How to Document Agency Processes
This post originally appeared in Agency Post.
Scene: Snowy Erie, PA — Christmas break, 2010.
10 of my 11 siblings were home for the holidays, and I was happy to be with family. Christmas break was filled with family time, working out and preparing for lacrosse season and another attempt at a national championship, and running my startup web hosting business (which would quickly evolve into GuavaBox).
In the midst of the busyness of break, I read one of the books that have had the greatest impact on my business career — The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It Michael Gerber.
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Build Your Agency Like a Franchise
In The E-Myth, Gerber writes about the lifecycle of businesses, the grim odds of success, the difference between building a job and building a business, and the importance of systematizing your organization and thinking like a franchise owner.
Andrew, my business partner, read the book simultaneously, and we shared this vision of building a business that would scale beyond us, capable of operating seamlessly without the direct operational contributions of the founders.
An Agency with No Processes
Here’s a list of the processes we had built out when we started our inbound agency GuavaBox: _
That’s right, zero.
We relied on our network to land initial business — website design projects, social media setup, hosting accounts, video work, etc. However, as the workload increased, it didn’t take long to see the painful ramifications of not having established processes.
A few of the problems of being a process-free agency include:
- Inconsistent deliverables. Not having a process will make it a lot harder to deliver consistent results and a stable level of quality.
- Client churn. Inconsistent results will inevitably lead to inconsistent client satisfaction and a higher churn rate for your agency.
- Fewer sales. Sales representatives will be less comfortable when they have no system to work with which can lead to less revenue, reduced profitability, and even the need to drop your prices.
- Inefficient recruitment. Trying to onboard people without a system can become so stressful that you avoid recruiting new talent altogether.
- Surprises. Unexpected obstacles or delays can lead to missed deadlines, last-minute cramming, and burnout from team members not to mention a ton of lost clients.
Andrew and I have never claimed to be the sharpest tools in the shed, but it didn’t take us long to realize that we needed to start applying what we had learned in The E-Myth.
Building Systems Slowly, but Steadily
We started with an internal WordPress install as our process hub, then moved to Google Docs and Basecamp. Next, we experimented with Asana, Mavenlink, and Teamwork, then stuck with Podio for a while. Finally, a couple of years later, we started building DoInbound to fit the specific needs of digital marketing agencies.
For more on this decision, and choosing a project management platform, read our guide on how to choose the best project management tool for your agency.
Now, we help agencies streamline their systems and processes in ClickUp.
The tools were important but never as important as documenting processes and getting the whole team bought into using those processes and holding each other accountable.
Several major takeaways from this experience are:
- Documentation begets improvement. Once you write down a process, you’ll quickly see if/where it needs work and what assets or templates need to be in place to help your team be more effective and efficient.
- Slow is okay. Steadily is imperative. Systems-thinking isn’t a one-time or twice annually phenomenon. The environment changes, the processes need to change, and your team can’t approach this with a one-and-done mentality.
- Leadership needs to…[shocker]…lead. This is not an initiative to be led by your summer interns.
- Following documented processes is a new skill. This may be slow and seem unnecessary at first, but practice and dedication pays off [especially when you bring on new team members].
- Sharing processes between team members leads to a lot of improvements.
What did we systematize?
For the first 18 months of GuavaBox, we did a ton of small WordPress web design projects. We built out one of the first things was the GuavaBox Custom WordPress Install, a pre-built WordPress instance with all the tools and settings we regularly used.
What used to take a solid 2-4 hours of initial setup could now be done in 5 minutes.
We built out a lot of documentation, templates, and assets around web projects, SEO, our sales process, and finance, and it grew steadily from there. Here’s a peek at our ancient (aka, from 2012) internal operations hub:
Okay, enough embarrassing screenshots from the primitive days of GuavaBox. Let’s get into the meat of systemizing your agency.
How to Document Processes for Your Agency
Where are you supposed to find time to document processes in the midst of client delivery, project management, sales, finance, and operations work?
And even if you do make the time, where should you start?
The easiest path rarely correlates with the best path, and documenting your agency processes is no exception. It certainly takes work, but it pays major dividends in long-term efficiency, consistent deliverables, and superior outcomes.
Here are 5 key steps we’ve learned about the best way to document agency processes:
1. Prioritize Your Needs
“Your task list isn’t a tool for getting everything done. Rather, it’s a tool that will ensure you get the right things done.”
― Damon Zahariades
Prioritization is the only way for an agency to function efficiently and focus on the tasks that matter the most. Of course, prioritization needs to be seen as a collaborative task rather than something that a single person decides upon for everyone else.
Bring your team together, identify the core functions of your business (marketing, sales, operations, etc.), and take stock of your agency’s current strengths and weaknesses. This will give you the data you need to create a proper roadmap.
Break each core function into sub-sections then prioritize your highest impact areas.
One approach to prioritize more effectively would be to look at the frequency, documentation needs, and pain of all of your processes. We use a process prioritization worksheet and prioritize processes based on these three categories (with a scale from 1 – 5).
Frequency – How often do you perform or complete the process?1️⃣ – We barely perform this process.
5️⃣ – We perform this process on a regular basis.
Documentation Needs – How much documentation do you have on the process?1️⃣ – This is a well-documented process. We have a document or checklist that the team currently follows.
5️⃣ – This process is not documented at all and it’s completed differently every time.
Pain – How much pain does this process cause?1️⃣ – This process is not a pain point for us and we can get by without it being well documented.
5️⃣ – This process is a big pain point. If we don’t get it right, things could easily slip through the cracks.
Note: actually prioritize. You can’t have 30 top “priorities” so create a high impact but achievable list of 3-5 processes to document. Systemization is a marathon, not a sprint which is why consistency matters more than speed.
2. Choose the Right Platform
There are tons of tools of project management tools to choose from (we tried over 71!) that are capable of storing your processes. We now train agencies on a proven framework implemented via ClickUp and built around the belief that processes need to live where work is being done.
After all, the main appeal of ClickUp for agencies is the ability to have every task, file, and process on a single platform. This makes it much easier to put your process right next to your actual tasks instead of an obscure third-party app that team members don’t use.
Even the most well-written process binder is useless if it lives on a shelf forever.
That being the case, you could choose to build an internal site or wiki with tools like Google Docs, Notion, or a process documentation system like SweetProcess.
Ultimately, the tool is never as important as documenting and using those processes consistently. Find software that works for you and your team members, something easy enough to use that people would want to open it regularly.
I can’t stress enough the importance of accountability to make sure your team members are all following the processes you’ve documented. That work is a waste of time if it’s never referred to.
The sad truth is that you’ll continue to be plagued by inconsistent deliverables, spotty results, and inefficiency unless you start documenting processes to proactively deal with future challenges.
3. Select the Format & Outline Expectations
Which questions can you ask yourself to find the right format and expectations for documenting your agency’s processes? Well, there’s plenty of room but the first four you should be asking are:
- How much detail is appropriate for your team?
- Do team members prefer to watch how-to videos or read text?
- Who needs to participate in documentation?
- If a process needs improvement, who is responsible?
Remember, you need to start by understanding your team’s culture and choosing the appropriate format. Next, get your team’s input and make sure everyone is on the same page about documentation formats, following processes, and who is involved.
Hint: everyone should be involved in continuous improvement.
At GuavaBox, we use an ordered list of steps, more details where necessary, and a quick video overview (using a tool like Loom) so that team members can access bullet points for a quick reminder or watch the process being executed step-by-step and narrated on a screencast if they need more detail.
4. Batch Days
The single most effective method we used to systematize our agency was batch days.
The idea here is simple — everyone blocks off a period of time (a full day, a half-day, or even just a couple hours), has a list of what needs to be done, turns off all distractions, and cranks out the documentation you need.
If you’re serious about improving your agency documentation, here’s my recommendation:
- Time blocking. Block off 3 hours for your entire core team, first thing every Thursday morning (or whatever day of the week works best for you).
- Agendas. Come in each week with a prioritized list of which processes need to be documented.
- Deep work. Shut off all distractions, assign processes for documentation, and get to interruption-free work.
- Eat the frog. Spend the first two hours cranking out your processes before other tasks or busywork get in the way.
- Collaborative optimization. Spend the last hour presenting your work, improving it as a team, and wrapping up the loose ends to make sure it’s in your process management system.
- Note-taking. Take any notes on ideas you had for next week and shut it down after exactly three hours. Sticking to a specific time block is a big psychological advantage.
At GuavaBox, we applied batch days to many areas of our business. For example, spending 4 hours every Wednesday morning cranking out marketing batch days helped us grow our blog traffic from <1K/month to 15K/month in just nine months.
Based on our processes, that work was a huge part of our agency’s growth and success.
5. Culture of Continuous Improvement
What do you do when you’re writing a blog post or hosting a webinar then realize that the process could be improved?
Should you make a note for later or fix the process immediately?
There’s no universal “right or wrong answer” as long as it gets done in the long run. Still, it’s critical that your whole team shares the mindset, responsibility, and privilege of continuous improvement.
The tools we use and the efficacy of today’s marketing tactics will change as frequently as search engine algorithms. So the way to scale your agency is to constantly look for ways to improve and take advantage of the changes.
Determine what method of continuous improvement works best for your team and make sure that’s a shared expectation by all team members and everyone is held accountable to that standard.
Tip: have daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly check-ins to keep your team accountable.
Accelerating Your Agency Growth
You stuck with me to the end of this article, and I want to help you systematize and grow your agency. I already showed you our process boilerplate earlier in this article, and I’ve mentioned our work with agencies and ClickUp before.
I haven’t shared yet that our agency customers get pre-loaded, proven templates for processes you need and training on how to run client campaigns, deliver consistent results, sell, build, and deliver marketing game plans for your customers and much more.
If you’d like to learn more about how we help agencies deliver client results at scale, check out our programs or chat directly with us on this page!
See How Others Are Leveraging Agency Processes
Still not sure if documenting your agency’s processes is really that important?
I get it, I’ve been there. However, it wasn’t until we felt enough pain and really committed to overcoming that pain at GuavaBox that things started to take off. The GuavaBox narrative alone might not be enough to convince you, so I want to share other examples.
These are successful agencies that have taken their business to the next level through the use of documented processes. We’ve been fortunate enough to hear these success stories on the Agency Journey podcast:
- Amber Mackay’s client success processes nurtured the account managers at FINALLY Agency to some of the best in the UK.
- Josh Elkin’s operational processes turned Linkflow into a thriving linkbuilding service that expanded into SEO and CRO.
- Dr. Jeremy Weisz’s podcasting processes allowed Rise25 to consistently drive inbound leads through referrals.
- Jordan West’s sales and client journey processes turned Mindful Marketing (now upGrowth) into a leading growth and branding agency for ecommerce businesses.
- Chris Dreyer’s growth processes let him build a powerhouse agency doing over $600,000 each month while only servicing 25 clients
- Pete Caputa’s accountability processes helped make Databox the #1 business analytics platform.
- Josh Ames’ web design processes helped Spark Reaction reach HubSpot Platinum in 2 years.
- The inbound selling process that Josh Harcus uses at Huify.
- Elyse Meyer’s 126-point checklist for client on-boarding or Eric Pratt’s first 30-day formula for clients at Revenue River.
- Kuno Creative’s John McTigue on training clients to follow his process.
- Web design processes from a HubSpot Diamond Partner, New Breed.
- Jeff Coon on how his agency produces great content from client interviews.
- Building an agency operating system where Marisa Smith talks about the EOS.
- How IMPACT Branding & Design on-boards new employees.
- Hiring an inbound sales rep with John Shea.
That list could go on ad nauseam, but you get the idea.
All of these top-tier agencies have amazing stories of how they leverage processes for client success and agency growth. Learn from their example and get serious about systematizing your business today!