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The Question You Aren’t Asking (But Should Be)

January 9th, 2014 - by Brett Derricott - Salt Lake City, Utah

It’s not uncommon for prospective clients to tell us they’re looking for a new agency because the last one let them down. The reasons vary, but not by much:

  • The agency didn’t hit deadlines
  • The client wasn’t happy with the creative
  • The cost far exceeded the promised price
  • The technology developed didn’t meet the client’s needs

Each of these could be (and at some point may be) the topic of its own article, but collectively these reasons all boil down to missed expectations. At Agency Fusion we’ve learned to avoid missed expectations by following a principle. I wish I could say we understood this principle beginning day one (2003) but in truth it’s a principle we’ve learned through experience. The (somewhat wordy) principle is this: The degree to which success is clearly defined at the outset of a project determines the degree to which success can be expected at completion.

Most agencies are experienced enough to spend some time in discovery or planning at the beginning of a project. They’ll ask the client questions to try to make sure the scope of work is clear and that the specific deliverables are defined. The client happily answers these questions and tries to communicate their need clearly. There is an abundance of communication at this stage which feels very productive and reassuring. This is when it’s fun to say, “Great! Let’s get to work!” But the most important thing, success itself, is rarely well-defined.

Deliverables get defined but deliverables don’t guarantee success. Schedules are created but schedules, even when met, don’t guarantee success. Plans and strategies and scopes, although critical, don’t guarantee success either. Success is influenced by planning, scopes, and schedules but success should not be assumed to be the automatic outcome of even the best planning. Success is its own thing, independent of the rest.

At the beginning of the project the client usually communicates in terms of deliverables: I need a website. I want a logo. I’d like a mobile app. The agency responds with great questions to clarify that deliverable, such “What will the app do?” or “Which mobile platforms will your app need to support?” All of these many questions are critical on the path to having a shared understanding of the scope of the project. They must be asked. But there is one final question that rarely gets asked: How will we both know if this project is a success? Or a variation: When this project is complete, we want you to be happy. What do we need to do to make sure that happens?

Whether it’s been articulated or not, the client has some kind of “success measuring stick” in mind. They’re envisioning some outcome or expecting some result and the agency takes an enormous risk to begin the project without knowing how that client will define success. Asking this one additional question will go a long way toward making sure every project ends with a happy client who is eager to refer others. And from the agency’s perspective…that’s the ultimate success.