The larger a company grows, the less personal relationships with customers become. Leaders trade unique touches for replicable processes.
Before long, those workflow improvements (while efficient) leave customers feeling less like people and more like sources of income.
My agency started with just a handful of employees. Today, our team consists of 38 full-time employees, and we recently appeared on the Inc. 500 list. The growth has been great, but we have been careful not to let it prevent us from providing the personalized service that got us here in the first place.
What makes small companies so valuable?
Clients love small businesses because of the personal attention they receive from them. Big agencies in our industry offer premade packages, yet smaller operations seem to go the extra mile to create customized solutions or talk about creative possibilities. I wanted us to keep that small-agency feel no matter how big we became, but to do so, I had to take an active role in managing and growing our culture.
I quickly learned that the key would be trust. When there were only a few of us, it was easy to keep track of what everyone was doing. We could provide advice and bounce ideas off each other because we were always familiar with the context.
As we grew, individual employees became less knowledgeable about their colleagues’ projects. We could still trade ideas, but it became the individual’s responsibility to take ownership of a relationship and provide that next level of service.
At this tipping point, most big agencies create workflow processes to make sure nothing gets left behind. That works to minimize mistakes, but it also puts a cap on how creative or effective any individual team member can be. If we wanted to provide the small-agency feel as we grew, I had to trust my employees to deliver.
Our team members are a major reason we have successfully maintained a small business feel, but they aren’t the only reason. We have deliberately focused on the kinds of services that small businesses need rather than changing our offering to compete with more all-inclusive agencies.
For example, small agencies tend to provide more detailed reporting and more thorough plans than larger agencies. This focus on quality over quantity empowers us to provide more creative ideas and customized services. Where big agencies focus on dollars per client or per hour and have rigid roles, we leave room for flexibility so that our people can respond to needs and pursue opportunities without shepherding requests through artificial channels.
This level of customization, speed, and creative power carries more upfront costs than a prepackaged marketing menu would. However, that’s exactly why it works. Big businesses become so preoccupied with minimizing costs and maximizing profits, that they make cuts to the systems than enable them to provide the things their customers want and get the results they need.
How to keep a big company small
Our experiences in the agency world are not unique to one industry. With a similar strategy, any company can replicate our success. Follow these four tips to maintain that small business feel no matter how big your company grows.
1. Give your employees autonomy
Founders of small businesses can become accustomed to having the last say on everything that happens. As you grow, though, that culture turns into a bottleneck that limits the amount of work you can do.
Rather than solve this problem by stifling your team with processes, give your employees the time and creative breathing room they need to come up with customized solutions for individual cases. Avoid unnecessary deadline pushes by communicating with employees and clients regularly about project scope, but don’t get too nosy. You hired the employees to do a job, so step back and let them do it.
2. Keep workloads per employee small
Smaller workloads keep pressure low on individual team members, which allows them to put more time into each account. That might sound costly, but we’ve found the opposite to be true. By keeping workloads small, we have increased retention and maximized the lifetime value of each client.
Reducing team stress isn’t just good for the clients; it’s also good for the employees. Modern business culture, especially American startup culture, glorifies hard work at the expense of individual well-being. Unfortunately, this mindset leads to lower productivity and unhealthy, disengaged employees. Buck the trend by giving employees workloads that allow them to dig in and make decisions based on adding value, not eliminating stress.
3. Don’t sell packages
This is especially relevant for agencies, but it translates across many industries: Do not prepackage services. Allow the needs of the client to dictate the services rendered, not the other way around.
Many companies offer bundles because they feel the need to justify their fees. They cram several options into packages and associate higher prices with more services. This puts the needs of the client behind the comfort of the business.
Packages also limit the ability of team members to provide the unique services that would do the most good in different situations. If the client wants a different billing cycle, campaign structure, or another variable, we make it work. That’s what a small company would do.
4. Focus on relationships
Do everything you can to form stronger bonds with your customers. Feature team members and customers together on social channels, highlight successful projects, and invite clients to participate in your business outside of their financial contributions. The closer those relationships become, the more likely your customers will be to stick with you—so long as you don’t create processes that disrupt those relationships.
It’s key to promote people—not the brand—on social media to create more personal relationships with clients from a distance. When clients can see and read about the people with whom they work, they feel emotional connections that can be invaluable when contract renewal time arrives.
A growing company doesn’t need to sacrifice the perks of scrappy small businesses. My company has experienced the same growing pains as other companies, but our commitment to keeping that small company feel has prevented us from allowing our struggles to dictate how we do business. As we continue to grow, we will lean on these principles to ensure that people—not processes—always come first.