2020.

That’s all you need to say now.

As you soon as you say “2020” people immediately start shaking their heads and sighing. 2020 means stress, uncertainty and a bumpy road ahead.

We started the Watchful podcast in February, so we’ve been talking with agency owners throughout the pandemic. We’ve heard the questions and the difficulties. But we’ve also heard answers and solutions. Agency owners are surviving and sometimes even thriving.

Here are 10 tips we’ve learned from Watchful agency owners this year, about how to keep sane in crazy times.

#1. Have a release / update window

In a recent episode of the Watchful podcast, we spoke with Jennifer and Teresa from the Red Sage agency. They manage a network of over 200 client sites. Many of these sites are for hospitals and other organizations who can’t afford site downtime.

Red Sage avoids downtime for these important sites by having very clear release processes and windows. For them, it’s much more important to update successfully than quickly.

We have release windows here at Watchful too. You will never see an update to our apps or plugins on Friday, or the weekend. If something goes wrong, we don’t want to inconvenience our users or staff during their time off. We’re also building features such as the Auto-update scheduler to make this easier for everyone.

Why not create a window for all your updates and site launches? Perhaps Monday through Thursday, 8AM through 3PM?

#2. Prioritize recurring revenue over single projects

In almost every episode of the podcast, I’ve asked guests this question:

What is your revenue split between one-off sales and recurring revenue?

Most commonly the answer is “50/50”.

However, there was a very strong link between recurring revenue and success during the 2020 pandemic. Podcast guests who have 75% to 80% of their income from recurring revenue are feeling more confident and are even growing right now.

One-off sales are great. But for your own well-being, look at those projects as lead generators for ongoing work / maintenance contracts.

#3. Develop relationships with freelancers

One key goal for all our businesses (and yours, I’m sure) is to provide really good, full-time jobs to our staff. We all want to create solid jobs that our team members can rely on.

However, not all tasks require full-time employees. And taking on extra payroll before you’re ready is a common mistake that many companies make.

We’ve made a deliberate decision to hire freelancers on platforms such as Upwork and Codeable. We’ve been using some of these freelancers for years, and have built up relationships with them. They record video, edit podcasts, and build some features for our plugins. So long as the task is clearly defined, these freelancers are trustworthy and help keep Watchful, and agencies, running smoothly.

#4. Fire your worst client each year

Better yet, refer them to your competitors.

This sounds like a joke, but it’s really not. It’s an exercise in setting your bar high. Look at your worst client and make a list of reasons why they are a headache. What boundaries are they pushing? Can you improve your processes to moderate their attitude, or is it really time to say “goodbye”?

#5. Document your processes!

Throughout the first season of the Watchful podcast, one book kept coming up in conversation: “The Checklist Manifesto“. On the surface, it’s a book about how doctors avoid mistakes. But as you keep reading, you realize it’s a guide for everyone. We all make mistakes, even with tasks we’ve done a million times before. In fact, experts often make more mistakes because they’re over-confident.

The solution is carefully documented workflows, with checklists to remind you of all the key steps. Nicola Fleming was one podcast guest with a particular focus on processes. That careful documentation allows her to manage a large clientele as a one-person agency.

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#6. Schedule “Do Not Disturb” hours

I could go on about this point forever. Managing your phone really is a key difference between feeling mentally healthy and feeling frazzled.

I set Do Not Disturb hours on my phone, between dinner time every night and breakfast time the next morning. If you add family and critical vendors (data center, web host) to your favorite list, they will still be able to ring you after hours.

Alternatively, you can run all your business communications through Google Voice or another VOIP service. If you do this, you immediately know if an incoming call is business or personal.

Some agencies refuse to give out their personal phone numbers to customers. It’s up to if you want to go that far, but there’s a lot to be said for making sure that all work communication has to go through official business channels.

#7. Train your clients with billing

It is easy to tell customer that you are not available 24/7, 365 day per year. But in some situations, you may want to make yourself available, particularly if there’s an emergency. One solution we’ve head from agencies is to charge more outside of normal work hours. Here’s a real-life pricing structure from a Watchful user:

  • Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm: $100 per hour
  • Monday to Friday, after hours: $150 per hour
  • Weekends or holidays: $200 per hour

This allows your customers to reach you if it’s an important issue, but also trains them that to make sure the issue is really important.

This is the same pricing approach used by plumbers, locksmiths and other repair companies. If it works for them, it can work for your agency.

#8. Look to work with bigger customers

It’s an inevitable fact that small business work long and strange hours. They are often scrambling to get their business started, or holding down a second job while they launch. They may work all day serving customers, and then only have time for website / marketing work in the evening. Small business life can be crazy and it often has little work-life balance.

We’ve found that agency life is calmer if you’re working with larger companies. The people in these companies often have a 9-to-5 attitude. It’s not their company. They are not the owners. They don’t need to stress themselves, working late into the evenings. In some cases, we’ve even had customers who are not allowed to work outside of 9-to-5, to stop them earning overtime pay.

#9. Keep fresh backups

If you don’t have a recent backup, it is not a good idea to update your site or make any major changes.

Watchful can send you notifications if your site hasn’t been successfully backed up for a certain length of time.

If you know 100% for sure that your sites have been backed up in the last few days, you can sleep soundly at night.

#10. Take your summer vacation as normal

We’re coming into the summer months in Europe and North America. If you’re used to taking time off in the summer, please don’t skip it this year, if at all possible. Your mind and body will thank you.

Over to you …

At Watchful our mission is to help agencies be happy and successful. We hope this advice gave you some good ideas.

Do you have any advice that helps you stay sane while doing agency work in 2020? Let us know in the comments below.

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2 Replies to “10 Ways to Improve the Work-Life Balance of Your Agency”

  1. You’ve just gotta love ‘#4 Fire Your Worst Client Each Year’! Priceless. Fortunately the difficult clients seem to create ‘difficult business’ and don’t tend to survive the long haul, so by natural decline they drop off the client list. Woo hoo.
    I agree with the ‘#6 Do Not Disturb’ idea and have achieved this another way, using ring tones in my mobile. For my personal contacts I have a different ring tone than my default ring tone which is for business/everything else. That way I can still screen calls, and infact I only have to hear it ring to know whether it’s a personal friend/family, I don’t even have to look at it. Works for me!