The head of operations at a digital marketing agency recently asked me how to handle clients who have a committee-based decisionmaking process that delay the project and waste the agency’s time. As we were discussing how to find the best PM software for marketing agencies, she asked:

I think our most frustrating issue is the feedback process. We have a client who has 10 or more people commenting on the project and asking for changes. I really would like one document or tool that would take all that feedback and be able to categorize it and reflect back to the client that based on their feedback we are going to do x,y,z and is that correct and please signoff.

I’ve been there—I know how frustrating that is! It’s important to recognize that too many cooks in the kitchen” is a people problem, not a software problem. The core issue here is that her agency is getting sucked into the client’s dysfunctional internal decision-making processes, and the agency’s getting half-baked feedback.

Why making your client reconcile their team’s feedback first is vital for your agency

You can use expectations-management to handle your client having many chefs in the kitchen

Have your client contact reconcile their team’s feedback before they send it to your marketing agency.

The “too many cooks” problem ultimately requires a marketing agency client service solution, around expectations managementhave your client reconcile their team’s feedback first, before sharing the consolidated feedback with you.

Your client needs to sort out their dysfunction before it hits your PM software. That way, you only have to act on a single set of instructions, rather than having to figure out how to merge often-conflicting feedback.

Some digital marketing agencies want to avoid having this conversation with clients up front. That’s understandable, but avoiding it is a bad idea. Why should you make the effort to require clients to consolidate feedback? This does three things for you.

First, it saves billable time (for you and the client), by your not having to review and cross-check documents.

Second, it makes the client responsible for a significant share of duration (elapsed project timeline), because they have to deal with the pain of reconciling things. They also are better situated to decide who “wins” when there’s conflicting feedback… or when they can’t decide, they’ll be able to reach the decisionmaker(s) faster (as an employee) than your agency can (as a third party).

Third, it preserves your sanity. No one likes having to reconcile things that the client should be handling themselves.

How to implement this marketing agency client service approach

For this to work, you have to manage clients’ expectations up front, as part of your agency’s client onboarding process. As with any pushback, it’s harder (although not impossible) to add this expectations-management along the way.

The key is to frame this in terms of benefits to the client—in budget, timeline, and scope. The most obvious benefit is that it won’t consume billable time from the project’s budget. The secondary benefit is around how they can resolve differences faster than you, based on the internal communications factors I mentioned above. A third benefit is around scope—the client contact gets to decide which features (or changes) are most important.

The final piece—and I’d make this diplomatically yet explicitly clear—is that they need to assume your agency will act on any feedback they post in writing. If the client wants changes later, that’s going to cost them money and delay the project—if they change their mind later, you are not redoing that work for free.

Does your current sales process include gathering info on how the client makes decisions, including how many people are involved? If not, it’s time to add that. You’ll head off all sorts of problems later… or at least have budget to pay for solving them after the fact.

Deciding how to get the client’s consolidated feedback in an effective, efficient way

Once the client agrees to reconcile things themselves, you’ll need to let them know how you want them to share feedback. The best solution depends on budget and whether your client prefers live meetings or prefers to discuss things electronically.

There are three basic ways to get consolidated feedback. You can do this via your project management software (e.g., Basecamp), via shared spreadsheets, or via live client-status meetings. The best choice depends on your agency’s culture, the client’s culture, and the project’s budget. You might also consider a hybrid approach, where the client sends a spreadsheet listing the final changes and then you meet with them to ask clarifying questions.

Whichever way you decide to get feedback, be sure to mandate sufficient turnaround time before any feedback-review meetings. If you go with the spreadsheet-and-then-meeting route, this includes your automatically rescheduling a meeting if the client doesn’t deliver feedback soon enough for your PM and/or business strategist to review before the meeting. If you don’t know the feedback (so you can ask clarifying questions), it’s a wasted meeting.

Finally, be sure to dial this feedback-review time into your sales estimates, so you ensure there’s budget for these meetings in the future. You’ll be glad you did.

Question: How do you handle things when one of your agency’s clients has “too many cooks in the kitchen”?

Image credit: Nick J. Webb, via Flickr / Creative Commons

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