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EP 27: Onboarding Clients for Mutual Success, with Sara Bacon

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly chats with Sara Bacon, CEO of Command C. They dive into the importance of proper on boarding for project success and a few best practices, as well as setting up a mutually respectful relationship between agency and client.

 

TRANSCRIPT

File Name: EP 27 Onboarding Clients for Mutual Success, with Sara Bacon

Duration: 00:19:31

 

Kelly: Today, we're talking about client onboarding processes for agencies and I'm really excited to have Sara Bacon, the founder of Command C on the show. Command C is basically an e-commerce agency that helps clients sell more and stress less. I love that tagline. So Sara, thanks so much for being on the show today.

 

Sara:  Thanks for having me.

 

Kelly: So we're gonna kick things off I think by maybe defining onboarding and calling out like why agencies are pretty terrible at onboarding and why that's such a pervasive issue.

 

Sara:  Yeah. So the way I see it onboarding is the process by which you not only bring a client into the environment of working with your agency and share with them, set expectations with them about what that's going to be like but also set the expectations for each individual process that they're going to go through with your agency. So for example, we have one onboarding process when we build a new site for a client and then we re-onboard them when they engage in our retainer process because those processes these are really different. And I found it incredibly important to work with clients to help them understand what they're getting into before just throwing them into it.

 

Kelly: Right. That's really smart though. I mean, the fact that you're separating it, it sounds like it would be common sense but I think a lot of agencies struggle with onboarding in general so having two separate processes for a project-based versus retainer-based, that's great. Now, I think one of the things that we've talked about in the past is those clients that kind of give some push-back about using your systems and your processes. They feel like they're paying you should kind of bend over backwards to sort of accommodate them. So you have some pretty strong feelings about that and I like to chat about that a little bit.

 

Sara:  Yeah, I do. I think it kind of comes back to like the idea of the client is always right mentality and I have so much respect for clients but they don't necessarily get down with the idea that they are always right. For an agency, we work with multiple clients at any given time and my goal is to give our clients the very best product but also experience that they can have when engaging us. And as a team if we're all using disparate methodologies, it becomes extremely difficult to standardize anything and have quality control over the experience that we're giving to our clients.

The thing that I am the most obsessed with in my business, is my clients experience and journey through working with Command C and if they're running the show then they are kind of getting to dictate that journey and it's really important to me that we have some quality control over what that journey is. And I would say that overall when we explain why we do what we do to our clients, they get it. There are certain clients who are just either so big or so bureaucratic that you can't penetrate their systems and processes. And for us, like sometimes those aren't the best clients. Because we've been doing this for a really long time and we’re clear about what works and what doesn't work.

 

Kelly: And they're also coming to you for your expertise. I mean if they could build a really robust e-commerce site then they’d do it in-house. So they're coming to you and that guidance and part of that whole process is really important to the success for both of you.

 

Sara:  Yeah. And so much of what we're actually selling is the process like these things are so big, they’re so nuanced, they’re so complex and the management of these things is like more than half the battle. That's just my perspective and I think it's just incredibly important to communicate why you're doing what you're doing. It's not like just for the sake of doing it one particular way. It’s to achieve the outcome that we're all looking for.

 

Kelly: Right. But you actually bring up a really good point because I think a lot of clients have this sense in the back of their head that you're kind of pigeon-holing them into this one system or this one way just because it's what you do, and explaining that to them I think very, very early on in the process, even during the prospecting to see how open they are to those things. I think that's really important.

 

Sara:  It is important and I guess my experience is just that like and maybe this just comes with the age of an agency but we don't get as much push back on those kinds of things as we did when we were younger and maybe it's not just age of agency but also age of the industry.

 

Kelly: Yeah.

 

Sara:  I find that clients get our kind onboarding documentation and they’re like yes thank you, like thank you for filling this out in advance. And my overall kind of just sense of the trajectory of that kind of push-back is that it's diminished.

 

Kelly: Yeah, well I think the diminishing of that push-back is because at the end of the day this is a really complex process. So going back to the fact that they're hiring you as the expert, you guys are like the it team for e-commerce but this also transcends into any other creative process whether you are doing social media or branding or PR. It doesn't matter. It doesn't have to be obviously relegated to technology.

 

Sara:  I agree. And not to get like too philosophical in this conversation.

 

Kelly: I’m all about it.

 

Sara:  Okay. I have experienced since the day I started my business, since the day I became a professional in the creative world, that people have a lack of respect for creatives. Do you think that they can do it on some level…or should they be able to do it themselves on some level. My experience is that once we earn the client's respect, which we've learned to do very quickly now, it's a non-issue but until you earn the client's respect they're always going to feel a lack of control and they have this huge thing riding on the line and if you don't get their trust quickly, it's always going to be a struggle.

 

Kelly: Right. But the trust, just to kind of build on that like the trust is really because there is so much riding on this and they're scared. So at the end of the day like when you really dig into it, it's fear based and so they need to trust that you guys are going to knock it out of the park.

 

Sara:  Totally and that's exactly why I'm obsessed with onboarding. Is it's when the client is like oh they have done this before or they have a really clear process for this that we earn their trust. I have experienced recently, oh, we’re working with a marketing agency and so I get to have the script flip a little bit. And I'm really watching like this is a brand new thing for me and I get this experience of like delving into this really big commitment, this brand new thing and how they communicate, what we're going to do is really interesting. I have no idea what I'm getting into really, but I trust that. So I'm doing it. But that nuance and like and I think that in the beginning you open saying like, this is something that agencies like sort of notoriously do terribly, is this whole idea of onboarding. And I think that it's because what we do is so difficult and the process is so challenging and ever-changing and big that it's hard to have space for remembering that the client has their own experience and the clients never done this before.

 

Kelly: Yeah, it’s such a good point.

 

Sara:  To lose sight of the client and like my biggest obsession like I said is like what is the client's experience through this journey.

 

Kelly: Right. So let's talk about that a little bit and get some specifics around what that journey looks like for clients at Command C and how you've kind of built these processes around to ensure that they have that great experience.

 

Sara:  Yeah. So it starts with writing out the process like every little detail up when we bring in and not like technical. It's the actual like what we do when we get a new client, what are the things that need to be communicated to them and in what order do those things need to be communicated to them because that's really important too. What are the tools that they're going to use like one of the things that we do is we give them a communications strategy and it's simply a document that says here's a plethora of tools we use, here's when and how to use them.

We separate out like when to use email versus when to use basecamp because the client is getting all these tools that they may or may not have used in the past. And if they have used them, they may have used them differently. I mean internally we've had many conversations around when should we use email versus slacks versus basecamp. And so, we want the client to be abiding by those rules too. We have to communicate that to them and then that's just like a tiny piece of our overarching process, and then we build documentation around that and then we try to simplify it like what's overly granular, like what's the essence of what they need to get to feel like they’re crossing a suspension bridge with handrails.

 

Kelly: So client signs up with you.

 

Sara:  Yeah.

 

Kelly: So is that like your initial packet that you're giving them, is it kind of phased out throughout the process like what are you giving them at kick off, like give me a little bit more in terms of the specifics.

 

Sara:  So it does depend a little bit on the nature of the project and the type of client.

 

Kelly: Sure.

 

Sara:  But overarchingly, we give them our documentation and this is sort of how we do things in general is instead of just kind of jumping into a presentation, we always give clients documentation first, we send a proposal first, we want them to like sit with it and marinate on it and like just kind of be immersed in what we're communicating to them and then we'll hop on a screen share and walk them through the documentation and be like this is why we do these things. And that's really the process is we just deliver them a document that talks about what it's like to work with Command C and the process we use for doing the thing that's relevant to their project. And then we have a call and we talk about why and how and field any questions.

 

Kelly: Right. Okay. So when we talked last time, you said something that was really interesting. I really loved it. You said our goal in the agency world is to earn and maintain client trust. So like your whole focus in terms of onboarding these clients from the beginning and maybe that's kind of where this conversation is a little different than just what is the actual technical written out process. I mean you can find templates online. I'm sure you can maybe post something that you guys use internally to post in the show notes or something. But this whole idea of the power dynamic and setting up the relationship incorrectly from the beginning versus how it should be done, I think that's where you guys really shine so maybe we can talk a little about that.

 

Sara:  Yeah, it's an interesting point and I think probably some of it was born out of necessity because we’re mostly a team of women and we've been doing this for fourteen years so we really felt like kind of the lack of trust just because we have tech leads who are women. And that became a…

 

Kelly: A whole another show.

 

Sara:  Yeah, I think we go too far into that.

 

Kelly: No, it’s all good.

 

Sara:  The point is that it was born out of necessity and it's something I've been like acutely aware of since we began. And there are other factors that are going into that as well that we've already brought up. These are extraordinarily large projects. There's a lot riding on them. There's specially a lot of writing on them in the e-commerce world because it's not just the investment that you're making but like the return on investment is so much more pressured. It's inherently technical so they're hiring you to do this thing that the people running the show do not understand and then to communicate what you're doing to their higher-ups and so from the beginning for me, it's been, I recognized that ninety percent of the jobs that we get come to us with this horrible background story like this really screwed me over.

 

Kelly: Everybody's been burned.

 

Sara:  Everybody and I’ve modeled Command C around that like it's just been so blatantly obvious to me from the beginning. And we're really good at what we do so it's like this thing that we inherit that doesn't belong to us.

 

Kelly: And it's almost like, I'm sorry to cut you off, it’s almost like those poor experiences that the clients had that's like added baggage that they're bringing to this relationship that you don't really deserve but you also have to kind of navigate that and give them the trust and take back the power in the relationship. I don't know if that's the best way to say it but I think because you guys are the experts and you're the one driving the initiative forward, you’re guiding them, they shouldn't be guiding or dictating you. And I don’t like to call it like a power struggle but it actually is in the beginning, especially at the beginning.

 

Sara:  It certainly is and you have various level of technical expertise. And probably the number one phrase that we tossed around the team is emotional intelligence because I mean and you brought up like our tagline sell more, stress less, I mean we focus on rescue projects like we’re going after projects that we know are going to be emotionally challenging just because we know the state that these people are coming to us in. But we have the chops to recognize like hey this is what's going on and we can navigate this thing. But our number one goal when a client comes to us in trouble is how quickly can we earn their trust, how quick can we show them and so onboarding just to kind of like bring it back to that is one of the plethora of tools that we use to gain the clients trust back.

 

Kelly: Right. And I just wanna wrap up the conversation talking a little bit about RFPs because you and I, I think share this common sense about RFPs and why they're just completely setting everybody up for failure.

 

Sara:  Yeah. My thoughts about RFPs have changed a lot in the past and I don't necessarily like as a blanket statement think that they're setting people up for failure because I think that there are a whole range RFPs.

 

Kelly: True.

 

Sara:  But what I I'm staunchly against is the client self-prescribing and the client telling, coming to us like there’s that happens when you write something down, which is like it just solidifies it, it's like they do all this work to articulate their needs and what they think are their solutions and then they're like fixated on that because there's like pen to paper. I’m also staunchly opposed to the idea of giving away, I don't know seventy-five years of cumulative expertise for free.

I think that that notion is just not cool and I think a discovery process tailored around what the client’s needs are, like the client can come to us with a set of needs and we don't know what the right solution is until we have several conversations with several different stakeholders and do a whole bunch of due diligence and research and it's oftentimes a process of elimination so I think that that whole kind of just typical like industry-wide acceptance of like here's a document, 8 agencies like put in tons of hours to respond is just like outdated and misguided.

 

Kelly: Yeah, yeah. So it is really kind of like moving into that whole thing. And this conversation really does circle around because it's moving into that idea that the client doesn't really know what they need, it's up to the experts to pull that information out and guide the whole process. And part of that process is the discovery, it's the onboarding, it's the trust, it's all of it. So really interesting and so any of the templates or anything that you can provide about your actual onboarding process that would be great. I think that will be really helpful for the people who are watching and listening.

 

Sara:  Yeah.

 

Kelly:  And I just want to thank you again for joining me today on THRIVE and it's been great. Thanks a lot.

 

Sara:  Yeah. Thanks so much Kelly. It’s been great to be here.

 

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Kelly Campbell Bio

Kelly Campbell is an Agency Growth Consultant based in New York. A former digital agency owner for 15 years, she helps creative and tech agencies transform—by focusing on people, positioning, pipeline and profitability. Kelly is also an IA/SEO consultant to Facebook and NASA. She writes for Website Magazine, speaks at digital marketing and agency growth conferences across the U.S., and has been featured in The New York Times, Woman Entrepreneur and Forbes. She is the host of THRIVE: Your Agency Resource, a bi-weekly video podcast sponsored by Workamajig that helps agency owners navigate growth.

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