A new relationship with an agency is much the same as a new romantic relationship. Not that you’re likely to receive flowers to your office or doey eyed glances; but, when it comes to setting boundaries and earning trust, the first few weeks will set the pace. And, just like in romance, these first impressions can make or break the relationship.

Trusting your agency generates more value over time

It’s a substantial investment both financially and of time when you begin working with a new agency partner so with this in mind we’ve put together some of the ways you can best begin to start growing trust in the relationship and allowing your new partner to show what they can do; without over-exposing you and your business to risk. And, just like romance, if they prove themselves at this point it could be the start of something beautiful!

Earning trust over time - How you can test an agency in the early days

At Indiespring we’ve worked with businesses large and small. Often new clients will come to us wanting one extreme or the other – they want to drop work on us and forget it until they see a deliverable in a couple of months time or they want to micromanage and be involved in every single stand up and internal meeting. Neither of these approaches gets the best value out of an agency partner and in the first case you probably need to outsource rather than work with an agency.

One way we’ve found to begin our relationship on the right foot, a way that’s certainly worth trying with any agency, is to start with a collaborative discovery workshop. This is a paid engagement which gives you and your team the opportunity to express the issues you’d like to solve; rather than a chance to describe the solutions you’d like implemented. This is the first important step to finding out the value of your new agency: Give your agency the opportunity to design the solution. This will give you a chance to involve your new partner fully and any good agency will have gone through this problem solving process hundreds of times. This will be their first opportunity to provide real value and you should expect and encourage new ideas and creativity so long as the core goal is solving the issues at hand.

solution design

From this discovery process you should expect to see outputs, depending on the nature of the project, such as: high level strategy documents, user flows, user profiles, market analysis and early ideas regarding technical implementation. At this stage it’s likely your agency will let you know the most suitable project management methodology based on the discovery workshop. Let your agency pick the project management approach. This is based on a combination of factors including the level of required reporting, chance for changes to specification and, yes, what the client is used to. Some agencies will have a preferred model (agile with SCRUM, waterfall, PRINCE2 etc) but the best will be able to fit the right model to the right project with relative ease.

Talking of reporting; this would normally be the point where your agency can advise you on the level of reporting and the communication expectations throughout the project. This can be more collaboratively laid out than the previous stages and you should make clear your requirements on this front. What’s most important here is to set clear expectations for both the work and any progress reporting. Failure to do this is often the easiest way to hamstring a project and create unnecessary headaches for project managers on both sides of the fence.

Hopefully by this point your agency has begun to earn your trust and prove their competency through their work in the discovery workshop; but what if you weren’t ready to run through this design process on a large project with a brand new partner? It’s understandable and one way to begin seeing what your new agency can do is to give them some smaller work items before handing over a larger project. It allows you to really get a handle on their flexibility and skillset before going through the process above.

agency culture

One aspect which shouldn’t be overlooked at any point in this process is to examine your partner agency’s culture and take note of the things which stand out. Ask your agency about their staff packages, benefits and turnover rates. A high staff churn may not be the end of the world but it does mean you’re unlikely to have staff dedicated to your work for multiple projects; which could affect the steady growth of trust between both parties and means dealing with new team members frequently. How does your new agency propose improving the relationship both professionally and personally? Can your staff work on site with the new agency or can you have the agency’s staff work on site with yours?

What level of training, documentation and support can you expect to receive after a project is successfully completed? What’s the process when things don’t as expected? These sorts of probing questions will set you in good stead for a long and profitable relationship.

Once trust is built - What should my expectations be?

There are no shortcuts to building trust. Sometimes you’ll know after the first meeting that the fit is right for you while other times you’re uneasy even a year in. Sometimes it might never happen; in which case you’re working with the wrong agency! But when you realise you’re working alongside the right people, and you’ve learned to trust and respect them, where should your expectations sit?

strategic thinking

Nowadays you shouldn’t need to guide the work in the same way. You’re comfortable that your agency can deliver work to a high standard and is doing everything they can to deliver a quality end product in the time allotted to them. Your agency knows what you like and dislike and is able to guide both discovery and delivery with fewer touchpoints necessary. You’re happy to not only give your agency control over large projects but also to take their advice on the strategic direction being taken. Frankly at this point you should be giving approval to their strategic thinking rather than needing to lead the way in unfamiliar territory. Your agency is the expert in this space and that’s why you hire them; not just to deliver work for the lowest possible price.

At this point the idea of the day rate becomes obsolete. Your agency is delivering work and potentially pricing according to the value offered. This opens up a world of more interesting payment options such as profit sharing, split equity models or KPI based payment top-ups. Your agency delivers value by the bucket load and all parties should share in the spoils; on the rare occasion it doesn’t go as planned your agency will see their margins slip and, what’s more, they’ll be up front and honest about where things haven’t gone to plan. Yes, even when it’ll cost them money.

Lots of agencies love to share how well they partner with their clients but true partnerships only happen when both partners have skin in the game (just like in our now overstretched romance metaphor). Great agencies crave this as excellent work will improve outcomes for everyone involved and trusting your agency generates more value over time.

skin in the game

This level of trust is the sweet spot for you as a business as you’ll be receiving the maximum value from your partner agency. Frankly, you don’t get to this point with just anyone and if this isn’t where you’re aiming for from the start it’s unlikely to ever happen. It may feel like finding a needle in a haystack to find an agency who can meet your expectations and earn your trust but hopefully these hints will help you work towards a great relationship with your agency partners. And if it isn’t working out once you’ve tested them? Well, there’s plenty more fish in the sea!