with. Otherwise, I have to go Google you and hopefully I can figure out what the organization you work for is trying to accomplish. There are a handful of industries we are a perfect fit for, and a small subset who need help with challenges that simply aren’t in our wheelhouse.
I also love it when people tell me where they heard of us. Are you coming from a referral? From Google? Are you a user of one of our products?
Scope: What are you trying to do (in one to three sentences)?
Are you looking to build a website or scale your current one? Get some UX / UI support? Need a prototype? What should this new piece of software do and who is it for? You are welcome to attach a scope document or RFI / RFP, but we really appreciate it when someone takes a few minutes to summarize it thoughtfully.
Timeline: When are you hoping to have a team start and / or complete your project?
We manage our pipeline and our team’s utilization very carefully. Sometimes we have the space to start right away, but often we can get booked upwards of three months. If you can give us a sense of when you need to start (realistically accounting for your own organization vendor approval process) and any delivery deadlines that you need to adhere to, we’ll be able to quickly figure out if we have the bandwidth.
Budget: What are you looking to spend?
We have a project minimum. The point at which the cost and overhead simply does not merit the opportunity. Depending on the type of project, our current load, and how well you present yourself, that minimum number sits anywhere between $25k and $45k. Don’t worry–if your budget doesn’t align with us, we have an awesome list of agencies to whom we regularly refer work that is simply too small for our book of business.
We build to order. Sometimes building a Ferrari is just the ticket and sometimes a Ford Focus is the perfect solution (and I sure love my Focus). Our projects come with different budgets and different goals. More often than not, your budget is what helps us refine the scope. We rarely fall short of thoughtful strategies to further your bottom line. Time and money are the most common constraints.
I know many people are afraid to share their number. You are thinking, if I say $150k, no matter what the project is, it will cost $150k. I promise you, that simply is not true. We can build you a $50k or $150k solution, we just need to figure out together which one you are angling for. We pride ourselves on creating value and have a decade’s worth of reputation to uphold.
At the end of the day, without a general number range, we usually end up walking away as we risk wasting too much time guessing what will create a mutual win.
Status: Is this for real?
This is a bit blunt, but we often have to triage a lot opportunities to find great ones and this is always the question I have to answer for myself. For example: is funding for the project available and a 100%-sure thing, or are you exploring the the viability of an idea? Both are fine, but it helps us to prioritize. If we all agree that this is an awesome partnership, can you execute on a contract now? Or, will you need eight agencies to bid in a competitive environment over a five-month process? The better I understand the status of the project, the more likely we can figure out where it fits gracefully within our project road map.
Example: the Modern Tribe redesign
We launched a new website this week! It has been a passion project that we have managed throughout the rare windows afforded between massive client releases. If I were to outsource this work with an agency, I would send the following:
Hi, my name is Shane and I am a partner at Modern Tribe. We are a hybrid product company and full stack digital agency serving the fortune 500, government entities, higher education and well funded startups (http://tri.be). I was talking to [wise yogi] yesterday and he vouched for your team, sharing the work you did on [epic project]. I’m really impressed. I am looking for a design and development partner for our next web project and would love to know if you have space on your books.
Our company has grown from 28 to 54 people this year and we acquired a new organization which added additional product lines to our existing portfolio. We have let our website fall precariously out of date. We need a responsive site which:
- empowers our marketing and sales team to effectively tell our story without having to touch the code
- creates quality lead-gen content which integrates with our CRM / project management tools
- aligns with our rebranding effort
We’d like you to take this project from concept to migration and provide maintenance until our team has the bandwidth to take it in-house. We have some flexibility on timing, but I would love to have the first pass live at the end of June.
I’ve run the numbers with my partners and we were looking to invest somewhere between 50 – 80k into the new site. We are pretty much ready to go once we identify the right team.
If this looks like a good fit, I am available for a conversation tomorrow at 2pm or 4pm pacific and Monday any time before noon pacific. If you are booked, or it isn’t inline with your ideal project, whom would you recommend I connect with. I’d love a referral.
We are truly excited to get this started and look forward to hearing from you.