Let's Build It Together


This is how I like to start working with clients. Less confusion yields less conflict, which means more trust. More trust always yields better results. So I start collaboratively, transparently.

Like most mothers, my mother made me clean my room. And like most kids, I made it easy. First, everything was emptied into the tiny hallway of our tiny ranch. Then, almost everything was brought back into my room, considered, curated, one piece at a time.

It's a horrible way to clean a room. But it's not a bad way to build a strategy if you have the wherewithal to see it through. At least half of the strategy is deciding what won't work.

We're going to war!

Across agencies, "Discovery" is generally the introductory fact-finding meeting (or series of meetings). On a bad day, you're just sold the services that increase the agency's profit. Maybe you get a slightly condescending "What seems to be the problem?" followed by an unnerving "How much money do you have to spend?".

It's not always like that. But it's messy business to put a client who's been burned by salespeople in a room with salespeople who have been burned by clients. The client wins if he or she spends less, the salespeople win if the client spends more. It immediately becomes a little war. So even though we all know budget is an integral piece of information for strategy, asking "How much money do you have to spend?" smells like subterfuge.

Either way, Discovery is primarily a Q&A session. The agency ought to have questions. Sometimes they want to know you. Other times, they are there strictly to sell and impress. PHP? WMV? ABCDEFG? Then you tell them what you know off-hand, they go away, and then they send you a list of what you should be doing better (they can help you with that).

There are plenty of well-intentioned people, too. They earnestly want to know what problem you want to solve. They earnestly try to solve it so that you make your money back on your investment. They ask really good questions and listen to your answers. And they try really, really hard to avoid using jargon. But you're likely still on edge because you just came from a war with another agency. Or you heard about a war. Regardless, it's you vs them.

Actually, we can be friends.

I've given a good amount of thought to this part. As the first step, it's also the most important, and it makes a huge impact on how we work together and what we do. So here's how I do it for clients looking for a fresh start.

1. Put everything in the hall.

To someone strapped for time, this sounds awful. It's not the same as starting over, though. It's not a forest fire. It's the accurate, honest assessment of what matters. If you're familiar with the Internet, you've been blasted with all the things you ought to be doing or doing more or doing better. Meanwhile, some of your strongest competitors are dumping money into the latest trend, and it may or may not be helping them. To start, some of that noise needs to be cleared away.

The empty room that I referred to at the top is clarity and an uncluttered response to "What do you want?". It's a really big question if you give it enough time. The answer probably isn't a website. Almost nobody actually wants another project, another expense. "More money" seems like the heart of it for most, but that's still not quite there.

"I want moms to find my business and tell their friends about it."

"I want to look respectable so that potential customers expect quality."

"I want people to stop calling us to ask why we don't have a menu online."

This is lovely place to start. There are infinite combinations of tactics, media, and aesthetics at our disposal – especially these days – but now we can start talking about which ones to bring into the room. We can really start talking about you and your customers. Maybe, to them, quality just means the magic of an exclusive waiting list. Maybe they'd understand if they knew your menu changes regularly. Maybe moms don't like what you're offering...

This is where we need to start: digging deep to define the problem so that we can be clear about what success looks like. Again, I'm not the only one who's after this. Most people in my position will say this is their process. It's the depth of the digging, though, and the clarity of the objective that will determine how effective the strategy can be.

The best part of strategy is deciding that certain things aren't worth your time or money. I love to not sell you something you don't need. It's stressful otherwise because it's hard to make the case, gets harder as you go, and almost inevitably shortens the relationship. It's so much more exciting to tell you that you can do more with less. Or that you don't have to start over. Or that there's some work you can do ahead of time so you don't have to pay me for it. Clearing the room of unnecessary pressure and terrible ideas is, in my experience, a terrific way to stop a war before it starts.

In my current process, the first step is usually a short list of questions, particularly for new clients. Preferably, you'd answer them ahead of time and email me so that I can start thinking before we meet — but that's not a requirement. It's a collection of the essential questions that help us both get to the heart of the work. Then we meet up – physically or virtually – and start putting together a really good plan for getting you what you want and need.

The notion that I could size up your business and build a strategy with a single Q&A session is crazy. Your wisdom and knowledge of the terrain is absolutely necessary. No one knows what you want better than you. So we do it together.

2. Do it together.

If I have secret sauce, this is it.

Salespeople are generally tasked with getting in between agency workers and the client. Maybe Grumpy Steve is a better designer than friend. Maybe they're just protecting the team from disrespectful clients. Either way, there's a divide, which means there's a bottleneck. "Let me go over this with the team..."

My favorite part of this step is where we start building together. This is where we start to really bring things back into the room. It looks different for different clients, but typically we start collaboratively Googling (shamelessly), sketching, and experimenting. It's become delightfully easy to throw together a prototype and see if it holds water. And when we're talking about elusive matters like imagery and taste, there's no better way to communicate them than making and finding the images themselves.

So, I fire up the laptop, get out my notepad, and we start building. Sometimes this happens in the first meeting. It won't be beautiful because that's not the point. This is meant to reassure you that I understand you, that you understand me, that we're on the same page, working toward the same goal. If I do my job well and transparently, you will walk away with a better understanding of what I'm about to do, feeling more excited and less apprehensive.

We will do as much together as makes sense. Sometimes clients like to do one long session, but I prefer breaking it into at least two. A lot of good happens in the space between sessions. Regardless, I've found it to be a great way to start. Less confusion yields less conflict, which means more trust. More trust always yields better results. So I start collaboratively, transparently.

Not just the beginning...

I know we're all just buying and selling goods, but the basic rules of human relationships still apply. Trust is essential. Communication is hard. You know things that I don't. When we choose to operate outside of that, either because we've been burned or because it just seems easier, smoke starts pouring out of the gears. The strategy doesn't really work for either party long-term. Then we all have to spend more time doing what we hate (i.e. micromanaging each other) instead of doing what we love. And then our relationships become short, worn, and full of regrets.

A great strategy will last a long time and save a lot of money. And I love that feeling of clarity when we know what we want, have a few great steps to take, and leave every distraction and all the noise in the hallway.