COVID-19 Resource Center for Agencies: Advice from Karl Sakas

Looking for calm, concrete advice to help your agency during the COVID-19 pandemic and the recovery? You’re in the right place: this in-depth Resource Center from agency expert Karl Sakas at Sakas & Company features business advice on what to do now and what to do next. See upcoming events and get email updates. [Revised: September 21, 2020]

Introduction: COVID-19, Your Agency, and Recovery

Agency consultant and coach Karl Sakas

Agency advisor Karl Sakas

An optimist in the face of daunting odds, Winston Churchill said, “All will come right.” Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a hard time to be optimistic. Yet without hope, we risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes failure inevitable.

During times of extreme uncertainty, some things are certain—and as agency leaders, we must take action. Thoughtful action today will help the recovery.

It’s OK to be scared. Hang in there, and good luck to you, your family, and your team. –Karl

Table of Contents:

  1. Upcoming Events: Agencies & COVID-19
  2. Checklist of Priorities: What to Do First
  3. Advice by Topic: Collections, Sales, Marketing, Finance, and More
  4. FAQ (my answers to 50+ questions from agencies about COVID-19)
  5. Additional Resources
  6. Stay Updated: Newsletter with Agency Tips
  7. Get Custom 1-on-1 Help for Your Agency

Upcoming Events: Agencies & COVID-19

Here are upcoming live events to help you and your agency:

  1. Tuesday, October 6th: Clients-Only Q&A Call at 12-1pm EDT (clients: see invite, or email me for access) [free Q&A]
  2. Tuesday, October 13th: Virtual “Office Hours” with Karl Sakas (RSVP for free, for 12-1pm EDT) [free public Q&A]
  3. Wednesday, October 14th: Keynote at ClientCon (RSVP for free, for 10-11am PDT) [free keynote]
  4. Wednesday, October 21st: Keynote at HeyOrca! workshop series (register for free) [free keynote]
  5. Wednesday, October 28th:Upgrade Your Agency’s Pipeline: Lead-Gen from Content Marketing” (buy your ticket here) [paid training webinar]
  6. Tuesday, November 3rd: Clients-Only Q&A Call at 12-1pm EDT (clients: see invite, or email me for access) [free Q&A]
  7. Tuesday, November 10th: Virtual “Office Hours” with Karl Sakas (RSVP for free, for 12-1pm EDT) [free public Q&A]
  8. Other events: See my 2020 agency conference roundup, with ongoing updates.

Here are recordings from past events:

To stay updated (on COVID-19, and agency management in general), sign up for my newsletter for agency leaders.

Checklist of Your Priorities: What to Do First Amidst COVID-19

Right now, it’s about balancing strategy with action… and doing your best to avoid burnout during a super-stressful situation.

  1. Take a few deep breaths, and block out incoming client and employee inquiries for an hour so you can [try to] focus.
  2. Assess whether your agency will require “heroic efforts” to continue… and decide whether it’s worth it. For instance, if saving the agency requires 3-4 months of 100-hour weeks… is that worth it? (For some it will be; for others, it won’t.)
  3. Commit to a v1 direction (buckle down, shut it down, or something else), including setting a date for when you’ll regroup (probably in 1-4 weeks).
  4. Inventory the resources you have available (e.g., cash, line of credit, accounts receivable, business partner[s], employees, contractors, romantic partner).
  5. Identify your specific risks (e.g., cash, payroll commitments, client industry focus, financially unstable clients, physical or mental health challenges).
  6. Over-communicate to key stakeholders (employees, clients, contractors, and vendors) about your plans, or at least that you know they’re concerned and you’re working on plans.
  7. Secure your current Accounts Receivable (A/R), including whether you need to offer clients special payment terms (e.g., half their monthly retainer payment now, the other half in two weeks).
  8. Create a core piece of content to help your client base. This will be critical for both sales support and client support, by giving you high-value “currency” to share with people. Your first article or video doesn’t need to be perfect, but it should be above average and it should include your agency’s unique perspective.
  9. Reach out to currently-active prospects with the high-value content. Ask how they’re doing, instead of pushing the sales process forward. Recommend a next step that balances where they are versus how you can help. Assess where your pipeline stands. (Here’s my in-depth advice about sales during the pandemic.)
  10. Regroup on what to do next, including reading my article on 10 tips for agencies amidst COVID-19.

There’s way more, but that’s where I’d start. Read on for topic-specific advice and more.

Advice by Topic: Handling COVID-19 at Your Agency

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Agencies & COVID-19

Here are answers to 50+ questions I’m getting as an agency consultant. Over time, I’ll expand some of these into more in-depth articles.

  1. How can we be optimistic right now? To my surprise, agency owners are surprisingly optimistic right now. I’ve noticed that in my client calls, free Q&A calls, and “State of Your Agency” survey with SharpSpring. With nearly 500 responses in the first half of April 2020, ~57% report being at least somewhat optimistic—with ~22% at least somewhat pessimistic. For more, see my lessons on inspirational leadership from Winston Churchill.
  2. How much cash should we have? The more, the better. Less than 3 months of expenses, you’re at risk of going out of business. If you have 6+ months, that’s promising. If you have 12+ months of expenses in cash, you’re in really good shape.
  3. How do we calculate “months of [expenses in] cash”? Here’s a [relatively] simple way to calculate this… or ask your accountant!
    • Calculate your annual expenses. (In your Profit & Loss Statement, this is likely the “Total Expenses” figure near the bottom.) Keep in mind that owner distributions technically do NOT appear in this figure. If you count ongoing distributions as part of your compensation, I believe you should add distributions to the “Total Expenses,” since you’re relying on the company spending that money. (This is not quite how an accountant thinks about it.)
    • Divide that figure by 12, to get a monthly average. This is a rough number that doesn’t include seasonality (e.g., pre-payments in December, quarterly tax payments to the IRS, etc.).
    • Calculate your total cash. For most agencies, this is the “Total Current Assets” line in the Balance Sheet report. This would include checking accounts, savings accounts, and certificates of deposit. (In accounting, a “current asset” is something that’s cash or that you expect to convert to cash within one year.)
    • Divide total cash by the monthly average. This is the answer you’re seeking: “Months of [expenses in] cash.” Under 3 months = shaky, 6+ months = stable, 12+ months = strong.
    • Adjust this based on seasonality and business debt. For instance, you’ll likely see a surge in expenses in December as you pre-pay for tax benefits… but technically, those are required payments. Many owners take distributions to cover quarterly Estimated Tax payments; distributions aren’t expenses, but if you need the money each quarter… I think you should treat that as part of your minimum “expenses.” Likewise, if you owe an upcoming balloon payment on a line of credit (or other debt)… that impacts your runway, too.
  4. Does “months of [expenses in] cash” mean we’ll go out of business at the end of the last month? Not exactly. If you have 3 months of cash, and then revenues drop 30% (and you don’t cut expenses)—you’d run out of cash in 10 months. Same situation, but revenues drop 50%? You run out of cash in 6 months. Same situation, but revenues drop 100%? Then yes, you’d run out of cash in 3 months. The reality is that you’ll likely cut expenses and/or sell to increase revenues again.
  5. Should we get (or expand) a line of credit? Yes, probably—but be careful about borrowing unless you’re confident you can repay it. Most banks require a personal guarantee from the owner… so you risk losing your house if you default.
  6. Can we “count” our Line of Credit (LoC) or Accounts Receivable (A/R) as cash reserves? No, but you can think about those as “near cash.” Be sure to ask your bank about lowering your LoC’s interest rate, based on lower global interest rates.
  7. If we don’t have enough cash, how worried should we be? Pretty worried—a bad month or two could put you out of business, and we don’t know how long this will last. You’ll likely need to accelerate layoffs to preserve (or build) cash. Read my free layoff guide for agencies.
  8. How can we build our cash reserves in the current environment? If you’ve been marginally profitable before COVID-19, this will be very hard. Most agencies spend +/- 50% of revenues on labor, so make sure you’re not over-staffed right now. Think twice about pre-paying debt, especially low-interest loans that don’t have a pre-payment incentive. If you need to take a distribution, put an extra portion into your reserve account. Beyond those points, the book Profit First has a good framework for regularly sweeping cash out of your “ready to spend” account.
  9. How much should we expect our agency’s revenue drop? I’m hearing drops between 10% and as much as 90%. I expect most agencies to see a 10-30% drop in revenue. If you specialize in a hard-hit client industry (travel, tourism, hospitality, performing arts, events), it might be a 50-90% drop. Some agencies may grow, but I wouldn’t plan on it.
  10. Should we revise our 2020 revenue targets? Yes, for sure. See my advice on setting revenue targets.
  11. Should we stop selling? No; that will eventually put you out of business. But it’s not “business as usual”—here’s my advice on how to change how you sell.
  12. How should we change our sales outreach right now? Lead with value, rather than a hard-sell. Everyone’s scared; you don’t want prospects to see your agency as money-grubbing and/or desperate. Create a high-value piece of content (ideally tailored to your target client’s specific needs right now, and eventually a Resource Center), and share that instead. Depending on capacity, you might also offer a free consulting call with senior members of your team… but I suggest limiting those to prospects who are qualified for help. Here’s my in-depth advice on selling during the pandemic.
  13. Should we stop sending a sales pre-qualification survey before we get on the phone with a prospect? No, keep using the pre-intake questionnaire. You likely don’t magically have tons of free time—and even if you have salespeople who are twiddling their thumbs, it’s worth doing an initial “is this a fit?” assessment before investing phone time. (But if you and your salespeople truly have nothing to do… skip the survey and call them back.)
  14. What should we do about salespeople with a low base, if they won’t get commissions for a while? You’ll have to decide what’s right for your agency. Options include offering (or increasing) a “draw” against future commissions, increasing their base, and/or terminating your lowest performers. Any guaranteed increase should be time-limited (e.g., three months) rather than perpetual.
  15. Should we focus 100% of our self-marketing on COVID-19? Not 100%, although it might be a majority for a few months—because it’s where people need your agency’s help.
  16. Should we continue posting on social media, or stop? Yes, keep posting—but check the tone of what’s scheduled, and focus on how you can help people.
  17. Should we create a Resource Center on COVID-19? Yes. That’s what I’ve done—I did an initial article and Q&A event, and then created this page as a single place to point people to. But you don’t need that to start, if you need to get something out there. In that case, Phase 1 is your initial article, Phase 2 is a Q&A webinar, and Phase 3 is a Resource Center (where you point to the article, the webinar recording, and past articles that are relevant today). Phase 4 is an expanded Resource Center. When the pandemic eases, you can repurpose the Resource Center to focus on crisis response overall, rather than COVID-19 specifically.
  18. What if we focus on a high-risk client industry that’s shut down? I’m sorry. You should plan on losing clients, laying-off at least a portion of your team, and quickly pivoting to serve related industries who’d value your transferable skills. But you should also decide whether the heroic efforts will be worth it; you have an exhausting several months ahead.
  19. How does this compare to the 2008 financial crisis? There’s not a direct comparison. In 2008, most people were suffering—but there wasn’t world-wide quarantine or self-isolation. Restaurants were open, sporting events were happening, and the 2008 Olympics creating a base for marketing activities (and a sense of hope in bleak financial times). And social media wasn’t where it is today, where the blanket coverage means some people are overwhelmed by following every development… while others go in an opposite extreme by choosing to ignore what’s happening.
  20. Should we cut prices, reduce our rates, or otherwise discount our fees? I’d avoid cutting rates for as long as possible, because that’s hard to shift later. Instead, look for ways to cut the scope of what you’re delivering, including offering shorter time commitments. But if you need to cut prices temporarily, I understand; to avoid setting a dangerous precedent, be sure to highlight that it’s a temporary decrease.
  21. Should we offer shorter retainers? Yes. But be sure to “anchor” off the original length (for instance, that they’re making a 6-month commitment instead of a 12-month commitment). Call this out in your client paperwork (MSA and/or SOW) and on invoices, so there’s no question a year from now about repeating the special terms.
  22. How can we close new business without cutting rates? Offer smaller up-front commitments. This might include shorter retainer commitments, Paid Discovery to start, or a smaller Phase 1 on a larger project. Look for ways to cut scope before you cut rates.
  23. What should I tell my team about what’s happening? I recommend transparency, since that earns (or re-earns) your employees’ trust. They know everyone’s struggling; don’t pretend everything is fine. This includes sharing bad news, and sharing when you don’t know an answer. Over-communicate—which includes planning to share things more than once, and offering one-on-one options for people to ask questions (to you and/or their direct manager) that they might not want to share in front of the entire agency. But this may not include sharing 100% of everything.
  24. Anything I should keep in mind as I share updates with my employees? Beyond the points above, remember that everyone’s wondering WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”). That is, be sure to answer that question—because you know everyone’s wondering. For instance, will there be layoffs? How much notice might people get? How are client revenues looking? What about the sales pipeline? What about each person’s workload if clients stop and/or you do a layoff?
  25. How do we adjust to working 100% remotely? This will be unique to your agency’s culture and prior working situation. Keep in mind that it’s harder to manage a remote team than an in-person team; my free “30 Day Manager” email course can help. Assume that’s everyone’s distracted, and find ways to over-communicate… while still having at least some fun.
  26. How can I maintain team culture while everyone’s 100% remote? Look for ways to gather daily and weekly, including talking about non-work topics. This might include a combination of Slack, Zoom calls, or other ways to get people together. Celebrate wins, including when people practice your agency’s values, and when they support each other.
  27. Should I stop giving bonuses? Yes and no. You aren’t likely to be giving profit-sharing bonuses, but don’t discount the value of a thank-you note with a $10 or $20 Amazon gift card. It’s not a substitute for stabilizing your agency (so that people can stop worrying about their job security), but keep recognizing when employees go above and beyond. (And consider that “above and beyond” will shift during a crisis scenario… sometimes it’s a win when someone successfully handles their regular job while juggling the crisis.)
  28. How do I cut back on the distractions while working from home? This will depend on your distractions. If you need human interaction, schedule calls with your team and/or friends. If your kids keep interrupting, look for ways to block-out time to meet their needs and to reward them for not distracting you. If you’re a single parent, I’m sorry; I don’t have good solutions to recommend.
  29. How do I keep my team from making so many mistakes right now? Start by assuming everyone’s distracted, and build structure to support that. For instance, add an extra round of Quality Assurance (QA) reviews, add an extra layer of oversight on PPC budget spend, and request additional turnaround time on quick-turn client updates.
  30. If a client has late payments, what should we do? The squeaky wheel tends to get paid first. Here’s my advice on escalating your Accounts Receivable (A/R) outreach. You’ll need to weigh when to pause work, if it appears the client is on-track to never pay for the work.
  31. Should we offer a discount if clients pay faster? Maybe, but I wouldn’t make it a huge discount; you set a dangerous precedent for after we get through the pandemic.
  32. Half our accounts are on hold; what should we do? I’m sorry; that’s really bad. Prepare for a significant layoff to avoid burning through your cash reserves.
  33. When is it time to consider layoffs? Sooner than you expect, because later means burning cash. See my article on strategic cost-cutting tiers, and my free agency layoff guide.
  34. We’re laying-off a significant portion of our staff; should we tell our clients? Yes, because they’ll surely notice anyway. Focus your client-facing communication on each client’s WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”). That is, they want to know how the change will impact them—both short-term and long-term.
  35. Can we cut everyone’s pay instead of doing a layoff? Yes, in theory—but this extends the pain to hurt 100% of your employees. If you do a layoff, you limit [most] of the pain to the 10-50% you lay off. Neither is ideal, but you’ll need to decide which is right for you. Keep in mind that an early pay cut doesn’t guarantee avoiding a layoff.
  36. Should we do a small layoff or a big layoff? It depends on your specific financial situation, but I lean toward a single larger layoff. Two rounds of layoffs mean the remaining employees keep wondering if they’re next.
  37. Should I cut my own pay as the agency owner? Maybe. If you cut your employees’ pay, you should definitely cut your own pay, and ideally by a higher percentage. There’s symbolic value in cutting your pay after layoffs, too. But if you find you need to cut your pay dramatically, consider whether layoffs would be a better overall solution.
  38. Should we slow-down how fast we pay our own vendors? Maybe, depending on your financial situation. But I’m doing the opposite—I’ve offered to pre-pay all of my freelancers and key vendors, since I’m in a good financial position. I’d rather be the client they remember offering to help, rather than the client who slow-rolled paying them when they needed the cash to buy groceries.
  39. What support team do you recommend right now? You need to find the combo that works for you—but my support team includes my therapist, life coach, sales coach, personal trainer, and financial planner. I also have a business accountant, a freelance graphic designer, a freelance marketing strategist, a freelance WordPress developer, and my two employees.
  40. How can we attract larger clients right now? It’s going to be slow. But I’d start by looking at patterns across your current best clients. As you work to get bigger clients, dig into whether they actually exist. That is—does your target market include higher-paying clients, or are you looking for Sasquatch? (My analogy: Are you fishing in the wrong spot, or fishing in the wrong river altogether?) Then, focus 100% of your proactive marketing on attracting the new ideal client—that is, stop marketing to attract more of your no-longer-ideal clients.
  41. What should we change about the services we offer? Look for ways to offer what I call “staple” services—things like lead-gen, marketing automation, and sales enablement. These are services that every client needs, regardless of their financial situation. I’d down-play your “nice to have” services—like branding, VR/AR, and certain aspects of public relations or video production—since clients don’t see those as critical priorities. (However, they likely need crisis PR and may need ongoing marketing videos to support their other efforts.)
  42. What are some creative, out-of-the-box ideas for new services? They’ll be unique to your agency—but as a starting point, read about the Jobs to Be Done framework. It’ll get you thinking about what your clients actually need; that helps you create things that are relevant, including solutions that may not be immediately obvious. But be careful—what works short-term may not be a long-term solution; you don’t want to get trapped in something unsustainable.
  43. Should we use the increase in non-billable time to develop our own product? Maybe. But keep in mind that selling a product involves more than just the R&D time. You want to be sure there’s truly a market need, you need to do marketing to sell it, you need to do customer service to support it, and you need to maintain it. You’re effectively starting a new business within a business. Now might be a great time to do it… but work through the implications before you commit.
  44. What are high-value non-billable things my team can do while clients cut back? Focus on your self-marketing. You might use the time for product development (but see my point above about the risks of developing your own product). Beyond that, it might be a good time to overhaul your internal systems and processes. But keep in mind that at some point, you need to consider layoffs—you likely can’t afford to keep a billable team non-billing for months.
  45. Was it a mistake for us to specialize in a specific client industry? Amidst a “Black Swan” global pandemic, I still believe in the power of industry vertical specialization. Unfortunately, some agencies are doing better in their choice(s) than others.
  46. How do we decide whether to give up, or soldier on? That will be unique to you and your agency. But I’d start by considering what it might take to stabilize your agency. For some it’s working 50-60 hours a week for a few months. For others, it might require working 80-100 hours a week for months on end. Are you willing to do what it takes to make it happen? You (and your business partner[s] and your romantic partner) can help you decide, along with your therapist and/or business coach.
  47. What client industries are thriving right now? I’m not sure anyone is “thriving” right now; I’m hearing concerns from agency leaders around the world, across a range of client industries. And if you’ve built a brand around a strong positioning, I wouldn’t recommend dropping it to chase a hot industry. But I’d expect strong performance in areas like personal injury law, payday lending, remote events, healthtech, and bankruptcy support.
  48. Is now a good time to acquire another agency? Maybe, but I wouldn’t invest major cash unless you already have 12+ months of cash in reserves today. Consider that current acquisitions might be more of an “acqui-hire” situation, where you effectively take over another agency’s client base and payroll obligations (rather than a formal equity acquisition).
  49. Can we grow our agency during COVID-19? Theoretically, if you have a strong cash position (12+ months of expenses). But this only applies to a small percentage of agencies. I believe 50-70% of agencies will shrink (including many that close altogether), perhaps 20-30% will keep their revenue roughly as-is compared to 2019, and perhaps 10% will grow.
  50. How do we get our Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loan forgiven? Read this guide to PPP loan forgiveness from Matchstick Legal, one of my law firms.
  51. What books should we be reading? I recommend Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It (Clearfield & Tilcsik, on preventing or reducing systems failures), Profit First (Michalowicz, on paying yourself first), and The Splendid and The Vile (Larson, on Winston Churchill’s leadership during The Blitz). Here are my takeaways on inspirational leadership and my delegation tips from the Churchill book.
  52. What about other distractions? Be careful on self-medicating. But trashy TV might help; for instance, Netflix’s Love is Blind offers a mix of hope, trainwreck, and schadenfreude.

Got another question for me? Please share.

Additional Resources

Here’s an expanding list of agency-oriented COVID-19 resources from fellow advisors I know and trust.

Stay Updated: Newsletter with Agency Tips

To stay updated (on COVID-19 advice and agency management advice in general), sign up for my email newsletter for agency leaders. I share tips on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Several readers report this is one of the few newsletters they read every single time.

Get Custom 1-on-1 Help for Your Agency

If you need comprehensive one-on-one help at your agency, please contact me and then complete my pre-intake questionnaire. From that, I can confirm whether it makes sense to speak further.

If you’re looking for one-off advice, you can self-schedule a single consulting call here. This reflects special pricing for bookings during the pandemic. I guarantee you’ll leave the call with a prioritized list of where to focus next.

I know this is a stressful time. Hang in there, and take action; I’m here to help. –Karl

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