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Karl Sakas

Karl Sakas (@KarlSakas) helps digital marketing agencies grow profitably, without the usual growing pains. He founded and runs an online community with 1,500+ agencies in 50 countries. As president of global consulting firm Sakas & Company, Karl has advised agencies on 6 continents about operations, strategy, and leadership. He is the author of The In-Demand Marketing Agency and 200+ articles on agency management.

Listen to the episode

Tune in to find out:


  • The difference between a lifestyle agency and a high-growth agency.
  • The three types of services that agencies provide.
  • The benefits of using an “advance retrospective” to help you plan where you want to go.
  • How to build an accountability structure that will help you make progress.
  • One of the signs that you’ve hired someone without enough experience.
  • How to determine when it’s time to end a relationship with a client.

"Although I’m an agency consultant and coach and I coach clients, I have my own coach, because you can’t coach yourself." – Karl Sakas

Barry O’Kane: Welcome back to Season One, and this is Episode Five. Season One is all about the long haul. We dig deep into long term client relationships, recurring revenue, repeat business, referrals and more. Everything that is vital to building an agency that not only survives, but grows.

This episode is packed with absolute gold for any agency. Karl Sakas has worked with a great many digital agencies all over the world and the information, the systems, and the advice that he shares in our conversation is truly invaluable. So let’s get straight to it.

Welcome back to Happy Porch Radio and I’m absolutely delighted to have Karl Sakas with me today. Hi Karl.

Karl Sakas: Barry, great to be here.

Barry: Why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about who you are and your skillset.

Karl: My work focuses on helping fast growing digital agencies / digital marketing agencies grow without the usual growing pains. You know when you’re running an agency and you’re growing quickly, things can seem kind of crazy. Lots of firefighting, lots of problems, lots of potential but a lot of headaches along the way. And as an operations, strategy and leadership consultant specialising in digital agencies, I focus on making those growing pains go away.

I’m based in Raleigh, North Carolina in the eastern US yet work with clients all over the world. At this point I’ve worked with agencies in 19 countries on six continents.

Barry: Wow. That’s a huge amount of experience and that’s why I’m so honoured to have you with me on the show. I came across you on Brennan Dunn’s podcast and, reading a lot of the information on your sites and so on, I think there’s a huge amount of experience and depth of knowledge you have to share.

As you know, so this first series of episodes of the show is focusing on building long term relationships and how as agencies we need to think about things like recurring business and building retainer services and so on. So I wanted to start the conversation just by asking you how important you see that side of things, either as a conscious decision for an agency owner or agency management, or is that something that just kind of comes with other focuses as part of the package.

Karl: Certainly focusing on building recurring revenue makes it easier to predict where you’ll be financially, which can certainly reduce stress if you know that you’re getting a certain amount each month or next month. Then you don’t have to worry quite as much about bringing in every dollar.

When you run a business there’s the idea of saying that you eat what you kill. This is sort of using a sales analogy, at the very beginning if you have revenue coming in that’s because you sold it, or your business partner sold it. As you grow it really becomes easier if you have revenue coming in from repeat clients and things like that, but when you build your agency focusing on recurring revenue, things are more predictable and you can make better long term decisions rather than emergency decisions.

Barry: One of the challenges–I know from personal experience–in running any agency, is this feeling of, I often describe it as firefighting or feast and famine, where you’re running so fast just to keep on top of the current work that it feels like you can’t step back and think about the points that you just made. Maybe building recurring revenue or thinking slightly longer term beyond winning the next couple of projects. Do you have any thoughts about how somebody might go about meeting that challenge?

Karl: Well my approach to working with agencies is to always begin with the end in mind. That is, ‘Where do you want to go?’ And in particular, one way to look at that is, ‘Are you looking to build a lifestyle agency or a high growth agency?’ So high growth is where the goal is to grow as quickly as possible and sell the agency, you know probably in the next five years or so, or at some point in the future for a big pay day.

On the lifestyle side your goal may be more along the lines of building a business that you really enjoy working in, that you have clients and colleagues and work that you enjoy. It’s more about the quality of life and you might not be planning to sell but, you know, you maybe open to it but that’s not the key goal.

And ultimately, every agency owner is going to lean one way or the other. Leaning towards high growth or lifestyle. Knowing where you fall on that is going to be important. I have an article I can share for the show notes that helps dig into that. So, certainly you want to know where you want to go because that’ll help drive things.

For sure, if you’re looking to sell recurring revenue makes it easier to get a higher valuation when you sell. And, if you’re not planning to sell, well, if you need your business to keep churning out money for the rest of your career, at least for the foreseeable future, recurring revenue makes that easier as well.

Barry: Are those two goals, obviously, this is a very different mindset to be thinking about how you run your business, but how do they differ day to day in terms of an agency leader or an agency owner? Is it I’m just, in one case, working really hard and I sacrifice everything else, if I’m aiming to sell or build business? Or then the sort of archetypal description of a lifestyle business or view, an outside view of a lifestyle business, that is maybe just, ‘Hey, I want to hang out on the beach and work for awhile.’ Are those so clearly defined, those two categories of goals?

Karl: As I mentioned, most people tend to be somewhere in the middle. For instance, several of my lifestyle leaning clients note that they’re not planning to sell but if someone showed up, as one client said, ‘with a dump truck full of cash,’ then they would sell. I did live in New Jersey for five years. I heard of dump trucks full of cash. I never saw one myself.

And then on the high growth side, sometimes they’ll say, ‘Well, I want to grow fast, I want to sell, but I don’t want to go crazy from a workload perspective.’ At the extreme end, someone who is lifestyle oriented may want to work from the beach. I do have some clients who do that. That’s certainly not the majority. And then on the high growth side, typically–and, you know, some of this comes down to perhaps how you manage your time–many of my clients will say, ‘Well, I don’t care how many hours I work,’ or, ‘If I’m working 60, 70 hours, that’s fine, but I want to make sure that I’m spending the hours on what’s going to grow the business best.’

Barry: So, no matter what I’m looking for to get out of the business, thinking about being efficient about where we spend our time and our energy and our other resources in order to meet that goal, I might scale that out or I might have a different, you know, outcome, but being efficient and effective about how we / where we put our resources makes a lot of sense.

Which is something where I feel quite passionate about, the idea of long term relationships, whether that’s a structured recurring business offering of services or merely optimising for repeat business and referrals. I think that’s a mistake, maybe mistake is too strong, but I feel quite strongly that if we don’t actively think about those things in a very structured, proactive way, it won’t happen even if we realise the benefits of it.

Karl: Absolutely. You know, certainly there are happy accidents, things that work out well, but I would not build a business that relies on happy accidents.

Barry: You have talked in the past about a framework for how you structure or how you help agencies think about the different, I guess, types or areas of service that they provide. I’d be interested to hear a little bit more about that.

Karl: That is my agency services framework. The initials for that are SIT, S-I-T, which is short for Strategy, Implementation and Training. So, let’s take a look at each of those to define them and how it impacts growing your agency.

And ultimately, in my experience working with agencies, you know, it’s mentioned in six continents so far, every agency service fits into one of three categories – strategy, implementation or training. And I started in the industry back in 1997. Started as a web designer back in the days of Netscape and Internet Explorer 3. And since then I’ve been observing, well, how can you get things done better? And one of the themes was around agency services.

So strategy is where a client comes to you and they’re saying, ‘I don’t know what to do, tell me what to do.’ Ultimately, the focus is the result of what you’re helping them do. And this can be hard to sell because you’re selling a somewhat intangible thing. On the other hand you can charge more for it because you’re focusing on the result not a specific deliverable or output.

On the implementation side, that’s the ‘I’ in SIT, that’s where a client is staying, ‘Do it for me.’ In some cases, the client may have people inhouse that are overloaded and they want your agency to handle it because people don’t have capacity. Other times, and this is often the case, the client doesn’t have the capacity inhouse, and they’re saying, ‘Just get it done for me.’

This is easy to sell because a client will come to you saying, ‘I need a website. I need a marketing plan. I need a social media strategy,’ or a social media implementation, rather, if we’re looking at implementation. The challenge, of course, is that this is a bit more commoditised in that if people are price shopping and they’re saying, ‘Just build me a website,’ you know, they can say, ‘Well, one place is charging 10 thousand, another place is charging 50 thousand,’ and someone might be charging 3 thousand. Ultimately, if they’re focused on price, it’s a lot easier to compare pricing on implementation and that can create price pressure for agencies to cut their prices without adjusting the scope.

And then the training side, ‘T’ in SIT–Strategy, Implementation, Training–that’s where the client is saying, ‘We want to do it inhouse, teach us how to do that.’ And that’s a gap for many agencies. Often they’re focused on implementation and some strategy, or maybe a lot of strategy and some implementation. Training is an untapped opportunity in that, you know, a lot of agencies when they hear a client say, ‘We want to do it inhouse,’ they’ll see that as, ‘Oh, well, I’m not going to make any money from that.’ Training is your opportunity to do that and to continue the relationship.

So for instance, you might be building training modules. Say if you’ve launched a website for a client or maybe you’ve created an online marketing strategy and maybe you’re teaching the client how to implement it. You can also create public training as well. In person, webinars, information products in terms of things people can download, that kind of thing. There’s an opportunity for recurring revenue in your training.

I recently visited an agency in Connecticut and during the tour of the office they noted that they’d recently set up a training room. And it’s a great idea. You know, they can bring people in, they can get trained on how to do various things and the nice thing about SIT, and this is part of the reason to think about strategy, implementation and training, is that you can think about cross sell opportunities. This is especially true if you want to run a high growth agency.

So for instance, training, if you’re thinking about cross sells, can often lead to strategy help. Can often lead to implementation, maybe where a client would say, ‘Well, the things that you did the training on, that all makes sense but you know what? I’d rather you handle it for me.’

Barry: When you meet an agency and you are talking about a system, a structure like this, how do you help an agency step back from the core first? Do people need to step back and take the time? Is it something that you can implement on a sort of iterative fashion, thinking about how a structure like this helps us to change our services and the way we operate? Or is it a case of stop, rethink and make some changes?

Karl: One of the big challenges is that running an agency is a very intense process in the sense that as a services business, everything that you deliver is being delivered by a person. Or, you know, there could be some automation but it’s highly personnel intensive, which means that if something goes wrong, then it’s easy to get sucked into solving things. So, certainly you could expand your services in a reactive way.

There are a lot of clients that will reach out to me and say, ‘Well, you know, one of my clients asked me to add the service so I did except now I’m not sure how to deliver it.’ Or maybe earlier on, you’re not sure how to price it. Or maybe they priced it and realised, woah, their estimate was way, way off. So, you can certainly do the reactive approach and that can work, if you learn from it for future clients.

In general though, I’d recommend being more intentional. You know, when you’re making more intentional choices things tend to run more smoothly. There’s less firefighting. And one of the ways to do that is a tool I’ve created called an Advance Retrospective. A retrospective is looking back. Looking back at the past, how did things go? And when you write an Advance Retrospective, you’re writing about the future as if it’s already happened.

So, for instance, it might be, ‘You know, it’s December 31st, it’s the end of the year, we’ve had a great year, blah blah blah happened, looking back, etc, etc, new client came in, we hired this new person and they’ve worked out great,’ so on and so forth. And you can look at that for any kind of content for any kind of time period.

You know, usually I’ll do that at the end of the year, or earlier in the year with clients looking at what their year end will look like, the year out. You can also look at it five years from now. You can also, if you’re planning to sell, look at it on, let’s pretend it’s the day you’ve sold your agency. What is that like? How much did you get? What does that feel like? What all is going on?

And by doing the Advance Retrospective visualisation exercise, you’re ultimately able to take a look at what is the future, your ideal future look like? And then, I mentioned we begin with the end in mind approach, then you can work backwards from there. So, ultimately, if you do the retrospective that’s going to help drive–based on what your ideal future looks like–that’ll help drive what services to offer, and potentially to not offer, to meet your goals.

Barry: Wow yeah. And that’ what requires that stop and take some time to do that process, I’m assuming. And I like the idea of visualising in advance the retrospective of the next approach.

Karl: It takes some time, but generally I’ve found clients can write them within a few hours. You probably want to spread it over a couple of weeks. Do and draft and think about it a bit, and then update it and then maybe update it again. But ultimately the time invested is tiny compared to the potential impact of knowing where you want to go and, importantly, how you want to get there.

One of the things I’ll talk about with agency owners is the idea of, I call it VGR – Values, Goals and Resources. You know, your goals are where you want to go. Your resources are financially and people-wise and so on, what resources do you have to support meeting your goals. And then values are an important piece which are looking at, not so much where do you want to go, that’s the goal, but how do you want to get there? Do you want to grow as fast as possible? Or not? Do you want to have an industry focus, which I do recommend? Or not? Other things, basically, what is the quality of the process in reaching that goal?

Barry: And is there a–going through that process of writing over a period time when drafting that goal and then stepping from there into, ‘Okay, we’ve backtracked time and we’ve got the beginnings of a plan of how we’re actually going to reach there,’–are there any common challenges or themes that you see in moving from that planning process to implementing that?

Karl: One of the challenges is around the challenge of running an agency day to day, you know, especially as you’re smaller and you’re growing, you’ve got the firefighting you mentioned. Where, you know, you want to think about the future but something just blew up. I have an article pending that I’m submitting for Agency Post, the HubSpot agency blog, on how to diffuse client freak outs.

You know, when you’ve got a client freak out, either if you’re the client contact or you’ve built your team and you’re coaching your client contact, your employee, on how to handle it, you know, that can be very distracting. So, some of this comes down to building heads down time. That’s time on your calendar where everyone is instructed, don’t interrupt you during that time. Basically, it’s an appointment with yourself.

You know, as I think about different agency owners that I’ve worked with, sometimes people prefer to do that in the morning, sometimes they prefer to do it in the evening, some will do it on the weekend where they’re less likely to be interrupted. Ultimately, knowing how you work and what your preference is, go for that.

It’s really powerful. The first time people do it, they’ll report back to me and say, ‘Wow! That was amazing. No one was interrupting me. I wasn’t getting all these emails, or these calls, or there weren’t people IMing me or messaging me on Slack,’ or that kind of thing. And the thing is, it’s a construct, they created this. They don’t have to answer every email all day long. They’ve just created a sense where they feel like they have to.

And so by building that heads down time you’re ultimately saying, that as the agency owner, you are the number one priority during that couple of hours or four hours. People talk about the idea of working in the business versus on the business. You know, when you build that heads down time, you truly can focus on working on the business. Know where you want to go, create time built in to sort of ruminate on things.

The final piece would be on around building an accountability structure to make progress. So, if you know where you want to go five years from now, what do you need to do over the next year? If you know where that is, what do you need to do over the next few quarters and over the next month and over the next week and, ultimately, if you’re thinking about the long term goal, that helps inform, well, what do you need to do in the next hour?

And it can easily get distracted, which is why you want to have check ins. You know when I do coaching with clients there’s a monthly check in process with interim goals, you know, certainly, you don’t have to hire an agency coach to do it. One of your team members could do it. If you have a business partner, they could be that person checking in. It helps to have that outside person because you can’t hold yourself accountable as easily as you holding someone else accountable or vice versa. You know, for instance, although I am an agency consultant and coach and I coach clients, I have my own coach because you can’t coach yourself.

Barry: Yeah, I really like the way you structure all of that and it’s very clear. Because one of the issues, I think, as you just described, when you’re running a business, is being able to, sort of, construct a structure around what you need to do and to realise that it is entirely in your own control to do that without hurting the business or the staff or the clients in any way. To create that space, to use that structure to create future growth and more freedom.

Karl: And it is worth considering that as you grow you will eliminate certain problems but now you’ll create new problems. You know, for instance, working with a client in the US that has about 40 employees and, although my client is very rarely dealing directly with client problems, now he’s coaching the person who’s coaching the person who’s solving the client problems.

And so, certainly, as you grow, and if that’s your goal, your hiring decisions become crucial. For sure, if you’ve got three people and you’re hiring a fourth one, that’s a big impact, but ultimately, as you continue to grow, the managerial hires you make are going to make a big difference about whether you’re getting sucked in to solve the problems or if people can handle most of them themselves.

Barry: To bring it all back to the theme of long term client relationships, and we’ve talked there about a framework for taking the time to think about things like that and to work on changes and that structure, if there’re any changes or services changes or staff or resourcing changes or process changes we need to think about in order to maximise the relationship with each client.

But to go back to your SIT framework, you mentioned in the training area that there was the opportunity, and I think that’s a really strong opportunity as well, when a client wants to do something inhouse or wants to move away, you’ve still got an opportunity to provide a valuable service to them in an ongoing basis. Are they the same opportunities in the other two areas that you described, strategy and implementation?

Karl: There are from a repeatability perspective. Certainly, if you are, say doing a content audit for a new client. You know, once you’ve developed the content or the template, well, you can just keep reusing it. You’re not having to create it every time. Or if you’re doing web development and you’ve got a launch checklist, well, you can use that same checklist every time.

One of the signs of an inexperienced hire for any agency role is that they haven’t made certain mistakes yet that they are eventually going to make. For instance, if you’re launching websites, someone forgets to load the Google analytics code and suddenly you realise a month later that you don’t have any of the tracking data for the past month. You know, once you’ve done that once, you will never do it again. And that’s why you want a checklist so that you don’t have to learn the hard way but ultimately, looking at recruiting processes, that’ll make life easier.

There certainly are options to make strategy and implementation more recurring. You know, on the implementation side, if there’s a particular activity or set of activities clients need each month, then, well, you can price that as a package or as a plan. You know, for instance, say on content marketing, it might be for a certain amount every month we’ll create a certain number of blog posts, and for sure you’ll probably want a more robust retainer than that.

But, ultimately thinking about what do clients need on a regular basis? In the past there’s been a challenge about how do you make web design and development recurring? Or, you know, you might have a maintenance retainer for $500 a month but that’s small compared to what clients spend on the website upfront. There’s a growing concept called ‘growth driven design’ popularised by Luke Summerfield at HubSpot, and ultimately it’s a way to create a retainer relationship within web design. Rather than focusing on single big projects and then the revenue goes away.

Barry: And that is really powerful, I think. That sort of concept is focusing on moving it from the idea of, ‘We do a project and then the job is done.’ From the client’s point of view that’s not really what happens. They may be getting a project done in terms of getting some website redesign or branding or something, but that is only one little step in their journey of their business. So as suppliers, I think that’s a really powerful thought process.

Karl: And as the agency, a way to think about it is, you know, if you’re running an agency, we’re doing things that clients don’t do every day. If they did do it every day they might be doing it themselves. Might be doing it in house. Not necessarily. But because agencies tend to have more experience than the clients do at the work agencies are doing, clients are relying on the agency to have their act together, to have a process, to know what comes next.

You know, one of the biggest causes of client based content delays are because the client hasn’t written the content the agency needs to then load, and this can be true for websites, this can be true for ongoing online marketing programmes where the agency is waiting on the client to produce something so the agency can publish it.

And the thing is that’s the agency’s fault. The agency’s job is to manage the client’s expectations. To say during the kick off meeting, ‘You know, about three months from now, we’re going to need x, y and z. We’re going to remind you as we get closer to there but, you know, we’re going to need your help creating it and we’re going to give you an outline a month from now of the things for you to create.’

Whereas if the agency waits three months and suddenly is saying, ‘We need a hundred pages of content,’ and the client freaks out and everything gets delayed, well, that’s the agency’s fault. You’re supposed to be an expert at this.

Barry: Yeah. I could not agree with that more. So often, we feel as professionals, that there’s an issue with clients not providing or not helping us to do our work, but I think a lot of that is exactly what you just described. Needing to manage expectations and help them through the process.

Karl: One of my favourite phrases on that is: if you want someone to do something for you, do it for them.

Barry: The flip side of the coin there is, if you have been really clear and helped them and done–like as you said, given them templates for example for content–that allows you to be quite strong on if the delay genuinely is at their side something’s happened and potentially have a knock on in cost or timetable for the project. But you can’t do that if you haven’t been really clear and really strong all the way through the project.

I’d like to sort of go into that managing expectations side of things as well because building ongoing relationships–and I think there are multiple different ways to do that. And that’s why I sort of use the term ‘building ongoing relationships’ rather than necessarily recurring or retainer models, because some things work really well as an obvious monthly productised service type of concept or a maintenance package or something. But other things are just providing value in a nice, clean repeatable way so that the client keeps coming back for more projects.

Is that a concept that you think fits again with, in terms of like, for example, the strategy level of the type of services that fits within your structure.

Karl: It certainly can. You know, and all this depends on the type of agency you want to run. As I think about agencies I’ve worked with, generally there’s a focus on getting contract based recurring revenue. You know, you have a monthly retainer for 3 thousand a month, 15 hundred a month, 20 thousand a month, something like that. But I do have some clients that focus on more informal relationships.

For instance, I have a client in the north eastern US that does a lot of work with a large insurance company. They have a small retainer with the insurance company but that’s tiny compared to the revenue the company provides and, ultimately it’s a case where the insurance company is big enough and they like the agency so the projects keep coming up and they keep calling the agency, my client, first. That wouldn’t work if the agency didn’t have a good relationship with the client.

So, that’s a case where they’re getting lots and lots of ongoing revenue without a contractual relationship in that same kind of way.

Barry: And the small retainer part of that, do you think that’s a vehicle for them to be that in regular contact? Or is it just a byproduct? Or is it irrelevant to this concept of building that trust and ongoing relationship?

Karl: I think it certainly helps. I mean, they work with people from a few different departments so not everyone is covered by that particular small retainer. But certainly having a retainer makes it easier if someone reaches out and wants help, it’s easier to say yes, because you know you’re going to get paid. Or at least there’s some capacity to get paid. You know, if it’s more one-off, then you’re having something of a sales conversation.

You know, it’s not as in depth as the very first sales conversation you have with someone where they don’t know you, they don’t quite trust you yet. In that case with a returning client it’s more of a question of, ‘What are the details?’

For instance, I just had a call yesterday with a client where I’ve worked with her agency over the past few years, done a variety of types of work with them, and they’ve reached out about getting some new help, we talked through it and, you know, shared some recommendations about next steps from the structure perspective. That’s a case where there’s not a retainer at the moment, but I’m able to help them out.

On the other hand for clients that are in an active coaching relationship, you know if they reach out and need help, well, I’ve structured it so that’s included. So, I think a key consideration is around, you want to be able to say, ‘Yes,’ rather than, ‘Well, we’re going to need to quote that.’

Barry: Is that something as well where, maybe there are situations where we need to say, ‘No,’ or fire the client or make changes that maybe feel uncomfortable?

Karl: Eventually, yes. I’ve developed a free tool that I call the Client Ranking Matrix, I’ll include that for the list of show notes items, and ultimately it’s looking at your existing client line up and you are marking each one based on their current value and their future potential. So, this can be high, medium or low for each of those.

And ultimately the goal is to identify what to do with each of your clients. Out of your existing clients do you want to grow them? Do you want to keep them as is, sort of the status quo? Or do you potentially need to fire them? Or find some way to refer them elsewhere.

And the thing that will surprise a lot of agency owners when they go through this exercise, this is, you know, a free tool on my website, is that oftentimes their most difficult clients are producing very little impact on their business.

You know, you might have a client–I did this exercise with an agency owner in Virginia–they had three particularly difficult clients. One of their difficult clients was only 2% of their revenue and most likely was demanding way more than that from a client/service perspective. They could, if they wanted to, and they built an overall plan, they could fire that client tomorrow with minimal business impact from a financial perspective, yet their team was going to be thrilled immediately. The morale impacts, from a positive perspective, were enormous.

You know, ultimately sometimes you need to make gut decisions. But if you can make data based decisions, that’s generally better. And knowing where you stand in the Client Ranking Matrix will help with that. When it comes time to actually fire people, you know, fire clients, it’ll depend on the particulars of their situation.

Barry: The tool you just described there–to help make that decision, to gather the data–do we need to consider going back to our previous point about, in some cases, some issues with clients are something that we can improve–whether that’s managing expectations or changing the communication process earlier in the project…

Is that something that you–whether it fits into the tool necessarily–but something that maybe people need to think about as agency owners before moving to this thinking about firing decision?

Karl: Well, if things have deteriorated with the current client, there are limited options. When it come to managing expectations, it’s a lot easier with a new client where they’ve never worked with you before, they’re not quite sure what to expect. I am big on managing client expectations. I do a fair amount of public speaking and my most popular topic is all about client expectations. It’s called ‘Don’t just make the logo bigger – creating great client relationships.’

And, if it’s an existing client, you’ve missed the opportunity to set their expectations upfront. It’s a lot easier for new ones. Overall, I would recommend focusing on getting it right as new people come in. Building a structured client on-boarding process so people know what to expect.

Because, you know, if you think about it, depending on your agency, maybe your clients have never worked with an agency before so they don’t know what to expect. Or maybe they’ve worked with a freelancer and it was a different kind of experience. Or maybe you’re working with clients that have worked with agencies before but had a bad experience. Presumably it wasn’t an amazing experience or else they wouldn’t be working with you now. It’s up to you to educate clients about what it’s like to be your client.

And this is a good and a bad thing. You know, ultimately we’re responsible for our client relationships. So, if you have a bad client, often that’s because of bad decisions or lack of decisions that you made along the way. You know, for the most part, this is my view, terrible clients usually are not terrible people. They’re normal people in terrible situations. Maybe their company has lost a lot of their customers. They’re feeling a lot of pressure to get revenue. Maybe they’re working on a project where the predecessor was really delayed. Maybe their predecessor got fired and now they’re supposed to be there to fix things. That’s a ton of pressure on that person. And then you’re going to feel that pressure as the agency because the client’s trying to get things done.

If you can position yourself as as solution to their problems rather than being yet another problem, you’re going to build a much better relationship but it’s up to you. It’s not just going to magically happen.

Barry: I like that, the idea of starting with the assumption that you can help them with that problem rather than, ‘Hey, this is an awkward client.’

Karl: Correct. And for sure some people will never be happy. If you get the sense that they’ll never be happy, it would be foolish to think that you will be the agency that makes them happy.

Barry: So, there’s an incredible amount of stuff there that we’ve talked about and, unfortunately, we don’t have time to dig into so much. Just to finish us off, I would be interested to hear if you have any stories of–from all agencies you’ve worked with–of major transitions or major significant changes that you’ve seen an agency make as they grow–maybe from a small team to grow into a larger team–but using systems like the ones you’ve just described and taking that time to think about the structures and long term value of clients and so on. I’d love to hear if there was a really elaborate story.

Karl: Certainly. You know, but with my client work it’s generally confidential, so I’ll share an anonymised story. Working with a client in the US, when we started working together, this is a few years ago, the agency owner reached out and said, ‘You know, I’m looking to grow but right know I don’t really have a team, I’m not really sure what to do next.’ And so we worked together through coaching for a few months, and ultimately he went from one full time person, him, to 15 full time people over the next year.

Crazy level of growth. From one to 15 people in a year. And one of the key things as we developed a set of systems and processes at the very beginning. And also identified from a values perspective how did he want to grow. And then it was up to him to actually take it from there. His agency has continued to grow.

One of the things we worked on was from a revenue perspective. He was getting referrals from a particular technology firm, and he was at risk of losing the referral relationship and I walked him through a process to figure out how to build relationships with the right people and he is now that service provider’s – one of their number one implementation strategy firms.

So, it’s worked out well. I certainly cannot take all the credit for that. He has a very strong work ethic. You know, it’s certainly a partnered process but, ultimately my goal when I’m working with clients is that they’re going to get way better and / or faster results than if they did it on their own.

Because, you know for the most part, if you’re running an agency, you’re a smart person. You’re taking risks. You’re thinking about important things. My goal is to help people get there faster and better than if they did it on their own.

Barry: And as you’ve mentioned there are a couple of articles and the tool you mentioned and a few other bits and pieces that we’ll include in the show notes on Finally, Karl, if anybody’s listening and wants to reach out to you, or find out a bit more about who you are and the services you offer, where do they go?

Karl: They should go to That’s S-A-K-A-S-A-N-D, the word ‘company’ .com. I have tons of free articles and other advice on the website. In particular, you know, we were talking a lot about getting clients off to the right start for your agency.

I have an ebook, free of charge that gets into that. The ebook is called Don’t Just Make the Logo Bigger – Taking Clients from Painful to Profitable, and you can get a free copy of that when you sign up to my newsletter. So, just look for the newsletter sign up on the site. You’ll get a newsletter a couple of times a month and you’ll get an instant copy of the ebook, which people have said they found very helpful as they’re building client relationships.

Barry: Awesome. And I think I’m going to be digging even more into some of your content because there’s so much valuable stuff you’ve shared there. Thanks again for your time.

Karl: Great to be here! Thanks Barry.