EP 64: Do You Know + Communicate Your Value, with Paul Boag

Jan 30, 2020

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EP 64: Do You Know + Communicate Your Value, with Paul Boag

On this episode of THRIVE—now sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Paul Boag discuss how to identify your agency’s value by focusing on the knowledge and experience that influences the services you provide.

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 EP 64:  Do You Know + Communicate Your Value

Duration: 23:03


Kelly: So welcome to another episode of Thrive. Today, my guest is Paul Boag, a user-experience consultant, author, speaker, and coach. He’s based in Dorset, England. He helps nonprofits and enterprises to really refocused the user experience and engagement for their digitally savvy audiences. Today, we’re actually gonna get into identifying and communicating your value to others and we’ll do that in the context of agencies but I think that that can also really be applied to then our clients and honestly sometimes in our personal lives as well. So Paul, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for joining me today. I’m really excited for the conversation.

Paul: It’s a pleasure to be here. I always like catching up with other people that work in a similar failed and facing similar challenges.

Kelly: Yeah. So I think you and I agree for sure that, well, let me give a little context first , the reason how we got connected was I have a coaching client who had received an email from you, that was I think it might have even been titled, do you know and communicate your value, or something along those lines and he forwarded it to me and said it seems like you wrote this and Paul just put it out. So I was like well then, I have to meet Paul obviously. So I can say that I know that you and I agree that most agencies have a lot of difficulty being able to identify what their actual value is, let alone communicate it because you’ve got to have one before the other. So what are the inherent issues from a business standpoint in letting this issue just completely linger unresolved.

Paul: I think a lot of it is built out of where people started in their careers that if you’re running any kind of creative agency, you began by producing assets so that might be a website, it might be brochure, it might be whatever. You produce something, something tangible. Okay. So we see our value inherently as being in the deliverable, in what it is that we deliver. But in truth that is not the whole or even the main part of what value we provide. So yeah I don’t know the kind of agencies that you deal with, with all the agents but typically the kind of agencies that I’m working with are web design agencies. And these people think that they produce websites but he is the thing producing websites is a commodity. It’s easy. Anyone can do it. That’s the whole point of HTML, is that it’s easy to write and it’s even easier today than it was ten years ago because now there are these amazing themes.

Kelly: You don’t even need to know HTML anymore.

Paul: No. Absolutely. So you can just use your Squarespace or Webflow, whatever tool to build these things. So as a result, that’s not where the skill is. That’s not where the expertise is. The expertise, the value is what’s in our heads. It’s all knowledge in our understanding of what makes a design compelling, what makes a piece of copy persuasive, what makes performance particularly important on a website or security, or whatever else. So it’s understanding that the value is in our knowledge not in our deliverables.

Kelly: And you argued that we should not only not feel guilty about following the so-called best practices but we should value our role. We should value all role more because we’re providing what we’re providing is so much more valuable. It’s in the knowledge. It’s in the experience behind influencing, these other services. And all of that really if you boil it down, it comes down to empathy. The experience, the understanding of other people’s perspective, wrapping all of that together, it’s really a solid understanding and utilization of empathy. So I think that’s really important because I don’t think a lot of agencies really focus on that understanding, that part of their value is derived in their practice of empathy.

Paul: Yeah, but here’s the ironic thing, a lot of those agencies will understand themselves that they empathize and aren’t being able to get into the minds of users is the key to that success. They understand that for themselves and they want to do that all the time with their own users but they never apply that same methodology to their clients. They never say what is it that the client values for me, as I tend to empathize with the client, what’s the value that I’m providing at the end of the day for the client. Is it just the website or is it the reassurance, the reassurance that they’re heading in the right direction. Is it the reassurance or what’s their motivation, maybe they want to get their next pay raise at the end of the year and so you need to deliver by the end of the year. So understanding how our clients think is just as important as understanding our end-users. I don’t think a lot of agencies put the same effort into understanding their clients as they do their users, at least it’s not in my experience.

Kelly: Right. Absolutely. So can you give actually a couple of examples of what that effective value communication looks like, and maybe some of the in-house teams or other clients that you’ve worked with like where did they start and then what is that effective value communication look like.

Paul: For me, one of the best ways of communicating your value is to educate, is to share and to educate. So one of the things that I encounter a lot because I work with in house teams as well as working with agencies and what I encounter a lot with in house teams is they’re effectively are seen as a support service because they’re often borne out of IT, for example. And so, the result of all of that is that people come to them with an idea, they’re expected to go away and implement that idea. They’re not there to have ideas of their own. And the same is true with agencies actually. You go to an agency, you expect them to deliver on your brief but actually in order to shift that relationship to one where people come to you with a problem rather than a solution and they look to you to help solve that solution, that is really about education and communication. It’s about starting that kind of dialogue and conversation with clients. So what I often do within organizations is I get those internal teams to share better their best practice so get back to explaining, look this is my process, this is how we do things to get to a final solution because having a process in a framework makes it sound like you’re not just making up stuff as you go along.

Kelly: Isn’t that the thing that most people think when they hire an agency, right? We’re working and they’re like, oh, these people don’t know what they’re doing, they’re just making it up as they go along.

Paul: And that’s especially true with creative stuff. Oh yes they go and have artistic muse in the corner and spell out a lot of artistic stuff. So it’s our job to educate them that there is a process, there is a methodology behind what we do. Unless they see that methodology and as they come to understand that methodology, they understand the depth and complexity behind what we do. The problem is a lot of us within the creative industry don’t fully understand why we do what we do. So a great example of that is white space in design. Every designer knows that white space is a really important part of creating a design because clients come along and they want to fill that white space.

Kelly: Make my logo bigger. Why you need so much room?

Paul: Yeah, and we will go, no, you can’t do that. I’m the designer. Well, that’s not a good reason. That’s not educating their client. So first of all, we need to understand why white space is important and that means maybe understand a little bit of that cognitive load and the psychology behind these kinds of things then we can communicate better to the client so it’s a combination of having a methodology, better communication, understanding what we do, and why we do it and why that leads to success. No, I was going to say, a lot of the times, a lot of the problems we have with clients comes down to their lack of confidence in us and that lack of confidence ultimately comes because we are very poor at explaining what we do and why we do it.

Kelly: Right. So it’s almost like in order to communicate our value, the very first step is actually not communicating the value but actually understanding and turning that lens on ourselves and understanding what we do, documenting that, and then diving a little bit deeper to understand why we do it, then producing some content about why we do it, sharing that with the client, then we can speak to our values. So you’re sort of making the case for what you do just through this conversation helping them with that framework and all of that. So yeah absolutely there’s so much to this and this is the big component. Let’s call this 4 or 5 step process. There’s so much meat to this and this is literally the 4 or 5 steps that very few agencies whether they’re external independent or in house, they just gloss over this and I think for 2020, this is our year of vision, we have to stop glossing them with this.

Paul: Absolutely. And I think you said something really interesting there. So we’ve got to document this stuff and we’ve got to have it written down and I find that that is extremely important for setting expectations with clients so as you go into a new client engagement, if you can provide them a set of documentation that says this is what is going to happen, this is the order that things are gonna happen in, and this is why things are gonna happen. That is so reassuring for the client and they also establishes you as the expert in the partnership. But also there’s another thing which relates to that is, let’s say we went into a meeting and I presented a design to you and you turned around and you said, make my logo bigger.

Kelly: I will never do that to you Paul.

Paul: No, I know you wouldn’t. I know you wouldn’t, but it happens. You’re being a hypothetical client in this occasion.

Kelly: I know.

Paul: Now, I might now come back with a good reason as to why you shouldn’t make the logo bigger, but there’s two other things that are happening there. One, first of all, I sound like I’m just messing you at this point, that I’m just making up reasons. Two, you have already put your stake in the ground as the client and said this is what I want. So it’s hard for you to back them now. However, if before, you ever said that, I’ve given you a nice little cheat sheet in why white space is important and negative space is important within the design. And I’ve preempted that issue. A, it doesn’t sound like I’m making up things as I go along and B, you have an opportunity to back down before you actually say anything and lose space.

Kelly: Yeah, no, I’m all in favor of education, client education and setting those expectations upfront, whether it’s a cheat sheet, whether it’s a blog post, whether it’s a video, whether it’s a podcast, I think creating this content in ways in which the client can feel like they’re a part of the conversation as opposed to being spoken to. Part of them wants the education but part of them wants to also feel a little bit like the equal so in those meetings like you’re discussing, there’s a little bit of a power struggle that happens especially if it’s early on in the relationship. I’m trying to assess the agency. I’m trying to establish my expertise, my value, all of that and as the client I want to remind you that I’m paying the bill and you’re pretty much I have the last say. So there’s that weird balance that we have to achieve and get to a place where ultimately, this comes down to trust.

And this is a good segue sort of for my next question, which is that we need to understand that value is a two-way street and this was a huge takeaway from the article, that Lou had passed over to me. For me, this comes down to two things, which might sound really strange in the context of business but I think that the two things that it comes down to for me are love and respect. So respect is easy like I respect that as the client, I respect that you’re the agency with the expertise that’s why I’m hiring you and as the agency and I hope everybody’s really paying attention to this, as the agency, I have to respect the client. I have to respect that they know their industry, their organization, and the nuances of all of that, so well they know it much better than I do because they do it every single day whatever the service or product is and having that level of respect gives them the opportunity to communicate that to me as the agency so that I can do a better job.

So I think that’s point number one. And then I think also, it just comes down to having a little bit more love for each other. I think that we don’t like to talk about sort of squishy things in business but at the end of the day we’re just humans interacting with one another. We’re just humans communicating with one another and we all are sort of built from sort of the same mold for the most part. We all come to the table with different baggage and triggers and all these things. But at the end of the day, if I feel respected and appreciated and we come to the table trusting one another or at least willing to trust one another, we’re gonna get a lot further.

Paul: But you see that’s the problem I often see with agencies.

Kelly: And that was going to be my question, is what is that, what are those barriers to those things?

Paul: Yeah. So many agencies don’t trust clients. They don’t they don’t trust the clients to be involved in the design process. So for example they’re constantly limiting the client’s involvement. We’re not gonna show you anything until this point and then you’re gonna get a controlled choice and then after that you’ll get X number of iterations and that’s all, and then you have to sign in blood that you’re happy with the design. Now all that does is, undermine the relationship and it builds up each of those decision points to this phenomenal level where oh, I’ve got signed in blood that means I have to be happy. I have to think this thing is perfect and so it becomes this power struggle. Instead and also, you’re completely excluding all that expertise that the client brings to the table. 

So instead if you actively involve them, I involve my clients to every stage. We agree on keywords together or the brand needs to communicate where we do collaborative mood boarding. We do collaborative web production. They’re involved absolutely every step of it. And when it comes to presenting them the final design, there’s no surprises because they were involved in creating it. It’s not just the natural evolution. So I almost never have to do each iteration of designs and I certainly don’t have to do multiple versions of the design because I created that design in tandem with them.

And best of all, they then feel a sense of ownership over the design so they’re certainly not going to reject and they’re going to defend it internally. And also I never asked clients to sign off on the design either. I simply just keep of evolving, keep producing it as I build the website, accepting that there will be changes and tweaks. It’s better than getting stuck in the endless cycle of iterations, which goes nowhere. So the more you control the client into the process, the more it establishes the relationship as peers working together which is what you are ultimately trying to achieve.

Kelly: Yeah, what’s interesting that comes up for me and even though this conversation is just between the two of us, I can already hear agency leader in and saying, that sounds great in theory, how would I build for that because if I’m expected to iterate with the client and have this collaborative relationship and it takes double, triple the amount of time that I was hoping for, how would I make any money of that.

Paul: This is the most common question I get asked whenever I talk like this, you know what, it won’t take any longer. The reason it won’t take any longer is yes the actual production will be longer of the initial design but you won’t have any of that endless situation and it’s the iteration that kills you, that’s where you lose money, on the iteration. And that is completely unpredictable. You have no idea how many times you might have to iterate and tweak and change the design before the client is going to be happy. While you know you’re gonna do a mood boarding exercise, you’re going to do a wireframing excise, whatever else, I’ve talked about this on my blog, if people are interested but that is predictable. I know that that’s going to take a certain amount of time. Well, if you can be stuck in iteration for weeks, if you’re not careful. So it’s the predictability that makes it work because what we do is we submit proposals on the best case scenario. Oh yes, this is probably gonna be one round of iteration. Rubbish. That never happens. So actually, it works out more economical to do it that way.

Kelly: Yeah, so as we start to wrap up here, what would you say is the top piece of advice that you’d give to agency leaders who are trying to figure out how to identify their value and then communicate it.

Paul: Talk about outcomes and not just deliverables. So what I mean by that is talk about the business benefit, what you do provides not just what you’re delivering. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about deliverables, of course. They want to know what they’re going to get. But when I produce a proposal for my clients, sure I outline what I’m gonna deliver but I also outline what that deliverable, anticipate that deliverable maybe able to provide for them as an organization in terms of well, let’s take a take a standard website, increases in conversion, reduction in marketing spend, more repeat business and etc. So focus on the business benefits because that is where your values lies, not in pushing some pixels around.

Kelly: Because then you get out of that commodity loop and there’s less client attrition because they see the value. It’s definitely I always say the same thing, it’s always more so about benefits over features, benefits being what our expertise is, features being the thing that comes out of the relationship, which is the deliverable.

Paul: The only thing, again now, I’ve got the people’s voices right in my head. The only thing that I think people worry about is well how do I know what the benefits are going to be and you’ve done it.

Kelly: Historical data or historical experience or anecdotes give you a sense of hey for a project similar to this, with my client similar in your industry, this is what they achieved so you can draw on that for sure.

Paul: Yes absolutely. And there are all variables involved, which is why, so for example, I always soften it a little bit in my proposals by saying things like together we can deliver rather than I’m going to deliver these business benefits. I talk about both of us because if they don’t play their part, then it’s gonna be rubbish. You’re not gonna exceed those benefits. So you could do things to soften it, if you need to, a little bit for your own state of mind.

Kelly: Yeah. Paul, this is a great discussion. I’ve had so much fun. We are so aligned in the way that we’re thinking and talking about this. So I really, really appreciate you coming on the show today and hope to talk to you soon.

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