Agency process management guide

How do you ensure that your team delivers the best possible work for each client every time?

This is where agency process management comes in handy.

Establishing clear processes ensures that work gets delivered on time, on budget, and at acceptable quality levels every time. 

As you scale your agency, this becomes too much for you – as the agency owner – to handle on your own, and you may want to bring on your first project manager.

This transition from handling all of the processes and project management yourself to bringing on a project manager can be stressful and anxiety-provoking.

In this post, we’re sharing what agency process management is, along with tips from other agency and productized service owners who have successfully hired project managers.

  1. What is agency process management?

2. What are the different styles of agency project management?

3. What should you have in place before hiring a project manager?

1. What is agency process management? 

Processes make your agency run smoother and in a more predictable fashion. They ensure that work is delivered on time, at a high-quality level without having to micromanage your team. 

In essence, having clearly-defined processes can reduce the agency owner’s stress levels and are a necessary ingredient for scaling the agency.

The earlier you start to build out your processes around how your agency works, the better. It becomes absolutely necessary to have processes in place before you hire your first project manager. 

While your project manager will likely be instrumental in improving your processes, if you have none to start with when you hire them, it is going to take significantly longer to onboard them and the chances of them not being successful in their role goes way up. 

2. What are the different styles of agency project management? 

If you don’t have much experience creating processes or with project management, one of the best things you can do early on is read about different project management approaches. 

When you start reading about agency project management, you likely hear these three terms thrown around a lot – Scrum, Kanban, and Agile. 

Scrum vs. Kanban vs. Agile 

These are all different project management methods.  

Agile project management’s roots are in managing software engineering projects and teams. It is a flexible and iterative approach to managing projects through a cycle of continuous improvement. 

Kanban and Scrum are different approaches to incorporating the Agile methodology. 

Kanban focuses on process improvements by categorizing all of the work that needs to be done in three categories, “to do,” “doing,” and “done.” You cap the number of active tasks that any team member can be working on at a time. If you want to add a new task, something else has to be complete first. This is great for ensuring that all of your important tasks get complete in a timely fashion without balls being dropped. 

The scrum methodology is all about working faster. Teams work in 2-week sprints. They have a planning session before the start of each scrum to decide on the goals and what each scrum member can reasonably commit to at that time. 

It is easy to get bogged down into the nuances of Kanban vs. Scrum.  For 99% of agencies, the distinctions are irrelevant. What matters is adopting one project management approach as well as clearly-defined processes that the team sticks to consistently. 

For example, if you decide to adopt the Kanban approach, your processes can be worked to run this method in a more consistent, predictable way.

You can even automate your Kanban view. As team members check off key steps in the process, those cards automatically move along to the appropriate list—thanks to the automated process behind the kanban board. 

3. What should you have in place before hiring a project manager? 

One of the biggest misconceptions that agency owners have is that your first project manager will be a mindreader. If you want them to succeed in their role, you need to invest time upfront training them and teaching them about the processes you already have in place. 

1. Invest in building out your key agency processes before you hire a project manager 

“The one thing I wish I would have known for hiring my first project manager would be that they weren’t the magical answer to all of my organizational problems,” says Dana Lindahl of Leadbites. “While some people might get lucky and hire the PM that just comes in and cleans everything up like a hero for them, the leadership still needs to come from you. Luckily, I realized this very early on and took charge of my leadership role, but in the beginning I thought it would be as simple as just hiring an organized person – and I see lots of people making this mistake too!” 

Eman Zabi, of Terrain, adds, “No matter how amazing and intuitive my PM is, she isn’t a mind reader. The onus is on me to give crystal clear instructions, and as someone who often speaks and communicates in sentence fragments, it’s been a challenge to document all of my thoughts clearly before giving instructions. The fact of the matter is that no PM is going to know your business as well as you do right off the bat. It takes time for them to understand your business and workflows. 

I wish I’d accounted for the time it takes for me to sit down and discuss processes and co-create SOPs and account for all the extra bits that I often took for granted. PMs are incredible, but they’re not a turnkey solution to a hot mess business unless, of course, you’re a hot mess with rock-solid SOPs.”  

2. Establish clear responsibilities and KPIs

It can be tempting to turn a project management role into a catch-all position for all of the tasks that don’t have an assigned owner in the business – from administrative to support and social media. This is a recipe for problems since your project manager will be unfocused. The majority of their time should be spent on project management. 

For example, John Ainsworth of Data Driven Marketing says, “I think the biggest thing is how to write a really good job ad for it. It took a lot of work to put it together. 

The biggest thing is what is it that we really needed – what is the exact role we really needed – and that took a lot of figuring out in terms of doing the work. What can we outsource? What do we need in the house? What are the real crucial skills?

We typically go through about ~130 applicants to find one really good one. That would have been useful to know that in advance.” 

3. Build out your recruiting processes 

Some of the first processes you build out should be around hiring and recruiting freelancers and employees.  This includes writing the job ad, sourcing the candidates, and interviewing.

For example, Mads Singers, a serial entrepreneur and management coach, says, “One thing I wish I had learned earlier on in my career was around personalities – Learning and understanding people’s individual personalities makes such a huge difference in recruitment situations and it would 100% have helped me not make some of the recruitment mistakes I did early on. 

People (I used to be one of these myself) often get hypnotized by a great resume. However, learning to understand the person if they are a great culture fit, and if their personality actually matches the role you are hiring for, is critical.

Some personalities sell themselves really well, and that’s great in jobs where that’s needed. However, very detail-oriented people often don’t sell themselves very well, which means the people that are really best in those roles often get overlooked by significantly less skilled people as an example.”  

Jimmy Rose of Content Snare adds,  “I wish I knew how much attitude trumps everything else. Everyone talks about how important attitude is, but to me, it wasn’t obvious just how much a difference it makes. 

We hired someone who has such an amazing attitude and goes to the next level, trying to help every client. The enthusiasm they bring means they are fun to work with, and our clients love them. Now, when we hire, the skills they have are a bonus, not a requirement.” 

4. Create a process to test your new project manager before you extend a full-time job offer 

Hiring a full-time project manager is a big commitment – both in terms of time and money.

While you can never be 100% certain this new hire will work out, you can reduce some of the uncertainty by having this person complete a test project first. 

For example, Davis Nguyen of My Consulting Offer says, “I give my project managers a project that simulates how they would actually work with me (and the team). 

You will have candidates who interview for a project manager role (or any role) who are not be the best spoken when it comes to live interviews, not have the most polished resume because they didn’t get it professionally edited, or have the best references because the ones they gave you were on vacation when you were hiring. 

But someone who is a smooth talker has the best resume, or decided to get their friends to be references, but can’t do the work won’t succeed. So when you give someone a test project, you see what it would be like to work with them, you see their communication style, and you see the quality of their work.” 

5. Establish a thorough new hire onboarding process 

Another set of processes you want to have dialed in before you bring on a project manager is your new hire onboarding processes.

Having your new hire onboarding process nailed down can avoid misunderstandings or your project manager trying to get clever with new systems and processes that may not be needed. 

For example, Ian Horley of HubSnacks says, “I wish I’d known if the person understood what our Product Market Fit was before they went nuts trying to prove how clever they were. It meant they way over complicated everything. Manage a project towards what? Maybe sometimes things can be simple, and the role of the PM is just to take that simple thing off the busy owner’s plate. Not to bring a load of clever, yet non-essential new problems to the business owner.” 

6. Build out your new client onboarding processes 

Just like it is important to have clear new employee onboarding processes, the same is true for bringing on new clients.

When you have a clear process, you can feel confident in growing the agency, knowing the team can handle onboarding many more clients predictably. 

Pro Tip: Want help dialing in your new client onboarding processes? Download our free New Client Onboarding Template. 

An added benefit is that you can design a process that is both consistent and personalized so that every client feels taken care of. 

Dustin Overbeck, of Town Web, says, “My first project manager was hired about 9 years ago. I wish I would have realized earlier on that client collaboration and onboarding should have been done on a long 45-minute screen sharing session. 

My earlier approach was flawed because the connection my project manager had with the education client was transactional. “Send me this, send me that, email me some photos, etc.”

We spent too much time over emails getting piecemeal information and content.

In 2018, I was working with a business coach who finally asked me, “Why do you treat your clients like robots?”  

And so I changed the onboarding method to be more hands-on, face-to-face using Zoom, and to have an account manager and project manager to work in tandem as a team when onboarding a new client. 

This change allowed us to finish more projects more quickly, which in turn allowed us to collect payment sooner for the annual hosting plans. It increased our annual hosting by 50% 12 months after it was implemented.”   

7. Make sure to hire your project manager at the right time

While you shouldn’t hire a project manager based on an arbitrary headcount, hiring a project manager is all about timing.

As we alluded to earlier in this post, if you hire a project manager before your processes are dialed in, you and your new project manager are going to struggle.

However, it can be just as stressful to hire your first project manager too late. For example, if you are planning to hire several VAs or junior-level team members who will require more management time, it makes sense to bring on a project manager earlier. 

For example, Meryl Johnston, of Bean Ninjas, says,  “I wish I had known to hire an experienced project manager prior to hiring VAs.

The first people I hired at Bean Ninjas were accountants and bookkeepers to take care of service delivery (Bean Ninjas is a specialist eCommerce Accounting Firm). 

Next, I looked to VAs in the Philippines to help me streamline the rest of the business. This was a lot of work! 

I needed to break work down into chunks and write SOPs to train my VAs and then have regular check-in calls to make sure they stayed on track. This split my focus from more important tasks, and in hindsight, an experienced project manager could have handled this for me.

When I hired our first project manager, it was a breath of fresh air. Someone was helping to take things off my plate and required far less management and direction. Fiona, our operations manager, could not only run projects and manage contractors, but she could also help in setting project scopes based on the business strategy.”