Halfway through 2017, Asher King Abramson became a partner in Bell Curve, a growth marketing agency founded by Julian Shapiro that April. Asher, who gives growth talks at Y Combinator, Google, and BAMF, worked closely with Julian and their third partner, Neal O’Grady, to turn Bell Curve into a thriving agency.
Since then, they’ve helped grow 50+ companies and have generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue for their clients. In more than one case, Bell Curve was directly responsible for the results that startups used to raise their next round of funding.
But getting to that point wasn’t easy.
The small Bell Curve team was under intense stress when Asher arrived. Clients would message them on Slack at all hours. It got so bad that nights and weekends were the only times they could get their core work done (building funnels, setting up ads, etc.).
Asher estimates that they spent about 80% of their time just managing client communication and only 20% building the content promised to those clients. Not only was that stressful, it prevented them from earning significantly more revenue each month because they couldn’t dedicate more time to their deliverables.
To Asher, the path forward was clear: They had to establish boundaries so that everyone on the team could do their jobs.
Together, the team implemented a three-part plan to manage client expectations, set boundaries, and reclaim their working hours:
- Move project management and client communication to Asana from Slack
- Send clients detailed timelines and checklists for each project
- Screen clients with better questions (to ensure better agency-client fit).
The plan worked spectacularly. Not only did they refocus their work hours on revenue-generating activities (and build in some down time), they increased client satisfaction — while reducing the time spent communicating. Now, they spend only 20% of their time on client management, while they devote 80% to working on their core service offerings.
In our interview, Asher explained exactly how they implemented those changes and shared his advice for other agency owners.
Bonus action list: Get our 2-page PDF summary of action items you can use to reclaim your time based on Asher’s advice.
Clean Up Project Management and Communication Channels
When project management and client communication were all on Slack, the Bell Curve team felt like they had to drop everything whenever a client asked a question. Moving those conversations to Asana had several benefits:
- It was easier to use templates
- There was less pressure to respond immediately to clients
- Conversations could be moved to the relevant project or task instead of being loosely organized in channels.
They set up internal projects and client-facing projects so clients could see general progress — without bugging Bell Curve about every conversation happening around execution and delivery.
Get Client Buy-In
While they didn’t want to present Asana as optional, telling clients bluntly that they had no say in the matter wasn’t an option either. Whenever you implement a major change, it’s important to help clients understand how it benefits them.
Here’s the language Asher used to approach that conversation. “The benefits are that it will let us do our work in batches, which means that we will actually get more work done for you, which means your projects are going to be completed on time more often. We’re happy to still answer your questions, but we’re going to move you off of Slack because we found that we’re actually more productive doing that. You’re going to love that,” he said.
And for about 75% of their clients, just that explanation was enough. They would gently redirect questions from the more resistant clients to the relevant location in Asana. They also added weekly check-in calls for the clients who had more questions.
After 2-3 months, they phased out Slack for everything but internal communication. Now, nearly all of their client communication happens via Asana or during regular calls (for the clients that want them).
“You’re Not Spending Enough Time on Me!”
That’s never a phrase you want to hear from clients. But sometimes, clients mistakenly equate time spent communicating with engagement success. Asher noticed these objections often occurred when his agency’s primary client contact was a junior member. They didn’t always know what to expect, so they didn’t know to focus on outcomes rather than frequency of contact.
Asher recalled one client in particular client who said, “You’re not spending enough time on me!” It came as a surprise because they were getting better-than-average results for the client at a reasonable rate.
His response to that objection was one he’s used several times since then.
“What’s important is the results we’re driving for you. If you disagree with the methodology we’re using and the results that we’re getting from ads, or if you want to just do it yourself, go for it. But you hired us for our expertise and it would probably take you a lot longer to get to this point,” he said.
“By showing her the opportunity cost, as well as the value of what we were doing for her, the conversation took on a whole new tone and the relationship ended up being pretty good,” he added.
Improve Client Communication via Detailed Timelines
When the Bell Curve team moved off Slack, they spent drastically less time communicating with clients. But that didn’t solve all their problems. After all, they still needed a way to ensure that clients knew what to expect from them.
The solution was to set up a detailed timeline that firmly illustrated what they would provide and when. Doing so reduces questions and protects them from scope creep. If clients do need to request a change, they use the timeline to negotiate concessions.
“It was something that the other partners, Julian and Neal, did independently when onboarding different accounts. And they both said, ‘Hey, having a timeline makes me feel emotionally calm around clients,’” he recalled.
So they worked together to draft templates for the timelines. Now, it takes less than fifteen minutes to prepare and send a timeline to new clients.
Estimate Time Needed and Allocate Tasks
Step one for timeline creation? Determining how long tasks actually take.
Since humans tend to underestimate time required for completing anything, Asher adds a 20-50% buffer to initial time estimates. Then, team members track how long it takes them to complete. After multiple people report back on how long a task took, Asher takes that number and adds a 20% buffer for any unexpected setbacks.
Using that process helped the Bell Curve team set up timelines initially, and it’s still helpful whenever they add a new service offering. The times they’ve noted for task completion is what they use to plan out timelines and divvy up weekly work. They use Asana to track how much work has been assigned and to ensure no one has more than a 40-hour work week ahead of them.
As a result, they’re able to deliver on the timelines they provide to clients without getting stressed.
Clarify the Client Review Process
Getting client feedback requires tact. No one wants to ping them any more than necessary, and it’s too easy for them to forget that something’s ready for review.
Timelines allow you to show clients ahead of time when their input will be needed. And if they fail to review something in the given timeframe, you can point to the timeline when they want to know why the project has fallen behind.
For example, Bell Curve might assign the first review of ad copy to be complete by the second Friday of their engagement, and the follow-up review to be complete by the end of the third week. That allows them to start running ads by week four. Clients know that, to get ads running on week four, they need to provide feedback during weeks two and three.
Sometimes clients have unrealistic expectations about what you can complete and when. One of the most common issues Bell Curve had to address was with clients who thought ads could be up and running a week or two from the start of the engagement.
“We’ve found that, inevitably, if we promise ads before the third week of the engagement, it is going to be too rushed. All of the copy, the review of the copy, the design of the creative, the review of the creatives, the targeting, validating the target audiences, and setting up the conversion tracking is a huge bottleneck. All these things go into actually running good ads for a client.”
When clients see a timeline which shows the many steps needed to put together good ads — or any other aspect of growth marketing — they appreciate the product more and argue over deadlines less.
Prevent Scope Creep
If clients ask for more, Asher and his team use the timeline during discussions and negotiations. If they choose to honor the request, they can demonstrate to the client how that request will affect the timeline. Alternatively, they might use the timeline to illustrate how that request isn’t within the scope of the original project.
It’s something they learned how to do the hard way. A timeline could have prevented (or at least mitigated) this situation Bell Curve’s team found themselves in:
One time, Bell Curve accepted a client that needed help identifying their target audience. The client had built a product that got zero traction with their original audience, so they asked Bell Curve to research and test new audiences.
“Because we just did not know better at the time, we brainstormed five different audiences for all sorts of fields — real estate agents, salespeople, churches, neighborhood moms, and college students. They were drastically different audiences, so we ended up doing five times the work that we would do for a normal client because we built five different funnels for them. Even though they only paid for one. It was a huge nightmare,” he said.
Now, they only commit to one funnel per client; if the client wants more than one funnel, they pay extra.
That situation was a classic example of scope creep. But Asher realized that wasn’t the only problem at work. The client slipped in due to inadequate screening questions. Had they realized what they were in for with that client, the team at Bell Curve probably would never have taken them on.
That’s why the third improvement Asher described was how to revise their screening questions.
Want Better Clients? Ask Better Questions
Whenever one of Bell Curve’s engagements went south, they called a team meeting to figure out why. Sometimes, it was because they made a mistake. But over time, they discovered that their most common client issues stemmed from poor client-agency fit.
Asher does a postmortem on every engagement that goes poorly. For example, they might ask, “Why didn’t ads go up on time?” “Oh, the client didn’t review them in a timely fashion.” “Okay, why didn’t the client review them on time?”
The answer might be that Bell Curve didn’t remind them enough. But it could also be that the client didn’t have enough of their own internal resources dedicated to working with Bell Curve. (Asher noted that if a client hasn’t thought out exactly who is responsible for collaboration with you, that’s a red flag. Expect them not to respond in a timely manner until they have a better plan in place.)
Obviously, Asher didn’t want to add so many questions that their screening process scared away prospects. But at the same time, he wanted it to be robust enough to weed out the biggest problem-causers.
To that end, he shared the top three questions that Bell Curve asks every potential client.
Question 1: Do You Have Existing Traction?
Asking that question would have prevented the nightmare situation described above, in which Bell Curve built five very different funnels for the price of one.
If a client doesn’t understand their audience or hasn’t gotten any traction in the market, that could cause major problems down the road. If you’re being judged on the results you get for them, the relationship might not last long.
Question 2: What Upcoming Deadlines Should We Know About?
Unrealistic deadlines can be a dealbreaker if the client isn’t able to budge.
For example, Bell Curve once worked with a mobile app that sold health insurance plans. They were legally only allowed to run ads during the open enrollment period, which put enormous pressure on the Bell Curve team to get as many people as possible signed up before it closed. While the engagement went well in the end, it’s not something they’re eager to do again without plenty of advance notice.
Question 3: How Long Is Your Sales Cycle?
Asher learned the hard way that it’s difficult to work with clients whose sales cycle is “longer than the initial scope of the engagement.”
Why? Because they can’t see the results of your work. And if they don’t see results, it’s hard to justify a continued relationship with you. Are those clients worth the extra stress?
How to Politely Decline an Engagement
Inevitably, there are clients that Bell Curve turns down due to poor fit. Most of the time, they will kindly explain why they don’t think the engagement would work.
For example, “if we think that they would harangue us with Slack messages or try to micromanage us, we might say, ‘We don’t think we’re a good fit. We think you actually have a lot of expertise in-house and you want more control than we’d be able to give,’” Asher said.
And if they’re afraid that isn’t tactful enough, they will use the old “We just filled our last space” line. Thanks to their lead volume, that’s often true: they’ll reject clients with poor fit and simultaneously accept more promising clients.
Changes Anyone Can Make
The above changes — moving to Asana from Slack, giving clients detailed timelines, and revamping screening questions — revolutionized Asher’s work environment.
Bell Curve stays on top of all these practices by scheduling weekly meetings on Friday afternoons, since that’s the quietest time for them. During those meetings, they assign tasks for the upcoming week, conduct client postmortems, and discuss longer-term topics. They’ve also added in weekly team meetings and one-on-ones to catch problems earlier and make sure employees have the resources they need.
“We’re able to take on more clients. We have a better sense of how many hours it will take for an engagement so we know whether we can sign a new one. And we have time to think about how to improve things. We didn’t have time for that before,” he said. “It’s just night and day.”
Bonus action list: Get our 2-page PDF summary of action items you can use to reclaim your time based on Asher’s advice.