I’ve lost clients to big agencies twice in my life.

Sometimes, it’s you doing the taking, acting the part of the piranha in the shallows and sometimes you realize a moment too late that you’ve just been bitten. I wrote about stealing big clients away from big agencies on Monday, so today’s karmic payback.

One of these is one of the clients I stole from a big agency, and no, it wasn’t to the agency I took them away from. And both times, it happened the same way.

Here’s what I’ve found happens, what the warning signs were for us and what we’ve learned from them.

The warning signs are very quiet.

The phone goes silent. Milestones come and go with no input, feedback or sign off from the client that a few short weeks ago was on-board, aligned and ready to be an active partner in the process. There’s no push back or disagreement. There’s just… nothing.

That’s the warning sign.

Silence is accompanied by the arrival of another agency doing something complementary to what you’re doing.

That’s the second warning sign.

The other agency has a big name, has a roster of sexy clients and – most importantly – is packaged extremely well. The work itself is great, but the way they package it is gorgeous. They have a visual system that overlays everything else they do.

They have infrastructure. They can produce things that you simply can’t because you don’t have the systems, the software or the need, frankly, to do what they can effortlessly produce.

They have people. They have the bandwidth to do things that are unnecessary luxuries for you and your small agency. Who has the time to do that much photo searching just for a border on an art board? Come on, is it really all that important? Are they making a decision based on something that small?

They don’t exactly do what you do, but they can do a few parts of what you can do. And you can’t do everything they do. So you figure you’ll do your stuff and they’ll do theirs. But it doesn’t work out that way.

Your gut tells you that something’s about to go and if you’re like me, your gut is always right.

Communication starts breaking down.

They can’t quite give you the feedback that was so simple a few months ago. They’re making abrupt changes to the game plan but they’re not being explained right. You’re not learning about things on the front end, the way you should be – but after they’re done. Which means you’re behind. Which means you’re not on the team.

Is this starting to feel like that break up back in high school? Pretty much. No calls, withdrawn, not the same happy person, feeling estranged, seeing someone else, then the awkward phone call that lasts all of sixty seconds. Awkward for them, that is. We saw this coming for a month. Both times, same thing.

Key Takeaways:

So how do you avoid this happening? Or at least happening with any frequency? What can you do to eliminate the easiest parts?

  1. First, know your sweet spot. This is a very personal choice and you need to decide where you want to limit yourself. I know a few people who are very comfortable creating fluid alliances that let them stretch – with partners – into as many areas as they have connections able to do the work. I happen to like this model. But if you don’t, that’s OK. Just understand the risks.
  2. Second, understand the role of packaging. Does the other agency look nicer than you do? Packaging is gestalt and you are your own Eigen Value. Think of it this way: everything you do must be fundamentally different from the way you would have done it if you were an employee at their company. As an employee, it’s OK to send a vanilla email or a memo – not so, as an agency or consultant. Package yourself.
  3. There’s no time like face time. You need to be able to take the pulse of everything that’s going on at an important client’s location. Sometimes, this isn’t possible. One of my examples was global, with partners in half a dozen countries on opposite sides of the world. Do what you can do to stay connected, if they’re important.
  4. Lastly, over-communicate your process, your milestones and your deliverable exit criteria. Package this carefully. Having no wiggle room doesn’t mean the client will stay, but it makes things very easy to point to when they start missing deadlines.

If you do these four things to the best of your abilities, will it make you super-human? No. Bulletproofing is to be covered in a future blog post. But like looking both ways before crossing the street, it will make you that much safer.

What have I missed?