Growing a team? Want to make sure that your business doesn’t solely rely on you to run it? Simple. Creating systems and centralizing processes is the ticket to consistent results and a business that can run independently of you. 

If you’re growing an agency past just a handful of employees, it’s going to get extremely complicated to manage company information, share what’s working, and set up clear expectations within teams.

Things could get siloed at scale and you could be managing departments that use outdated or altogether different processes for things like onboarding clients across service lines, communication, project management and so much more.

Creating systems and processes at the very beginning of bringing on a team will ensure that everyone you work with follows the blueprint you have for your business and keeps standards of excellence high. 

But first…

What are Systems and Processes? 

Let’s break this down for a second… lots of folks use these terms interchangeably. We’re going to take a look at each individually.

System: a piece of technology that functions to make your processes run smoother, faster, or more efficiently. 

Think of your project management tools, where you collect your data, what tools you use to manage client accounts, ad spend, mock-up and build websites. 

It’s critical that we identify a few things about our systems:

  1. What is its main purpose?

So often I work with Agency owners who use several different tools to do the same things. Team members are confused when looking for information, task status, etc. and they just start blowing up Slack messenger. Ever happened to you before? Yeah, it’s not fun.

Make sure that you identify what the main purpose for each of your tools are so that you can make sure there’s no crossover for your team. They need to be checking one place for a source of truth, not seven. 

  1. What are the rules of engagement?

When working with tools and creating repeat systems, we need to understand what it looks like to engage. Almost every company I’ve ever worked with uses its Project Management tool slightly differently than the other. The bulk is the same, the concepts and organization don’t change. But they may want to see information in a specific way or at a specific cadence, and that needs to be defined. 

Rules of engagement typically include: how to update records or tasks, what cadence to update them, what’s the format, and who needs to be alerted. When there are major setbacks or if something needs to be done manually, how does that happen? 

We want to make sure there are clear rules of engagement for checking, maintaining and updating your systems. Otherwise, you’re going to go through the trouble of setting up systems and they’re going to be out of date before the end of the week.

Pro tip: the simpler the system, the better it scales. Don’t overcomplicate, especially in the beginning phases of growing your agency.

  1. How can I go faster?

I don’t know any system that doesn’t accommodate some kind of automation. Listen, we’re only human. Our team members are only humans. We need to make sure that we’re building systems that can start to do the administrative work for us. Instead of reinventing the wheel every single time.

Create templates, automations, reminders, and Gantt functions to make sure that you don’t need to manage the administrative load of remembering what to do, what tasks to add, and which data to pull.

Try to get auto-reports generated for the important drivers in your departments and make sure you always have a finger on the pulse of how your projects are going. 

Now, a lot of agency owners fail to utilize their systems because they haven’t identified their actual processes…

Process: a step-by-step guide to completing a particular task or goal in your business. 

There are lots of agencies out there. Let’s face it. There are likely at least 3 or 4 agencies that do what you do. And you can probably list them off the top of your head.

What doesn’t exist yet are your core processes. Your secret sauce for how YOUR agency approaches client work, gets results, and manages your team.

Sure there are industry standards. But what we want to do is identify our processes and consider the 80/20.

80/20 processes

It’s likely that 80 percent of your processes are pretty basic.
How to run payroll, how to onboard a new client, how to set up an ad account…

But 20 percent of your processes are really critical to how you do business and how you make a difference for clients… your secret sauce. 

These are what I call strategic processes. They are your fundamental approaches to client work, your core process for delivery, and your core strategy for advertising or content creation. 

It doesn’t need to be perfect right of the bat, but it needs to be created, understood, refined, and updated at all times. 

Processes can basically exist at three levels: Strategic, management, and how-to. 

Strategic Process

Strategies exist everywhere. We can use 100 different strategies to start, grow, and scale a business. Our clients come to us for the certainty that ours will work for them.

Creating a strategic process for each core function of your business will help your entire team understand how to contribute to the growth and success of the agency. It will instill confidence in your team that there’s a plan and you’re all in ruthless pursuit of it. 

I’ve seen the development of strategic processes help get agency owners out of trading time for money. They sell the process, the blueprint, and the result, not their hourly rate. 

Management Process

Simply put: these are workflows.

Examples include: 

How to onboard a new client. 

How to set up a project, and how to plan our quarter.

They likely include a strategy and a handful of standard operating procedures (how-to processes) and are usually changing hands in the organization for execution. 

Think of a management process like running a relay race. If each team member gets the baton at a certain point, define who is going in which order and who passes the baton to the next person. Determine the speed, the expectations and refine the plan to include the best combination to win the race. 

For example, when we onboard a new client, we may need someone to set up the client’s administrative information, someone who is leading strategy, and an account manager. 

Defining what workflows exist helps all team members understand their pieces of the puzzle and can accelerate collaboration on projects. 

How-to Process

Ah the how-to. This is the one everyone understands, but frequently gets very wrong.

Commonly referred to as a “Standard Operating Procedure” or “SOP”, how-to processes are really step-by-step instructions for how to complete a task inside of your business.

You want to be able to open up one of these and complete a task from start to finish. These are the tactical processes that will make up 80 percent of your knowledge base. And they don’t have to be fancy or complicated at all.

They need to include a handful of things:

  1. Purpose statement: Simply, why on earth are we even doing this?

  2. Reference section: What do I need to have access to in order to complete the process?

  3. The steps: walk the person reading through every step so that they can complete the process in one sitting.

  4. The completion filters: What is the definition of done? What should I see to know that I’ve completed everything correctly? 

  5. Media: We live in a digital age. Create a screencast walkthrough and link it at the top of your process. Bonus if you can include screenshots in your steps so that your team knows where to place their attention. 

How to implement systems and processes at your agency

When we work with clients 1 on 1, this is the exact step-by-step process we walk through with them to help implement systems and processes in their agency. 

1. Look at your services

If we can’t get amazing results for our clients, we won’t be in business very long. 

Beginning with your services and creating systems and processes for how you get results for clients is important because we want to drive value and make sure we’re efficient behind the scenes of fulfillment. 

Figuring this out early on in growing your team will be helpful to keep quality and turnaround consistent for clients and make sure your margins stay intact.

If you have a handful of services you offer or are in the business of creating custom proposals, my advice is to sit down and take a look at what the most profitable and fulfilling service you have is. Double down on that service.

For some agencies, it’s helpful to review the projects they’ve done in the last six months. Which services were bought most frequently, which stayed in scope, and which provided the best results?

In the beginning, it’s common to be everything to everyone, but when we need to begin creating systems and processes it’s important to standardize first.

Something simple you can do is to create a core service (the one that you do most frequently and makes you the most money) and then generate a project template for that service. Standardize the SOPs around how you deliver and watch the efficiency skyrocket. 

2. Ask your team

If you already have a team: ask them where the gaps are. 

They are involved in the project at the ground level: talking with clients and managing subcontractors. Ask them what they feel they need to create in a project management tool, in a data and reporting resource, or with systems and processes as a whole. 

A helpful exercise I do with all team members is simply to ask: “What do you wish you knew when you first started here?”

That question alone typically gets the wheels turning on where you can begin creating systems in your agency. 

3. Create a centralized knowledge base

Ever created a really helpful Google Doc and then couldn’t find it a few days later? 

Creating a centralized knowledge base can combat that and, solve the problem for good. 

One of the easiest ways to start building your systems and process muscle at your agency is to simply create a central location for all company assets. Typically we include the following items in our knowledge base:

  1. Standard Operating Procedures: the how-to’s everyone needs to reference to do their work

  2. Strategic and management processes: the overviews for context and helpful for training new team members

  3. Reference files: what are past versions of things we want to make (ie. past brand guides that knocked it out of the park)

  4. Templates: What can help your team move further, faster?

  5. Policies: What standards does the team need to keep?

Keeping each and labeling them inside of your knowledge base will provide the team with actionable lists of processes all while giving context to what quality looks like.

4. Create project management standards and templates

Simply put: please don’t reinvent the wheel every time you get a new project at your agency.

If you offer a similar service, or a core service like I mentioned above, go ahead and create a template for how that project typically goes. 

If you jump into onboarding first, then strategy, then phase 1, 2, etc. whiteboard that out in a clear project template. You can always come back and add more later and improve upon it over time. 

I advise all my agency owners to also create project management rules of engagement. Something that is very commonly missed with all the clients I work with. It’s great to have a project template, but we also need to understand how to use it. 

PM rules of engagement include:

  1. How to set up a project

    1. Naming 

    2. Filing

    3. Sharing settings

  2. Communication schedules

    1. With internal team

    2. With the client

  3. Updating tasks

    1. Cadence of checking off to-do’s

    2. If something falls behind, what do we do?

  4. Archiving and reviewing

    1. Do we hold a post-project meeting?

    2. How are we filing past projects?

These key items are going to save you and your team a ton of headaches and cut through the complexity of managing projects. You don’t need to have a fancy tool or a complex set up. The simpler the machine, the easier it is to maintain. 

5. Metrics that matter

Everything in your business should be tied to a metric or an outcome. This is where I find business owners getting the most “stuck” when it comes to creating systems and processes. They don’t know what the outcomes are.

Give your business a physical: check in on how long it takes us to get customers, what rate our email list is growing, how often are clients retaining with us, and how often are projects on time.

Those are all key performance indicators that you should be tracking at your agency. And, once you implement systems and processes in your marketing, sales, and fulfillment they should all be improving in a positive direction.
If you don’t track outcomes or key performance indicators, we’re left scratching our heads wondering if setting up systems and processes is actually helping. 

Set up a weekly review with your team. If you’re only keeping half of your clients each month, that’s the first metric you want to improve if you’re a retainer-model agency.

6. Next steps: Record your screen!

One of the simplest ways to begin creating systems and documenting your processes behind the scenes is to first create screen recordings of how you’re generating results at your agency. Whether it’s you, the founder, documenting how you’re handling things or your growing team documenting what they’re handling– it’s all company knowledge.

Creating screen recordings is the very first step to standardizing the way you operate and allows you to create referenceable content for your current and future team members.

Quick tip: grab Loom and add it to your Chrome extension. It’s a simple tool (and free to get started) that can help make the task of recording your screen easier. 

Start with your task list, ask yourself if there’s something you need to do today that could benefit from an SOP, and get recording!

Make sure you add the links to the videos in your central knowledge base and plan to create documentation down the line. 

Wrap Up

Remember: building systems and processes in your agency is like building muscles. It’s going to take some time to be able to build up to having really strong systems and clearly outlined processes. My advice: start simple and improve over time.

Follow these action items:

  • Start with your services. It’ll add the most ROI to this experience. You can always go back and add processes and systems to your marketing and sales departments down the line. 

  • Involve your team: buy-in will be greater and you will get a multiplier effect on efforts.

  • Define rules of engagement around your projects so that they stay on time and within scope. 

  • Find data you can track: add metrics to review so you know how systems are impacting the big drivers at your agency. 

  • Have each member of your team record their screen while handling tasks so you can begin compiling standard operating procedures. 

There are so many ways companies can organize their systems, and at times it can feel overwhelming. The best system you can use is one that actually feels easy, simple and helpful at your agency. Even the best operating systems are deemed useless if companies fall off from implementing them.

Create something that works for your agency and commit to improving it as your agency grows.

You’ve got this!

Yours operationally,