Tyler Pigott, Principal of Lone Fir Creative, joins us to talk about a major agency recovery he lost 50% of the agency’s revenue in a 30 day period. We talk about sticking to a sales process, consolidating tool investments, building the right team, in other lessons learned in saving the agency.
Hi folks, my name is Kevin Dunn and welcome to Agency Unfiltered. A bi-weekly web series and podcast that interviews agency owners around agency operations, growth, and scale. Nobody knows how to scale agencies better than those that are already doing it, and they're happy to share an unfiltered look into what has worked and what hasn't. Joining us today is Tyler Pigott, Principal and Chief Growth Officer of Lone Fir Creative. In 2017, his team was seeing tremendous success, growing 10x with growth in team size, revenue, and profit, but in early 2019 they lost half of their revenue in a 30-day period. Tyler talks to us about the lessons learned and the actions he took to recover his agency in this time of crisis around his sales process, his tech staff, and his hiring process. Agency Unfiltered starts right now.
KD: Tyler, welcome to Agency Unfiltered, we're psyched to have you here.
TP: Yeah, thanks for having me.
KD: I think this is going to be a great episode, at your expense cause you've had a ton of different learnings and a unique struggle that you had to overcome and so, excited to unpack that, but before I get to my question-asking just, for everyone, just set the table. What happened with Lone Fir and kind of what, you know, set the stage for us.
TP: Totally, well we, I would say kind of early on, so we grew too fast, like we brought in clients too fast I should say. And so, we essentially 10xed from January 2016, no, January 2017 to January 2018. As far as bottom-line books, revenue, we 10xed what we were at, which is great. We started small, so numbers weren't massive for where we were at, but we had to figure out like hey man, how are we going to keep up with this? How are we going to execute these services? And so yeah, I mean that kind of got us to January 2018 and then really, probably from lets see, beginning of February 'til beginning, middle of March we lost half of our agency revenue. So it was like all the retainer clients. We still had stuff coming in, but it was like five phone calls from clients within a 30 day period. They were like hey, we're either we got acquired, so they don't use anymore. We're not going to renew our contract, we want to break our contract, we hire someone internally. So wasn't all stuff that was like, hey, you guys suck, you guys are really bad at this.
KD: It wasn't like performance based necessarily.
TP: Yeah not all of it, some of them yeah. It was like man we could have done a better job and obviously you can always improve stuff and so that was a 30 day window of oh crap. Can I say crap? I did say crap on the air.
KD: Only crap. That's where we draw the line on Agency Unfiltered.
TP: Yeah, totally. So anyway, I was like oh man, what are we going to do? This is a little bit a disaster because at that point we were, and I'll get into some of this I'm sure, but at that point we were subcontracting out a lot of services, we had one other employee, myself, and a host, or a pool of 1099 contractors. They're executing it. Some of that was easier to kind of phase out of and not because you weren't on the hook for a huge payroll or anything which was great and saved us honestly, but was also some of our pitfall. So that's kind of a disaster of the beginning of 2018, which at this recording time was not that long ago now. I remember it pretty well. I lost a lot of sleep for that season.
KD: I can imagine. Okay, in a 30-day window, everything comes crashing down, half of your revenue, what's the attack plan?
TP: It was important to not just think about it a lot and kind of go okay, what we do now? Which was a lot more of like a, more that I would, reflecting on it with a lot more of like, okay let's hit the drawing board like how are we going to do this again? And what do we do to change that and what did we learn from that and what did we, where are the red flags that popped up that I can talk to now after we've kind of digested and processed it, but in that moment, I wouldn't have known. So a lot of it was like, okay so maybe those clients weren't the right fit in the first place? And so you know what that attaches to? Probably your sales process, that cycle and prospecting and finding new clients and stuff and where does that fit? So that was part one of where does that work and then the second aspect of that is the execution of the services. How are we doing those and where are we doing those the most efficiently or effectively for us and how we work with clients? Looking back on it now, we weren't.
KD: Let's focus on the sales piece first. So I don't want to say Black Monday. Black January is what it was or whatever the 30 days were.
TP: February 25th to March 26th.
KD: That's what it was, gotcha. Like I know the dates, the hours, the minutes, yeah. So coming out of that, what specifically did you look back on in regards to your sales process, the way you identified clients, good fit, bad fit, like what specifically has changed since then?
TP: Yeah, no that's a great question. As far as the specific things that have changed, I went through the boot camp with David O'Hanis and the entire, awesome stuff. But it's not really that awesome unless you actually do what the boot camp trains you to do, right? So we kind of tweaked that into our own style, but really we didn't have a great sales process to be completely honest and transparent about, like we just didn't have one. We'd get on the phone with a client, we would dive through connect call, discovery call, all this stuff down the strategy and then they'd ask for a proposal. It's honestly probably pretty standard for a lot of agencies, but that doesn't leave any time for really vetting out and almost the two-way interview of like, hey are you going to be the right fit for us and did they make enough money to even pay us, are they going to bail because they're a startup and we didn't really understand that, or whatever the situation is? So we had to kind of like, okay what is our process and how are we going to follow it? And I wish I could say, a year and a half later, that we've totally figured it out, but man we're a lot further along in that and so we started developing playbooks and actual specific, I like to talk and I like to learn about clients and I like to strategize and so my mind wants like, dive into that on call one, so it's been a discipline for me. I was handing over a sale, totally.
KD: Yeah, pullback.
TP: Yeah, pullback and stick to the script. Not robotic, but stick to the script enough to where, hey we got a natural lead into that next call is and then next call next call.
KD: It's interesting, right, because the way you've kind of outline it, okay you prospect, then you connect, then you discover dive in strategy, whatever it is, I would say for the majority of agencies that might be considered a sales process, but you're saying well we actually didn't have a defined sales process. So, my question I guess is what's the distinction? Is it having steps or to your point, is it just making sure you attach scripts to steps in sticking to those scripts? Is there any additional distinction that you would say?
TP: Yeah, I think it's like a combination, right? It's like the scripts and questions you're going to ask in each of the different phases and so ours, great this is a HubSpot deal where we've got deal stages that are mapped out that are in correlation with each of our steps and we've got playbooks that get attached to each of 'em, we have specific questions that kind of lead to next thing and the next thing. And so I would say is like a combination of sticking to those steps and sticking to those questions and so that we will make sure that we're checking those boxes next to each of those different sets of questions for each of the different phases and we're not, if a client wants to jump to the end and give enough information, great. We're not going to run five phone calls, we're going to run two or whatever. But for the most part, yeah we're trying to stick to those kind of scripts and playbooks and those questions that are naturally leading from one thing to the next and that's been really a big deal for us because it's helped us also stay really organized. Most of the time, oh yeah we got a sales process. Okay cool, there's prospect three or four or whatever that name of them is. Well where are they at? Oh they're somewhere in the middle. Oh, that's not helpful.
KD: If there's gray areas that means there's not a process, yeah.
TP: And so we've tried really hard to kind of figure that out and again we're constantly learning and evolving and figuring it out, but yeah that's kind of our mix as far as kind of the process we run.
KD: What would you say is the most impactful or important question that you ask now to clients that you didn't ask in the old processless sales process?
TP: Yeah, that's a great question—a single question? Honestly, I feel like it's just sticking to a question theme and maybe asking it—
KD: Like, a piece of information that you're trying to attract?
TP: Yeah, it's like that piece of information and it's like, what is the problem you're trying to solve? Like what as a client, that's coming to us, what are you actually trying to solve for? because sometimes it's oh I'm ready to run an email campaign, I need a new website redesigned or new or whatever, it's like, no, but really know what is the problem that you're trying to figure out and it's different everybody, but so we push really hard to figure that out because then we know that we've got something to connect back to even six months into the agreement or 60 days into the agreement, whatever. And so we push for that a lot harder than we used to. I think we used to just kind of go, oh they came to us for a reason, awesome let's do it.
KD: Oh we do that.
TP: Yeah, totally, and sure there's some clients that that's really the extent of it, but there's others that it's like, we're talking to one right now where they want lead generation, and we're like, well okay, so what does that mean to you? What kind of leads, how many leads? It's just like you're diving in further into that topic, show that you understand how to build a strategy around it rather than have connect points back to it.
KD: Sounds like you're just trying to tie whatever activities they're looking for you to do to a business objective. That's meaningful, right?
TP: Exactly. I mean, it is a lot more around business objectives and a lot less around marketing activities and tactics and campaigns and kind of stuff and a lot of that's because the business owner or the marketer or the salesperson, whoever we're talking to in the organization, they get the business objective because that's usually coming down from high above, their supervisors or it's something they come up with. They don't necessarily know the best way to execute it. Because they're not doing it everyday. Day in, day out, hour in, hour out. And so that's where it's like super helpful to reverse engineer kind of hey, what's the actual problem trying to solve and then let us help you figure out what the tactic is to get there, which is kind of I would say we focus on that a ton, and then we stick to like, everybody asked, hey what's your budget? And then I pry pretty hard for that. It's like, well we don't have or we're trying to figure it out, I go, great. So, if I came to you and said it's going to be you know $10,000 a month like what would your reaction to that be? Oh my gosh, that's too high or yeah that's--
KD: So you do have a budget?
TP: You do have a budget, yeah and then I go ahead and go down the route I'm really, I'm pretty stiff, you can obviously tell, but I'm really soft about it as far as just trying to like, I'm just fishing a little bit to kind of go, hey what is the reality of what they're willing to pay for and it's not so I can go top of the budget and get more money from them, but it has to kind of go they're expecting a website redesign for 500 bucks and I'm great--
KD: It's part of the qualification process. There has to be line minimum of the cost and the value of the—
TP: Right, whereas in the old days we would have just gone, hey what's your budget? We don't really have one. Oh okay, cool.
KD: I mean that was it, yeah.
TP: Which is not helpful.
KD: And we'll just come to the table with a proposal.
TP: Exactly and then you spent however many hours on that process and they just say, well we're expecting to spend $500 and you just did a $15,000.
KD: Right, and you wasted all that time.
TP: Totally. And so we're trying to kind of go through that connect call process and I ask those questions early on and I think it's fair to ask 'em and most people appreciate it when you do kind of spell it out a little more and some people bail because it's too high at the end even though they said it was at the beginning. You can't control that.
KD: So you mentioned one of the key issues right of that month, February to March, I don't remember, but, okay we're probably working with the wrong fit client. So once you put more work and shape and like adherence to a sales process, what percentage of clients that were navigating through or the total amount, like what are the intentional, turn away or transition out, like how did that increase, was a large percent, large amount of clients? Like how many people did you actually begin filtering out of your sales process with kind of these new guardrails in place?
TP: Honestly, I bet it's probably like 40 to 50% over the last year and I think a lot of it's just because we just asked different questions up front and it's not necessarily, I guess I shouldn't say different questions, it's more like we're just digging a little bit further and so then they give us their actual answer and we're going to tell ya if you're not the right fit and we're not going to discount our services because that's just a real rough way to start retainer with a client. And so it's like we'll try, we'll subtract things, well we really want that, well, okay well it's going to cost as much. Well we can't pay that much. Okay well, we might not be the right fit to move forward with. You just kind of have those conversations. So I think we are more sensitive to gut-feeling too. We do everything as our agencies are 100% remote. So we did everything with video meetings. So if a prospect wants to be a long-term engagement and they will not show themselves on video, that might not be the right fit so that's like a red flag that we've got on our kind of filter of red flags that we probably don't want to work with you. That's like a little thing, but the same time like, that's just how we function and so if you're not going to function that way and you don't fit with us, then we're probably not the right partnership--
KD: It's not good or bad. It's just that's just how it's going to work.
TP: Right, yeah so we have a list of those things that we try to go through. So I'd say yeah, 40 to 50% of people that kind of, we turn away, the other percentage we're going to let go down the road a little bit or all the way depending on how we go.
KD: Just to level set, who owns, or how many people are involved in sales for your agency?
TP: Yeah, so I do all of our sales right now and we're kind of shifting really over the last two months, shifting into bringing strategist into that process, bringing designers into that process, just as we've gone through a connect call, part of thee discovery scenario, and then we're bringing people in and a lot of it honestly has been to give the clients, obviously they get a better understanding of what we do and ask better questions but a lot of it's to get clients hey it's not just the Tyler show. That's the only guy you see and you see these other people on the website which is great but there's more people in the mix and there's going to be a lot better people that I am a designer, development, or whatever in the mix and so we're trying to start bringing in more like, I'm not going to call it team sales, but it's more like—
KD: Fresh perspectives.
TP: Yeah, totally. And then makes the job for my cycle easier because I've got more brains around like, how are we strategizing this, what do we do, got any ideas?
KD: It sounds early in that process, but have there been any lessons learned? Okay, stick to the script, stick to the sales process, holding yourself accountable, but now you're going to have to hold a team accountable. Any lessons learned so far in training them on the process and training them to stick to the process?
TP: I would say at this point I still tee everybody up, so I'm still owning that whole relationship with the client on top of it. We've been working a couple clients in the last month and a half and right now we're kind of doing I'm selling and then a strategist comes in or team member comes in, and then that person will stick with the client for like the first 90 days, as well as like a strategist or like project manager that they're going to like run with for a long time. So it's like a lot smoother of a transition. We didn't have the best process for that transition ironed out on day one as far as this is what happens, this is the expectation that we have from an agency perspective as well as what the client have. So I'd say the first one, the first couple that we did weren't crashes burns, like we're still working with it. There's a lot we learned from it though.
KD: Yeah there's some friction you can remove from it.
TP: Yeah yeah, so all that being said, we have gone a lot more into building a process for everything so it's not just shoot from the hip, and this client has this size of a retainer so these are things that, yeah let's just do that. Well, six months into the retainer, you're not doing that anymore, you're barely touching it because you're only working on the stuff that's moving or that you're paying attention to that's up front. So we've worked a lot on just developing process, documenting everything.
KD: Got it. Hard pivot from sales. Now I think the other half of your battle plan right the recovery plan was service delivery and I think changing the way you delivered services, driven results your clients. So, what are the big takeaways? What did you focus on, what were the big boulders that you had to fix or crack through?
TP: Yeah, that's a good question. I mean honestly it was a team dynamic and who was servicing it. That was the biggest challenge and I think that a lot of people have gone the like 1099 or contractor route or subbing out to other agencies and stuff. I think that the pitfall or the error that we made was advocating that authority. So it's like, it's like we are advocating the ownership of it. It's like we were giving it away to another agency, but expecting them to have that same level of ownership that we did with the client. Ain't going to happen. It just doesn't work that way and so then like, level of attention to the client and they weren't interacting with clients necessarily, but they were not aware of the urgency of getting something done or hours required or the expectation of excellence we wanted.
KD: It was their timeline not yours?
TP: Absolutely, and then a lot of times we're using their project manager tool or something and so we were just all spread around and so we now don't, if you're going to work with us, you're working in our project management, our whole environment and ecosystem, you're working in that or you're not working with us. Whether you're a partner that we're having that's helping us do some development or something or your contractor or you're an employee, you have to work in that environment or it doesn't work. So I'd say like that piece was a huge learning lesson as far as just advocating, not really pay attention to, but just passing off that responsibility and so we can't pass that off any longer obviously. So that was a big piece and then we've pivoted from that.
KD: What does the partnerships with contractors, other agencies, like what does it look like now, now that you require them to come into your systems?
TP: Yeah, we don't do a lot where we sub out to other agencies any longer. We used to do that a fair amount and some people do, it works great. We haven't had a great track record with it. It's probably our fault, not theirs. I'd say as far as just what it looks like now, our expectations with work with other contractors, we're covering most of the contractors into full-time employees and so they're 100% working on our business, our clients, our books of business, and really their books in business that they're managing. That has been the biggest pivot over the last six to eight months has just been bringing people on board and not relying nearly as heavily on contractors. So example, we used to farm out all of our development, and now we've got contractor that's managing a lot of the development and then they are working with outside resources and we're trying to hire them right now, trying to bring them on full-time and that's just because we want somebody internally that's handling, that's owning that. It makes our team better, the delivery's going to be better, the client's going to be more satisfied. So it's all a huge win across the board for that.
KD: What's the biggest difference between hiring a contractor that you've worked with previously, trying to convince them to come full-time versus a candidate that you found that you're bringing in first time from just a completely organization, what's the biggest difference?
TP: Totally. I would say, comfort level around, I mean if I've done five projects with you already, we already understand how each other works.
KD: Speed of delivery...
TP: Yeah, and I know what your quality work is, there's no guessing. Even though in some of our interview and hiring process we've got tests involved, situational stuff that they're running through, but it's not the same because I haven't worked with them. So I'd say that's the biggest difference is it's easier to bring somebody on that's done a couple projects with you in the contractor role. It doesn't mean that that's what we do entirely, but that's easier, probably because--
KD: I mean you already qualified their level of work, their ability...
TP: They're already on the inner circle. They are part of the family.
KD: We've talked about your systems a couple times. Do you want to give a plug to your project management tool? What tools seem to work really well for you? What systems do you lean on pretty heavily? Anything in particular?
TP: HubSpot obviously, the HubSpot CRM, Google Suites, we use all their tools, Slack, Asana, and all those tend to talk together. That's kind of our battle sweet I suppose.
KD: So, I have one final question for you, but before we even get there is there anything else, lessons learned? We talked a little bit about sales, we talked a little bit about service, as you kind of navigated and made the recovery plan, any other lessons learned that I wasn't able to articulate in a question?
TP: Yeah, no that's good, a good one. A lot of lessons. One of the other things that I've hit on when I talk to other people about this in our kind of recovery was software and so every agency you talked to for the most part has a fairly significant budget toward software. So they're demoing new products, they're trying new things, they've been talked into buying stuff that they shouldn't have bought, whatever it is, and so they'll spend thousands of dollars a month, 10s of thousand dollars a month on software tools and, but what we've learned, so did that and we, I would say waste a lot of money and expected tools to kind of solve our problems, and so, we've kind of changed too, we don't bring a whole, we don't really bring any tools on that we don't have a process we're trying to solve for or an existing tool in place that this one maybe better than. So we brainstorm and figure out how we become better or become more efficient so we can go out and hire that softwarer to make us better at that process or that system that we're trying to implement. I just feel like there's a lot of money that's wasted in software and that's--
KD: Were you on the wrong side of that coin at the beginning?
TP: Yeah yeah, we wasted a lot of money on a project management tool that we kind of expected to like, oh this is going to make us so much better. No, it's not because it didn't come with, there's no project manager it comes with that has this process. And so, that's a good example, product management's a great example because so many project management tools out there and they all have their different tint and their different style and like some people with Scrum and Agile, well great. There's a specific tool set that's great for that. Other people are points-based. Well there are specific tools for that. Other people are somewhere between ours, whatever. And so it's great to know what your process or your system is or your management style or your project management style and then find the tool that fits for that versus, oh like just great, let's do it! Well it sucks if you're not running Agile Scrum. It's clunky and doesn't work that great. But if you're running that type of business, then it's awesome and so it's kind of, again back to you figuring out what's your style process you're trying to solve and then hiring that software to do.
KD: Yeah so, develop the process first, be intentional about which offer is going to unlock or enable that process, don't just chase the shiny objects.
TP: Yeah, because most agencies that are wasting money on tools are buying the software and then they're having to allocate hours, man hours and resource to figure out how to use the software and then okay now how do we integrate this--
KD: And it might not even be the right tool to begin with.
TP: Yeah, they would have no idea.
KD: Final question for you. I ask this to every guest. What's the weirdest part of agency life?
TP: The weirdest?
KD: Absolute weirdest.
TP: Honestly, I feel like the weirdest part's customer conversations and some are just hilarious. Some you get off the phone and you're just like, what did they just ask me to do? Everybody's different and it's the people component that's always the weirdest. The questions you get, the people that think that their business is so unique, but you're like dude I've talked to three people in the last hour that are the exact same really. Maybe there's a different word for the same. I think it's the people component, the client component. I think the people put on our team, I've got a designer on our team and I asked her hey what do you want to do in like three years or something? You have no idea where that question goes even the interview process or whatever and she's like, I really have had this dream of opening a tattoo parlor and I'm like, hm, that's awesome. I did not have any expectation you would say that. Like I have no idea you're going to say, but that's like so far left field. So I feel like the people aspect is like the weirdest and that's probably like the dumbest answer.
KD: No, that fits the bill.
TP: I feel like it's just weird.
KD: Just of the range of personality types and people that you get to interact with and come across is just, it's just unlike any other. Well that's it, that's all I have for it. So I really appreciate you coming on, and that's it. That's been Agency Unfiltered.
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