We talked to Josh and Ami from 360Partners online marketing agency about how they manage their client relationships. Here’s three big lessons we learned.
360Partners is an Austin based agency offering a wide-range of advertising and marketing services, including PPC ads on social media and search engines, SEO services and consulting. Our team members Annika and Liisa met up with them on one of our client meet trips earlier this year. They were greeted by this happy bunch:
They also loved learning about the lessons 360Partners had gotten out of tracking their time. I asked them if they’d be willing to share their wisdom with other Toggl users, and they happily agreed.
Going into this, I at first wanted to know how their agency uses time tracking and Toggl to manage their clients and different projects. But as we got deeper into the subject matter, it became clear that if you want to keep your clients happy, metrics sometimes have to take the backseat.
But more on that later (you can scroll down if you don’t care much for systems) – first, the metrics.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Chantal Pittman from Unique Influence. For them, time tracking was very much about keeping an eye on potential revenue sinks when it comes to managing many different clients. For 360 Partners, this reasoning sounds familiar:
Josh: The overall point with measuring profitability is to understand the amount of energy and value we’re putting towards the client – all of our clients have a certain managing fee, but we also have to decide how many people to staff for those clients, how much time to plan for different clients or their different deliverables.
Ami: Our team tracks their time, saying “I’ve done this task for client A for an hour.” And then, what we do is we match the fees that each client has paid us for that particular month and take the total number of hours the account team has spent on a particular client – so it’s fees divided by hours.
For us that gives us a number that, if it’s above a certain target then great, we’re definitely being profitable. If it’s below the target number, we’ll probably need to look at how to make this more efficient for us as well as the client.
While dividing your time and resources between different clients is in itself a pretty good reason to factor in profitability, time tracking also contributes toward introspection, and understanding if your own systems are up to the task:
Josh: I’d kinda also add in the fact that it’s not just about saying that they’re worth that amount of money – It’s also about the actual deliverables.
When we do this analysis for a client, we can actually look and be able to determine does the amount of time, and the process we’re using to do that analysis, make sense for what is built in to the structure of that agreement for that client. Or do we need to find a more efficient way to do that analysis. Maybe we need to automate that analysis, or maybe we need to get two people working on it in different sections, or just one person doing a smaller piece.
So all those things can be kind of factored in to the feasibility of “how can we be more efficient”. And to be able to track that through Toggl makes it so much easier for us.
Lesson 1: Learn strategically
Because Ami works in human resources, I naturally ask her if she uses the lessons on efficiency to train her staff:
Ami: Yeah, in the overall – making sure everybody is learning how to use Toggl correctly, make sure they’re all tracking their time. And on the backend I actually perform the analysis.
We have an Excel tool built round Toggl data, all automated with macros and all that other fun stuff. It automatically generates charts and different analysis on whether we’re profitable or not, if we hit that target level or not.
Also with the team, it shows if somebody is spending too much time on one client, versus all the other clients that they have. We also started showing the managers [the data], saying “hey, we need to be more efficient with Client X – it seems like we spent hundred of hours on them, but they only get this much.”
Our clients are getting a good amount of work done on them, but we also don’t want to spend an unnecessary amount of manpower and energy – as Josh said – on a task that could be more efficient with two people – or as an automated process.
I get a sense from Amy’s fast speech loaded with very smart words, that time tracking and profitability has, above all, a strategic value. I ask them if it benefits managers more than employees:
Josh: I think we use it for both. The individual employee has the ability to go and look – through Toggl – and say “hey, wow, I spent a lot of time this last month on this client!”
But the managers are tasked to own that understanding of the client, understanding the amount of time and energy it is taking to produce the work for that client. Like me as an account manager – it’s on me to look at my set number of clients and understanding that I have this many hours on each client, these are the projects we’re working on this month, am I going to be able to do that as efficiently as possible, etc.
Profitability may sound a little rigid and I am curious as to how strict Josh and Ami are with the limits they set on their clients, and the time they invest in them.
I remember I had talked about setting limits with Chantal, but her case had a different context. Chantal’s profitability system worked (at least in part) towards avoiding situations where a client would start taking up too much time by demanding constant (and unnecessary) feedback.
But there’s another side to profitability and setting limits, as Josh explains:
Josh: The real case is that we’ll do whatever it takes to deliver excellent results for our clients – this means that if we’re not being as efficient that we’re gonna get the job done right, then we’ll learn to do it better next time internally. But as far as the client’s concerned – we’ll go over the hours to do what it takes, to make sure they get the results they need.
Ami: And there’s not like a hard limit. We do have a minimum fee spend. So there is a baseline minimum. But that baseline minimum could get them, you know – a hundred hours a month just to make sure they get those excellent results.
“In building partnerships, it helps us to not have those hard limits, and we can work until the work is done.”
But, especially with newer clients, it takes a lot longer to actually “build out” those accounts, compared to a client that’s two years old and is just in “maintenance mode”. With new clients it’s a little bit different – that’s why we don’t have that kind of “OK, we’re only gonna spend this many hours on this client.” In building partnerships, it helps us to not have those hard limits, and we can work until the work is done, pretty much.
With those words, we slowly move towards a lesson that, while seemingly simple, is often forgotten. The lesson is:
Lesson 2: Think beyond the deliverables
The online advertising industry is a very metrics-based business. Unlike content marketing, where goals can sometimes get a little vague, paid ads have very specific targets they’re designed to hit. But this doesn’t mean that setting up a successful online ad agency is as simple as hiring a decent copywriter and start churning out Google Adwords campaigns.
In fact, that’s just the kind of attitude that can sink an agency:
Josh: We’ve learned that sometimes it’s not about the amount of work you do, or the quantity of it, as much as they feel that you’re doing the right items for them. That you’re really providing a value to them that they can’t usually produce themselves.
We’ve had some hard knocks, especially early on where we’d just put out all this analysis and all that data, and work really hard to do all these different things – and in the end, it wasn’t what [the client] was looking for. So we had to go back and really take a hard look at us and say “what could we do better the next time around?”
“We’re not just providing the execution – like a vendor does – but really, we’ll focus on being a partner for them.”
Those are the most important things – really setting expectations for the client about what’s important for them, and what they really want to get out of this relationship. We’re not just providing the execution – pieces like a vendor does – but really, we’ll focus on being a partner for them. So we’re almost like an external arm of their business, that just happens to be in Texas, instead of out in California or Florida, or wherever they may be.
So it’s not just about promising the metrics, like “we’ll give you 300 clicks for this ad campaign.” What’s the other promise?
Josh: A lot of what we do is focused less on “you’ll pay us this much and we’ll give you this much traffic.” [Instead] we’re really focused on creating the right strategy and process to get that traffic – we’re focused on creating the right message that you want your company to have out there.
We spend a lot of time in the beginning having discussions about [the client’s] business model, their profitability, how they make money, how they work with their customers, what’s the voice of those customers, what personas they might have, etc.
This is starting to sound more like marketing. But obviously, this deeper engagement with clients isn’t necessarily cheap. We get to another oft-forgotten business truth:
Lesson 3: You gotta spend money to make money
I tell Josh that their strategy of getting to know not just their clients, but also their clients’ clients seems like a very big, expensive project:
Josh: There is some investment that we put up in the beginning. When we first come on, one of the values that we provide to the customer is that we do a full scale audit of what they’re doing – before we even start working with them. And that’s a big investment for us. A lot of hours go into something that we might not even get business out of. We might do the audit and they might say “Thanks!” and leave. Or they might sign on and say “hey we’re gonna work with you guys with that audit,” and we’ll sit down and spend a full day just talking about those pieces. So that’s another investment of time.
What we’ve found though is that if we do that, we’ll have higher levels of satisfaction with our clients, they’re more engaged and involved in the process of developing a strategy, and they’ll be more committed to the ideas that we’re trying to distill for them.
“If we put in this extra effort in the beginning, it’ll pay off well over the years.”
We talked in the beginning about being profitable and stuff – in the beginning, that first few weeks or even a month may not fall under the realm of what we initially said would be profitable. But we’re looking at the lifetime value of that client, saying that “if we put in this extra effort in the beginning, it’ll pay off well over that 3, 5 , 7 plus years.”
So the lesson is – you gotta spend money to make money?
Josh: Exactly. I always joke around here, that I think of it like farming. In a way that you gotta go in and toil the ground, plant the seeds, water them – and then you gotta wait for it to kind of grow. It’s a longer process, but you’re doing that with a vision of where it’s going to take you in the future.
And that’s what keeps your clients coming back as well?
Josh: Yeah, we have a lot of clients that have been around for years. Before I came here I worked at a few other agencies and they’d always have a lot of problems with the turnover. That they’d get people in, but they’d only last for a couple of years, 1,2 maybe years and then they were out the door moving on.
We haven’t had to worry about our clients getting stolen. They’re grateful for the relationships and grateful for what we’re doing, and we value that.
Ami is a 360Partners HR associate and Master Pranskter. She resources live humans.
Josh manages account strategies. He once became a national champion in handball by accident.
Did you find this interview helpful? You might want to check out our interview on client management tactics with Chantal Pittman.
Have something to say? Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your unique business wisdom with other Togglers.