We asked a few dozen agencies to share their most painful client experiences, and more importantly, the advice they’d give to other agencies to avoid them.
Agencies | Nov 5
Eddie Shleyner on July 17, 2018 • 17 minute read
Last month, Databox and Tettra decided to team up on a report that would detail the common challenges marketing agencies face when hiring and onboarding new talent.
Given that people are often the largest cost drivers for agencies, we wanted to learn more about how effective marketing agencies recruit, hire, and onboard new employees.
We began by asking a pool of marketing leaders three simple questions:
Question one: How effectively does your team onboard new people?
As we mentioned above, just 14% of agencies say they’re “great” at onboarding new employees.
Further, 36% of agencies admitted to being “average” in regards to onboarding new hires. [Tweet this stat.]
Question two: How long does it take, on average, for a new hire to go through the official onboarding process?
59% of agencies say it takes more than 3 weeks to onboard a new employee. [Tweet this stat.]
However, the more surprising revelation here is that 11% of agencies say they don’t have a process for onboarding new employees.
Question three: How long does it take, on average, to recruit and hire a new employee?
74% of agencies say it takes between 1 – 2 months to recruit and hire a new employee.
This means it takes more than 3 months to find, hire, and onboard a new employee. Agencies are expending all that time and energy, and yet only 14% say they’re doing a “great” job.
There’s an obvious disconnect, so we teamed up with our friends at Tettra to help clarify it.
In addition to these quantitative responses, we also asked dozens of agency professionals one simple question–what’s the hardest part about onboarding new hires at your agency?
We received dozens of thoughtful replies that detailed the most pervasive challenges faced by top marketing agencies competing for top talent.
Among the responses, we noticed three recurring themes or challenges:
We’ve collated the most valuable responses, including tips for how these agencies are navigating these challenges, below:
New employees struggle to understand clients.
Every marketing agency works with a collection of clients — and every client is nuanced and distinct, unique.
At first, navigating a client relationship can be stressful, even for seasoned account managers and creatives. But as each party grows to trust the other, the relationship becomes lighter, easier to handle. The tension — real or perceived — dissipates over time.
This comfort is earned, of course, not given. It can’t be given. The human condition doesn’t work that way.
“It’s difficult to transfer big-picture knowledge about our clients,” explains Mary Ellen Slayter of ManagingEditor.com. “It’s easy to hand off specific tasks to complete the work, but it’s much harder to communicate years’ worth of knowledge and experience about the organizations we work with.”
Here’s what our other survey participants had to say:
IMPACT Branding & Design
One Challenge: Getting new hires to understand the intricate complexities of project and stakeholder management — especially around highly interactive website redesigns — is tough.
There is plenty of talent out there with passion and experience in executing marketing and lead generation campaigns, but most clients want a website that attracts, converts and delights underlying all that, too — and that involves:
I’ve found that new hires can easily get overwhelmed taking on the website components of our agency engagements, especially if they’ve never been in charge of a website redesign — even a small one — from start to finish.
Mary Ellen Slayter
One Challenge: It’s difficult to transfer big-picture knowledge about our clients.
It’s easy to hand off specific tasks to complete the work, but it’s much harder to communicate years’ worth of knowledge and experience about the organizations we work with.
At our company retreats, we do a deep dive on the history of each active client, sharing as much background about them as possible. This includes personnel quirks, chronic challenges, and big wins — anything that can shape the likely success of our continued support on the project.
One Challenge: The hardest part about onboarding a new employee is trying to catch them up on long-existing accounts.
There’s typically a learning curve that we must go through when it comes to understanding what a client does. When a client has a complex product or service, transfering that know-how to a new employee is difficult.
We normally have an onboarding process that involves reading a lot of documentation as well as attending trainings and earning certifications. That said, sharing a client’s history is — and likely always will be — the hardest part of the onboarding process for us.
One Challenge: We struggle to accurately align our recently hired Sales Development Reps with client projects based on their past experience, background, interests, and aspirations.
demandDrive is a multi-faceted, lead-generation firm with more than 40 clients in various tech industries. We pride ourselves in matching our clients with SDRs who have the same values. That said, sometimes it’s challenging to do this well, especially from the get-go.
To solve the problem, we’ve developed an in-depth interview/vetting process. We also kickoff projects on-site with our clients, ensuring that new hires and clients engage in face-to-face training and knowledge transfer.
One Challenge: The hardest part for us is helping our new hire learn all of the intricacies of a client’s business.
Because we are managing so many moving parts and dealing with a lot of different personalities, we go to great lengths to make sure that everyone working with us understands and appreciates that each client is different.
One Challenge: Our largest challenge with bringing on new employees is the passing off of knowledge and educating them on our services and industry.
We’ve started building out a rigorous education program that think will help with this. It’s become a huge investment, but it will hopefully have a promising return.
One Challenge: Aside from the entire recruiting and hiring process, in the tech agency world, things change and move fast, which is a huge challenge.
Creating standardized onboarding documentation is hard, but keeping that documentation up-to-date and consistent as your processes and technology evolve is even harder.
To address this, the best thing you can do is make sure that you are always keeping your internal processes and documentation current — the moment those changes happen — so that on the eve of a new hire starting, you’re not scrambling to get everything together.
New employees struggle to understand culture.
A company’s culture consists of two main pillars:
1. Values: the concepts that dictate our sense of right and wrong.
2. Practices: the actions we take to reinforce our values.
In many ways, a company’s culture is analogous to an individual’s personality. It’s shaped over time — and the longer it has to settle, the more ingrained it becomes.
Creating a cultural shift takes resolve and a tremendous amount of energy, which is why so many agencies stress the importance of a “good fit” hire. But finding that person isn’t easy.
“The hardest part is properly identifying culture fit,” explains James Stephan-Usypchuk of jsusolutions.com. “It’s difficult to identify culture fit from preliminary interviews. Typically, we see the true fit of the person within the firm after about three or four months.”
Here’s what our other survey participants had to say:
One Challenge: The hardest part is finding the best possible person for the job, which is why we manage each hiring procedure like an online marketing campaign.
First, our team gets together to discuss who we really need next — and what that new person’s job role is going to be. This is our “buyer persona” in the HR procedure.
Next, we make a long-copy sales page, which literally sells the job. It’s usually really creative (with our unique style), and has answers to virtually every question a candidate might ask before applying. Then we create some really funny, really compelling ads for the job, mostly on social media.
This is usually enough to bring in the candidates we really want, but there’s always a short online ‘test task’ right after someone applies. This filters the candidates even more. A good number of people are disqualified here.
After this, it’s the typical procedure: I look at every candidate and reduce the number to about 5 to 10 people. Then we call those people for a quick phone screen, which eliminates all but 2 or 3 people. Then we look at them as a team, and as a final step, meet with them for an in-person interview.
This is how we’ve managed to find the best possible people for every role in our agency.
One Challenge: The hardest part of onboarding a new hire is to make sure we have them in the right seat.
Often, digital marketing hires come with an impressive array of skills, so honing down what they really love to do — and are good at doing — is key to ensuring their success at our agency.
To help identify this, our new hires are given a broad range of work so we can assess their practical skills across the board. Only when we know where they’re going to be able to make the most impact do we begin to assign concrete, long-term tasks and projects.
JSU Solutions Inc.
One Challenge: The hardest part is properly identifying culture fit.
It’s difficult to identify culture fit from preliminary interviews. Typically, we see the true fit of the person within the firm after about three or four months.
We overcome this through a series of systematic filters that we’ve developed in the screening process.
We’ve found a few common denominators by doing this, which allows us to identify the proper culture fit sooner.
Sakas & Company
One Challenge: Getting new employees up to speed on values and expectations is tough but vital. To fix this, it helps to practice the values in the first place.
Beyond that, you should plan on spending time to help new employees get to know the agency itself, not just their day-to-day work. You can jumpstart the process by creating a list of people they should meet for a coffee in the first few months.
One Challenge: We have tried-and-true processes at our agency that help us attract new employees with diverse backgrounds. That said, many new hires aren’t accustomed to following processes for every deliverable.
Teaching these processes — and often requiring that new employees un-learn old habits — is one of our greatest onboarding challenges. We’ve built a robust digital training program that helps facilitate this necessary learning.
One Challenge: We’ve found it difficult to bring new employees up-to-speed with our processes, strategies, and tools.
To alleviate this, we work on introducing the brand to employee, teaching him or her what we do and how we do it.
Once we determine that the employee has the necessary skills, he or she will work on a client project while being supervised by an experienced project manager or account manager. After the first case goes well, if the project/account manager feels the new employee is ready, then he or she will become more independent.
One Challenge: The hardest part about onboarding a new hire is finding the right balance between understanding the agency’s existing systems and structure (e.g., our tool set, our approach to strategy, our communication structure) while still encouraging the confidence and creativity that caused us to make them an offer in the first place.
In the past, we’ve seen creativity stifled by too much process and a lack of appreciation for “coloring outside the lines” by new employees. Now, we are able to avoid that by taking a much more open, mentor-based approach to training new hires.
Our new hires’ first weeks are always the same: focused on helping them understand our agency (e.g., values, structure, systems) and giving them a deeper look into what we do, how we do it, and why.
That last part is extremely important. After that first week, they spend a lot more of their time in the trenches shadowing others and beginning small elements of work themselves. They’re encouraged to ask as many questions as possible and given opportunities to try new things and approach things from their perspective.
Not only has this helped our new hires get off the ground faster with a better understanding of the “Revenue River way”, but it has also led to much more productive, engaged team members who have helped us grow so much faster than we thought possible.
One Challenge: The hardest part of onboarding new hires is finding the time to spend with our precious newbies and nurture them in the ‘Wolfgang Way’.
While we pride ourselves on a strong, collaborative and open culture, we sometimes struggle to allocate sufficient time to helping train and onboard people simply due to the fact that we’re always so busy with client work and projects.
We’re continuously working on building better onboarding processes and have recently introduced a ‘buddying system’ whereby new hires are allocated a single experienced employee to help take them through the ins and outs of the role and some of the idiosyncrasies of working in such a fast-paced, busy agency. It’s always going to be challenging of course, particularly as the ‘buddy’ will likely always have an intense workload of their own, but it’s a step in the right direction towards a more welcoming, caring environment for our greatest assets: our people.
One Challenge: Since all of us telecommute, it can be difficult to help new hires to join the team without ever meeting some of us.
Also, since we all fill so many different roles, it can be difficult to weave a new node into an established network, so to speak, without a certain degree of overlap at first.
Jaxzen Marketing Strategies
One Challenge: Getting new people aligned has definitely been a challenge for us.
We can generate assignments, but ultimately, we want new employees to see the big picture and contribute ideas for how we will accomplish our goals.
We’ve been experimenting with how we can loop them into more decisions and planning, including group content planning and quarterly hackathons. We’re also experimenting with implementing OKRs at our agency as well.
One Challenge: As a self-funded agency, the hardest part is waiting long enough to hire so that it doesn’t eat into profits too much… but not long enough that it puts undue pressure on the new hire to begin implementing out of the gate.
We’ve defined a detailed week-by-week agenda for new hires that keeps them regimented on what to train in and also what needs to be done to be a win-win for the agency. Our old onboarding process was 90 days. We’ve since compressed the onboarding into 6 weeks.
This has improved employee retention and set the right expectations on what to expect while working at Impulse Creative.
New employees struggle to understand technology.
Marketing agencies use technology to stay organized and efficient. Tools like Google Analytics, HubSpot, SalesForce, Facebook Ads, and our very own Databox keep agencies competitive.
But every tool — universal or proprietary — also comes with a learning curve, which can stunt an employee’s productivity.
“The biggest challenge for our agency is making sure new employees are being comprehensively trained in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them,” explains Steve James of streamcreative.com. “They need to understand our internal processes and the main platforms we use.”
Here’s what our other survey participants had to say:
One Challenge: Getting new employees up to speed on HubSpot quickly is a challenge.
The HubSpot certifications are great, but they need more tactical, hands-on experience to really learn how to use the tool.
One Challenge: At PR 20/20, we use systems and processes that track time, projects, and emails. This is intended to make agency life easier, but new employees — especially those who’ve never worked at an agency — have told us that this is one of the more overwhelming parts of getting started with us.
To resolve this issue, an employee created a “getting started” tech guide.
The guide lists the software used around the agency and offers a quick description, when and how to use it, and whether it’s client-facing. We also preview each technology during the first few days, then follow up with employees on best practices once they’ve had a chance to establish more routine familiarity.
One Challenge: The hardest part of onboarding a new employee tends to be training in all of our different service areas.
Our agency offers everything from brand strategy to visual branding, web design, SEO, content marketing, behavioral analysis, and conversion optimization — so there’s a lot of training for a new hire to go through.
Even if a new hire has expertise in a few of these areas, it takes time to ramp them up across our full suite of services.
One Challenge: The biggest challenge for our agency is making sure new employees are being comprehensively trained in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them.
They need to understand our internal processes and the main platforms we use (e.g., HubSpot, Databox, Basecamp) while also getting to know the accounts and their role within those accounts.
It’s about learning tools, strategies, tactics, and client personalities at a steady pace instead of a firehose approach in the first couple weeks.
That starts with internal expectations we set with our team.
One Challenge: Joining a specialist inbound agency requires that new employees are committed to learning new skills.
As a HubSpot agency, new recruits need to not only learn the inbound methodology and our internal processes at Spitfire Inbound, but also how to use HubSpot, Databox and other tools. The challenge that we face is the sheer volume of learning and understanding that is required of a new employee in a short period of time.
To manage this, we have a very structured onboarding process — and each new employee is given a buddy who is not their manager. This is their “go-to” person. As part of our recruitment process, new employees are also required to have the inbound certification before joining the business.
They then have an individualized training program based on their role in the business — and this training program has key milestones.
As a productivity tool, we use Basecamp, where these milestones are set up. The timing of these milestones is important. We know that learning is best retained when it is understood through implementation.
Obtaining the certifications is not about binge training. It’s about being able to put the learnings into practice with our clients. This is why they must shadow existing staff on current clients as well as the necessity to spread the training over the onboarding period. This gives new employees the ability to manage their milestones to suit their learning style.
One universal piece of advice:
Lean on process.
Whether an agency is struggling to help new employees learn its technology, assimilate with its culture, or understand and empathize with its long-time clients, establishing a process — a systematic series of actions — will help.
The overwhelming majority of respondents said that they rely on a tried and true process to onboard new employees. A process that, over time — given the benefit of patience, feedback, and iteration — has evolved to work.
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