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The Agency Client Bill of Rights

(Editorial note: I originally wrote this post over on the Hit Subscribe blog. I’ll be cross-posting anything I think this audience might find interesting and also started a SubStack to which I’ll syndicate marketing-related content.)  

Lately, within the account management function of Hit Subscribe, we’ve been swatting around a philosophical question.

Rather than having disparate sales and account management departments, could a unified customer success group serve both functions for our business?

We currently, tentatively believe that the answer is “yes,” and we’re proceeding accordingly.  But to make this work, we realized that we’d need to provide collateral about how we work with clients prior to when we’ve historically done this: during kickoff and onboarding.

This realization dovetailed nicely with the fact that a lot of the reader/viewer questions I answer in my freelancer Q&A video series are essentially about how to conduct yourself as the owner of a practice.  So I figured I’d write it up, get buy-in from Hit Subscribe’s account managers, and publish the results.

And that’s what this post is.

I’m framing this as a list of rights and I intend our clients and prospects to be the primary audience, with newly hired account managers as a secondary audience.  If any other readers enjoy this or get some use out of it, hey, it’s always nice to put a little collateral good into the world when you can.

What follows is what you can expect from Hit Subscribe—and what we hope you’ll hold us to account on.  We also have a PDF, cheat sheet version you can download, if you like.

  1. The Right to Freedom from Gimmicks
  2. The Right to Minimize Your Risk
  3. The Right to the Best Deal
  4. The Right to Non-Commitment
  5. The Right to Refunds
  6. The Right to Know Prices Up Front
  7. The Right to Labor Transparency
  8. The Right to Unconflicted Advice
  9. The Right to Easily Understood Deliverables
  10. The Right to Vendor Accountability
  11. The Right Not to Play Referee
  12. The Right to Fast, Predictable Responses

1. Freedom From Sales Gimmicks

You have the right to freedom from sales gimmicks, such as FOMO, manufactured scarcity, etc.

I can’t be the only one with complete manipulative-sales-tactic fatigue.  I imagine you’re tired of it too.

The endless squeeze page with no navigable exits except booking a call.  The sale that’s going on THIS WEEK ONLY.  The vendor that doesn’t normally take on businesses as small as yours but might make an exception, just this one time.

I’m sure all of this is great for mattress wholesalers and Bitcoin bros selling get-rich-quick info products. But we don’t think this kind of nonsense has any place in the B2B world.

Clients deserve a straightforward explanation of value propositions, as well as an explanation of who is and isn’t a fit for services.

You don’t deserve games, and we won’t play any with you.

2. Risk Minimization

You have the right to manage your risk with new vendors—and for them to help you do it.

Adopting a partnership with a vendor is already a time-consuming and fraught process for you.  It gets that much worse when the vendor stonewalls reasonable requests, such as trial runs or starting small.

And it’s not just that a service provider should agree to this. They should propose it where appropriate.

A good service partner understands your risks and actively helps you manage them: “Let’s do five content refreshes and see if those boost traffic before we commit to 50.”  “Let’s create three posts and distribute them to your SDRs to see if they help before we commit to a year’s worth.”

Running lean and scaling up success isn’t something you should have to fight for.  If you call out things you view as risks, we’ll help you manage those risks.  And no worries if you don’t; we’ll call out risks that we sense on your behalf.

3. The Best Deal

You have the right not to need to haggle with vendors to get their best deals.

We don’t negotiate on prices.  At first blush, this might sound more like hardball than a right for you.  But think about the implications of a service provider that does haggle.

It means that their default posture with prospects is to inflate their gross margins in the hopes that you won’t notice.  If you need to haggle with them to get a good deal, it means their default offering is a bad deal.

A partner with your best interests in mind will want to give you the best price they can while maintaining a sustainable margin.  It’s simply good business—a better deal for you makes you more likely to succeed, which, in turn, makes you more likely to scale up with that vendor and its sustainable margins.

We operate all of our productized services on a strictly cost-plus pricing model.  You’ll always get our best deal, because we’re on your side. You’re not an opponent in a zero-sum game.

We don’t believe you should have to deal with rent-seeking vendors that mark up their rates in the hopes you won’t notice or care.

4. Non-Commitment

You have the right not to commit to a long contract…or to anything at all.

For years now, we’ve resisted the impulse to do what agencies tend to do: use supply-and-demand leverage to force you into annual contracts.

It’d be a lot easier for us to operate this way, frankly.  It gives agencies the ability to hire FTEs for economies of scale while minimizing non-billable “bench” time.  But we don’t believe in creating a bad experience for you just so that our internal staffing is a slightly easier problem to solve.

Contract lock-in is a customer experience that ranges between “fine, whatever” and “this is horrible.” And that’s not how we want to interact with clients.  It’s in your best interest, but honestly, it’s in ours as well.  Life is too short to limp along together through nine months of mutual unhappiness.

If you need a one-time service, you should have it.  If you need a quarter, you should have it.  We’re happy to (and do) have client relationships spanning five years or more, but those terms should always be YOUR terms and what makes sense for you.

5. Refunds

You have the right to a refund for things you can’t use, and you don’t need to defend it.

We never ask clients to pay for something they can’t or won’t use—for whatever reason.  If we send over a deliverable and the response is “I can’t use this,” we offer a refund, redo, credit, or whatever the client prefers.

A lot of service providers out there would likely read this and think that I’m lying or that we’re risking going out of business.  Neither is the case.  In the first place, this doesn’t come up very often.  On top of that, B2B buyers aren’t the same thing as that person who complains about their eggs at the diner to get them for free.  Clients are looking to pay for results.

If we find ourselves in a situation where this becomes a theme, we simply conclude (as you likely have as well) that there’s a mismatch between your needs and the deliverable.  And in that case, in a nod to non-commitment, we either hit the stop button or reframe the engagement.

What all of this adds up to is what we genuinely believe every service vendor should offer: you shouldn’t pay for something you don’t want to use.  Your vendors should be experts in what they do and deliver, which means they should be comfortable taking on the risk for misaligned expectations.

If you can’t use it, we don’t want you to pay for it.

6. Prices

You have the right to flat prices, not hourly rates or “time and materials” engagements.

I detest hourly billing.  I detest it as a consumer of services, and I detest it as a provider of them as well.

If you’re so inclined, you can read any number of takes of mine in other venues, from the philosophical to the semi-satirical.  But for our purposes here, I’ll limit myself to saying that I think “time and materials” is a poor customer experience, albeit one to which most have become numb.

It really comes down to risk.

When a vendor quotes you an hourly rate, they foist all the risk onto you.  You’re looking for an outcome and would almost certainly prefer to know what it will cost you. The vendor responds with, “I’m not sure if you’ll get your outcome, nor am I sure what it will cost you.  The only thing I’m sure of is that you’re going to pay for every minute I work (and, if we’re being honest, some minutes that I don’t.)”

By flat pricing, we’re assuming a lot of the risk on your behalf.  And we should, since we’re experts in the productized services we deliver.

If you ask what a blog post costs, we don’t say, “Who could possibly know that? But for $200 per hour, we’ll figure it out together!”  Instead, we just tell you the price based on a deep, data-driven understanding of our costs.

We feel that you deserve prices, not rates.  It helps you budget, predict your CAC, and generally manage your risks and your deliverables.

7. Labor Transparency

You have the right to know exactly who your vendors are using to do the work—and why.

Hit Subscribe doesn’t white label work.

This isn’t to say that we don’t use regular contractors, ad hoc subcontractors, and even other agencies or service providers.  We do all of those things.  We just don’t white label them, in the sense that we’re pretending they’re our employees.

And we don’t think other service providers should tell this white lie either.

The only conceivable purposes for agencies to do this (that I can think of) are completely self-interested: appearing bigger than they are to clients and jealously guarding a middle-man status between client and subcontractor.

If you want to work with our subcontractors independently of us, go for it.  We sell results, not the illusion that we have thousands of FTEs and are a McKinsey competitor.

We’re happy to save you some effort by managing other vendors and doing work on our paper to save you some back-office accounting.  But we’ll always be totally transparent about who is doing your work and what our relationship is to them.  And we believe that all of your vendors should do the same.

8. Unconflicted Advice

You have the right to trust that your vendors are advising you on what’s best for you, not what’s best for them (or another client).

I think it should be obvious that your partners should give each client fair, uninfluenced treatment, and I imagine that only the most disreputable vendors would act otherwise.  But the waters muddy a lot when it comes to the vendor itself.

The most obvious example of this issue that I can think of is the “free alignment check” trope.  Mechanics offer to check your alignment for “free” so that they can upsell you on a service they claim you need.

It tends to manifest in less ham-fisted ways in the B2B world. But it happens nonetheless.

For instance, in my past consulting life, I can’t tell you how often a business would call in a consulting firm to assess some kind of codebase or application portfolio to ask whether to keep it or redo it.

What do you imagine they tended to recommend?

“Nah, you’re good,” or, “You should rewrite it, and we just so happen to have twenty billable people that can take care of that for you at an eight-figure price tag”?

This advice is inherently conflicted advice.  And, at a bare minimum, the vendor should point that out to the client.  (Reputable firms would recommend a third party to do that assessment, which, fun fact, I used to do a fair bit as part of my erstwhile consulting practice.)

We believe that you, as a client, have a right to be aware of these types of conflicts—and that you have the right to vendors that call them out and then put them aside to give recommendations purely in your best interests.

9. Understanding the Deliverable and Its Value

You have a right to understand everything your vendors charge you for, and furthermore, to understand why it’s worth paying for.

I’m just going to dive right into the world of SEO here, which tends to harbor some of the most egregious violators of this principle.  Have you ever received a branded spreadsheet full of things like “no index this tag” and “redirect chain” and had no idea what it meant or why you were paying for it?  Have you ever received a monthly report full of graphs that seemed complicated but meant nothing to you, let alone helped you make some decision?

These are rhetorical questions, given the medium.  But I know you just laughed and mouthed “definitely!” to yourself.

A near-universal truism of service-based labor is that vendors who don’t really understand their own value proposition tend to send you very complex, in-the-weeds deliverables and invoices.  They can’t justify their bills with value, so they try to justify them with inscrutable complexity.

If this dynamic must exist at all, it’s much more appropriate with employees than with vendors.  Expert vendors shouldn’t do this to you; they should be able to articulate their value proposition and simplify things into terms that you can understand without getting into the weeds of their “craft” with them.

You have a right to a straightforward explanation of your deliverables and their ramifications for your business.

10. Vendor Accountability

You have a right to vendors executing what they agree to, large and small.

It seems kind of sad to me that I need to write this, but here we are.  It seems all too common that vendors fail to deliver in some of the most basic imaginable ways.

Your vendors should deliver according to agreed-upon timelines and scope.  And on the occasion that life happens and something slips, you deserve an explanation from them of why, as well as what steps they’re taking to course correct in the future.

But professionalism cuts even deeper than this.

Your partner should note any action items on a call, enumerate them, and ensure they’re delivered.  They should provide updates of in-flight work and report on the outcomes around their deliverables.  And, perhaps above all, they should admit fault when relevant, rather than getting defensive and arguing with you.

You have a right to vendors you can rely on.

11. Not to Be a Referee

You have a right not to need to act as a referee among your various vendors.

We’re currently doing a significant remodeling of our house, and just this week, I received two phone calls.  One was from our architect telling me how awful one of the contractors putting in a bid was.  The other was from the contractor telling me how awful the architect was.

Who is right and who is wrong?  I can assure you, dear reader, that I neither know nor care; I’m just annoyed with both of them for creating a pointless headache for me.

If this sounds familiar, it shouldn’t.  And that’s because we believe you have a right not to be forced into this role.  Vendors shouldn’t point fingers at each other and waste your time with their bickering.

Now, we obviously can’t control every other agency or service provider out there.  But we can do our part.  We can always act cordially and professionally with others, at all times; we can refrain from simplistic blame games, never just lob problems over the wall; and we can even suggest that we bow out when you obviously have too many cooks in your kitchen.

After all, you should have partners that prevent headaches, not create them.

12. Fast, Predictable Responses

You have a right to fast, predictable responses from your vendors.

Years ago, when our customer success operation (a generous name at the time) was just Erin and I, we decided on an SLA of sorts for customer response.  Synchronous emailing wasn’t necessary, but we should never make a customer or prospect wait more than a business day for a response to any inquiry.  If that starts to slip, it’s a sign that we either need more staff or need to tighten up our processes.

While timing and specifics may vary, the broad concept here should not.  Sending emails and wondering if anyone received them or if you should follow up is a bad experience.  It wastes time and creates stress.

We firmly believe that fast and predictable communication is the bedrock of healthy client relationships.  We can’t always have a solution to a problem within a business day or even always know exactly when something will be resolved.  But we can certainly respond and furnish an update within that timeframe.

And we think you should be able to count on that.

Your Mileage May Vary, But Not with Us

I’d like to conclude by briefly noting that I don’t presume to speak for any and all service vendors, per se.  I certainly think that these are the right ways to conduct business as a service provider. And I definitely get annoyed on their behalf when clients tell us about bad experiences that have run afoul of these principles.

But at the same time, I haven’t walked a mile in everyone’s shoes.  I imagine plenty of vendors do good work under time-and-materials terms. And hey, if you’re struggling to pay the mortgage, I can hardly fault you for manufacturing a little scarcity or FOMO.

What you’ve got here in our customer bill of rights is definitive and highly opinionated. But it’s through the lens of channeling the bad experiences we’ve heard about into the good experiences that we want to create for our clients.  So count on us to hold ourselves to the standard laid out here, regardless of what others may or may not do.

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