The most important thing you can do during immensely difficult times like these are to help your clients feel understood, educate, and empower them. Internally, make your team feel safe, lead with empathy, not just your bottom line. 

1. How Covid-19 has impacted the agency landscape

To put it bluntly, Covid-19 has shaken up our entire world. When I look at reports showing a gauge of public opinion, it seems that not only my fellow americans, but everyone is on edge

For agencies specifically, there are reports claiming industry wide revenue losses, but also reports of consumer and brand spend reallocation. Business owners who can’t pay their staff, rent, or even keep the lights on. This means that there will be budget cuts and shifts in marketing and sales priorities from brands. 

Clients and customers don’t have the time, resources, energy, or budget to pay for things that don’t directly and significantly solve their biggest problems related to revenue growth or operational efficiency. 

If you’re not careful, business and particularly this thing we do called “digital marketing” can become purely a numbers game. With human beings turning into “clicks”, “users”, and “MQLs” rather than a fellow human being with struggles, needs, and ambitions.

If you don’t see where i’m going with this, read the next sentence very carefully

Gone are the days where you could pitch a $10,000 a month retainer to an SMB for a simple website build + some cute company related and non strategic landing pages, “help” them with their hosting, post a few status updates on facebook or Google+ (RIP) and call it good. 

That’s not good enough anymore. In fact, it never was good enough and it’s time that we all did better. Covid-19 has helped open my eyes to that and I hope it has for you as well. 

Here’s why if you want to survive as an agency in the post pandemic economy, you must adapt. 

2. Why agencies must adapt

“Adapt or die” is a core philosophy of mine. 

As an agency business owner, it couldn’t be more applicable to these challenging times. As I mentioned previously, people are stressed out, losing their jobs, losing their companies, and dipping into their reserve

On March 14th, I remember waking up to the news of what the next two months of my life would be like with a term I never thought would apply to me “quarantine”. My first thought was to check in on our clients

Here’s what I did:

1. Reach out with full transparency, empathy, and clear communication to assure them their campaigns wouldn’t change, that we had their back, and what I can do to serve them. 

2. Come up with a plan for each client based on their needs and figure out what resources I could get them and myself to weather the storm. 

Did these check ins require my personal time and effort? You bet. Were they “profitable” actions? Nope. And that’s exactly why that’s the right thing to do.

There are times when client needs are more important than numbers on your balance sheet. 

If you think that you can keep on doing things “the way you’ve always done them”, then you will fall short. Our new world has made a few things clear:

  • Clients are more educated and do more preliminary research on their own before every talking to one of your sales reps
  • Clients are more sophisticated in their reporting needs and expected you to map your effort to an  ROI
  • Clients aren’t going to tolerate paying you for 12-24 months contracts to do what you can do in a 4 month sprint
  • An impersonal, copy and paste digital marketing strategy that doesn’t meet their needs won’t cut it
  • Churning through team members or contractors while undervaluing, underpaying, and not giving them safety

Here’s the playbook. 

3. How to adapt your offer to meet the new market demands

Despite the huge challenges we’ve been facing lately, there is a silver lining. New consumer behavior and an ever changing online landscape has and will continue to pave the way for new business model opportunities. 

If you’re smart, flexible, and put in the work, investing in  these three areas will pay huge dividends.

Embrace new technologies

Technology is going through a renaissance right now. New technologies like machine learning and automation platforms are making redundant and manual tasks a thing of the past. 

If your agency is still doing everything by hand, you’re likely to be wasting your team’s time and passing those unnecessary costs on to your clients.

Here are some quick win processes and tools to make your agency more efficient and effective. 

Data analytics, management, visualization, and reporting. Stop with the copying, pasting, and spreadsheet heroism. There are brilliant data analytics platforms that allow you to pull in data from all of your favorite sources (linkedin, facebook, google analytics, slack, stripe, etc), manipulate it, and visualize it. Best part about these is that you can automate updates, check in real time, and schedule delivery. 

Check out these awesome reporting resources:  

Automation. Do you have a team member that creates client folders, proposals, and manually enters in data every time you onboard a new client? I guarantee you that the vast majority of your onboarding can be automated.

Check out these awesome automation resources:  

Audits & Analysis. One of the most tedious aspects for every agency is gathering and manipulating data into a spreadsheet in order to perform an analysis of some kind. This might be a social engagement audit from instagram, a technical seo audit, or even a UX deep dive. 

These are necessary, but only the analysis part that requires a human. The gathering, pivoting, manipulating, and rearranging of that data doesn’t need a person. 

Check out these awesome audit and analysis resources:  

Reevaluate your offers

The most important question you can ask yourself when evaluating your existing client offers is “how does this provide an astonishingly disproportionate amount of value and positive client experience given the price?”

If your offer doesn’t have an immediate and clear response to that question, you need to evaluate it immediately. 

All of your offers should have the following layed out, and if you haven’t done so, I suggest you do:

  • Why is this important to the client?
  • How will this help the client grow their business?
  • How easily can this be replaced?
  • Is this a killer value proportionate to the cost to the client?
  • When will this start to impact the client?
  • Is there a better or newer way to do this?
  • Should we still be offering this?

Just as important is tightening up your systems and processes. 

If you haven’t already, your organization needs to create SOPs and both internal / external resources about each and every deliverable to ensure that your offers are repeatable and completed with predictable success. Here are a few good starting places:

Ask clients about their core needs

When was the last time you asked your customer or prospect what their biggest desire or pain point was? I’m not talking about building out a shallow persona about them, but really dug deep and took the time to understand them?

If the answer isn’t “very recently” you have a problem. 

It’s crucial for any business to continually receive feedback about their customer or client’s needs, goals, and impressions of their engagement with you. Ask these key questions to get the best insights for your product or service. 

  1. What roadblocks are they having in their business?
  2. What issues are they having with their existing provider (you or otherwise)?
  3. What resource would magically make their lives better?

Pro tip: Use simple and free survey tools like SurveyMonkey or Typeform to ask your clients the same sets of questions and look for consistent positive or negative feedback to chew on. 

4. How to empower your team during these times and in the future

This pandemic has been a huge emotional, financial, and physical burden on everyone and if you get the urge to “save on costs” by mistreating your employees in some way, I strongly advise you don’t. 

Your employees are your business. They are the lifeblood of your organizations and the success of your clients. Treat them well and they will stick with you through difficult times.

When the first lockdown happened, I knew it was going to be a rough time for everyone and that it was my job to do what I could to provide as much security as possible. Here were my action items:

  • Check in without an agenda. See how they are doing. 
  • Let everyone know they would still get paid, and didn’t decrease hours or wages.
  • Practice empathy for deadlines and any struggles they were facing. Micromanaging and getting upset won’t work. I sent everyone a nice care package. 

Did that end the pandemic or make everything instantly better in their lives? No. But I know that it gave a small sliver of joy for a moment, and to me that’s absolutely worth it. 

I share that story to illustrate simple but powerful reactions to lose lose situations. Listen to everyone’s needs, reassure them, and do whatever you can to help them weather the storm. That’s all you can do as a leader. 

Here are some principles that you should follow during this pandemic and when any other large scale problem arises. 

Practice intentional empathy

Understanding how your team members are feeling is a clear cut way to help give them what they need to feel safe and improve their performance. 

You should do this by directly asking them the following questions:

  • How are you feeling?
  • What workflow challenges are you having (both inside and outside of the workplace)?
  • Who or what is frustrating you the most?
  • Is there anything you need?

Taking the time to really understand what they are going through will allow you to lead better and have a pulse on what they need in order to do the best job possible.

Involve them in leadership decisions that affect their livelihood

You may be uncomfortable at the thought of an employee knowing your C level decisions or having insider knowledge, but that’s flawed thinking. Especially when they are already shaken by society’s fluctuation around them. 

It is crucial that you have all hands on deck meetings in moments of crises and discuss organizational decisions with your staff as often as possible. Especially if it directly affects their ability to do good work or is going to harm their livelihood in some way. 

The more you involve your entire team, the more goodwill and trust you will build within your organization. 

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” – Abraham Lincoln

Handle compensation with care and respect

I cannot stress enough how important it is for people to feel like they have financial stability and security in their lives. 

If there are layoffs that need to happen. Ask why and what you can do about it. If there is a way to take a pay cut to save their wages, do that. If you can raise funds, take out a loan, or sell shares to stay afloat and pay them, do that. 

The point is that these people aren’t just line items on your balance sheet. They have families, expenses, hopes and dreams and should be treated as such.

Any changes in the compensation structure of your organization should be communicated with as much love and respect as possible, as early on as possible. 

5. Final thoughts and takeaways

Look, obviously I am no expert in infectious diseases, and this is an unprecedented time in history for all of us. 

I am still learning as I go, as I’m sure all of you are doing as well. But I truly believe that putting people first, both clients and your team members, are the two biggest variables to get right for longevity in your agency. 

To recap the important stuff, here’s a TLDR;

  • Empathy is powerful. Take the time to understand and listen. To your team, to your prospects, to the market. 
  • Lean methodologies and flexibility will win in the end. Big, rigid, and slow agencies who do things the old way and refuse to accept changes will die. 
  • Embrace technology relentlessly. Agencies can utilize technology to increase margin, pass savings on to partners, and improve operational efficiencies.
  • Results over features. Nobody cares about your competitor analysis methodology. The consumer cares about what you will do for them and/or deliverables that they can add to their existing strategy to win. Period.

We are in uncharted waters with this pandemic, however as an agency you are sure to face many large scale challenges in the future. What and how you deal with them will be up to you. But you can use these values as your north star when creating your own plan for success. 

To all of you out there hurting right now, all I can say is that you started this thing for a reason, and I believe if you hold on to your beliefs, stay lean, test relentlessly, put your ego to the side, exhaust every resource, give first, and keep fighting, you’ll make it through to the other side. 

Onward and upward. 

About the author – Ken Marshall – I am supremely interested in solving complex problems, inbound lead generation methodologies, and helping other human beings self actualize. CEO @ Doorbell Digital Marketing as a hobby. 😉