The agency world has a long history of adopting new technologies, whether they’re new mediums like radio, television, and web, or new tools like desktop publishing and design software. For today’s agency, keeping pace with innovation is the minimum baseline. To remain fully relevant to client needs, today’s agency needs to merge its creative and strategic practices with a technology practice, empowering everyone in the organization to do more “what-if” thinking when it comes to problem-solving.
Our developers, business analysts, and project managers support clients with technical strategy, server-side development, architecture, application design, and more. In my twenty years as a developer and project leader, I’ve developed a few hard-and-fast rules for ensuring that technology teams can solve the problems that clients actually have—and not just the ones they think they have.
Rule 1: Listen
Clients only think they know what they need. Listening helps clarify what they really need.
Listening is a huge part of any successful client relationship because, ultimately, the client makes the decisions. Your job as the technology practice leader is to empower them to make good ones. You can consult, you can recommend, you can explain and educate, but at the end of the day—even with the most complex technical issues—the client has to make the final call. So it’s critical that you find out what they need to know. And, to do that well, you have to listen so you can see things through their eyes and recognize what’s important to them. Only after you’ve done the listening can you help your client work their way through to an understanding of the technical details—so they can make a good decision, an informed decision.
Rule 2: Be honest
Be candid about pain points and tackle them early in the process.
Projects worth doing tend to be challenging and rarely run smoothly from start to finish. But if you’re planning and strategy are aligned, you can usually figure where you’ll run into difficulties. The majority of a project typically runs smoothly. It’s the rest of it that gets your team in trouble and can put stress on the client relationship. So address what’s likely to be problematic early and often. Have the tough conversations up front to surface as much of the difficulties as you can and get it out of the way. Once the difficult decisions are resolved, launching on time and on budget is that much easier. Plus, your team and the client’s team will remember how the project concluded (well) more than how it began (hard). But that’s way less likely to happen if you put off the hard conversations until late in the schedule. Being candid upfront means being content at the end.
Rule 3: Build agile teams
Stock your teams with real-world experience and cutting-edge computer science knowledge.
When hiring for an agency technology practice, you’ll commonly find two primary types of candidates. The first will be those with extensive practical skills and experience, but little computer science background. These are people who’ve been in the trenches working, not studying the latest theories. The second type of candidate is coming out of school with a deep knowledge of computer science, but little real-world experience. Both types can be invaluable to your team, so hire a good mix and let them share their knowledge with each other. The experienced folks can learn new tricks, while the novices can learn from the mistakes that others have already made instead of blundering into them on their own.
Rule 4: Foster understanding
Knowing your client is about more than just knowing their needs. It’s also about fully grokking who they are, which helps ensure that the computer science aspect of the project is on brand.
We typically employ what are called domain-driven architectures, which means that, even from a development standpoint, we’re really striving to understand brand voice and internal vocabulary. When talking about technical issues, we want our clients to understand what’s going on as much as possible. And using the client’s vocabulary, even in the code that’s being written, helps them get it because they know the language. That concept plays through everything we build—all the way up to the front end of the website. It enables fluency between our team and the client.
Rule 5: Communicate clearly internally
Let your creative team know what you can bring to the table.
A lot of creative work is about pushing boundaries, seeing problems from new angles, and turning intuition into innovation. But to do that, the creative team needs to know what the parameters are—they need to understand the rules of the game. So the technology team needs to sit down with their creative counterparts at the start of a project and brainstorm with them. This can help them fully understand the medium and limitations in which they’re working so they can envision new possibilities. The technology team’s knowledge can help them be innovative in their creative problem-solving.
Rule 6: Have integrity
If you want to work with the client, don’t promise what you can’t deliver.
Under-promise and over-deliver is a well-known trope in the agency space. And it’s certainly true for a technology practice. Imagine building a pitch and your projected budget comes in at nearly twice the original scope. You may not get the job but at least you can be honest. Tell the client what you think it will actually cost to reach their goals. You could underbid and then renegotiate halfway through the build—as some agencies are willing to do. But that bait-and-switch philosophy more often than not creates resentment and a lack of trust. Understandably, integrity can be a barrier, but that’s why it’s on the technology team to educate the clients—even before they’re officially your clients. Help your prospective clients understand their needs, so they can make good decisions—whether they decide to go with your agency or another one. It can be detrimental in the short term, but it can pay off in the long term by building your reputation for being honest. Also, if those clients have a bad experience with another agency, they may remember that you were forthright and come back to you to fix what didn’t go so well.
Agencies have never been as immersed in the digital world as they are today. That’s why having an in-house technology practice is so important—it enables you to bring creative, long-term solutions to vexing marketing issues. By following the rules above, it’s possible to create value for clients that lasts long after a project has been released.