Don’t get your client fired: a lesson for digital marketing agencies that build mission-critical websites

Written by: Karl Sakas

Can botching a client project cost your client contact their job? Yes, if they’re cabinet secretary Kathryn Sebelius and happened on their watch. She recently resigned.

What’s the lesson for you as the owner of a digital marketing agency? Always know whether your client considers the project to be mission-critical. It starts during the sales process. The basics are true across as digital marketing, but let’s focus today on mission-critical website projects.

How to Use the Sales Process to Avoid Problems Later

Make some initial assumptions about the importance of the website. For instance, when news outlet WRAL relaunched its website, the site wasn’t just a marketing tool—it was their product itself (one of two, the other being the TV station itself) and any outages or problems meant lost ad revenues and unhappy advertisers. That’s a mission-critical project. If the client’s site is the modern version of “brochureware,” it’s probably not mission-critical. If it’s an e-commerce site, it is (by definition) mission-critical.

Pay attention to what the clients says about their priorities… and ask. They’ll probably volunteer how important the site is to them. And if they aren’t, ask them: “If your site went down today, how much would the outage hurt your business?”

Reassure your client contact during the sales process. There’s the old saying, “No one got fired for choosing IBM.” That approach isn’t necessarily the best solution, but it’s a safe, reliable one. If the project you’re doing goes badly, your client contact might get fired. Or if they don’t get fired, their career advancement is over at that company. You’ll do even more of this during the project itself, like talking them out of telling their boss to schedule the launch party when you know things are delayed.

Tread carefully when a client is starting a new company and the website is the new company. My favorite example is the sales prospect who called back when I answered inbound sales calls at a web agency. They wanted us to build a clone of eBay. Or the other client who wanted a clone of Facebook for $30K. In my experience, those clients come to agencies before they’ve fully developed the idea. This tends to be frustrating for everyone, because the client’s plans are changing during development. A potential solution is to help the client develop their business model before you develop the site. At a minimum, work with them early on to be sure they understand how soon their site will be producing revenue… and the additional marketing investment they’ll need to make to get people to come to the site.

Remember that the client’s project timeline started sooner than your project timeline. The project started for you and your agency when the client signed the contract, but it probably started for them weeks… or months… or years earlier. I was PM on a $250K project that had started two years earlier for the client… and they’d paid earlier agencies a lot of money already. I reminded my team regularly that although we were X months into the project, the client was 2 years + X months into the project.

Suss out their client service expectations. If it’s mission critical for them, they’re the ones who’ll be calling at 10pm or on Saturday afternoon. Do you have the capacity (and desire) to deal with that? Although 10pm client calls aren’t fun, they’re probably justified for these clients. Decide if you’re ready for that.

Understand the client’s culture. Your agency is surely going to make some mistakes along the way. Is that going to be a case where you address it and move on, or will you get fired after the first mistake? Signing a $150K contract isn’t worth $150K if they fire you a third of the way through… especially if you’ve hired more employees at your agency based on the projected revenue.

Moving Forward on Mission-Critical Websites

Once you know how important the project is to the client, you can decide how to proceed. If the website is mission critical for the client, consider this:

  1. Do they have reasonable expectations about what they need and how your agency can help them?
  2. Do they have a reasonable budget to complete the scope—including a price premium for the inevitable pressure you’re going to feel from them if anything goes wrong?
  3. Do you (and they) have enough time to get things done?

If they’ve got the budget, timeline, and reasonable expectations, continue moving forward to confirm if things are a match. But if they don’t have those three, consider pulling the plug now. Save your sales time and refer them elsewhere. If you ignore the red flags, you’ll regret it later.

Question: What’s been your agency’s experience helping clients who have mission-critical websites?

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