The Agency Guide to Onboarding Small Business Clients

April 14, 2021
6 minute read

Our latest blog post covers the challenges faced by agencies when working with small businesses - and how to overcome them.

Small businesses are the beating heart of the economy. They make up 99.7% of US employer firms, 64% of net new private-sector jobs, and 46% of all private-sector output. 

Yet many agencies have little to no experience working with small businesses.

There are reasons aplenty - small businesses prefer local partners, have strong DIY cultures, and usually have limited budgets and marketing needs.

In the post-pandemic world, however, more and more small businesses are turning to agencies for help. As they attempt to digitize, many small businesses are learning that they need outside help for branding and marketing.

For agencies, this can be an incredible opportunity. You get to help small businesses and tap into an entirely new market.

Working with small businesses, however, brings new challenges. In this guide, we’ll cover these challenges in more detail. You’ll also learn how to change your approach to make working with small businesses faster, easier, and more successful.


5 Key Challenges in Working with Small Businesses

If you’ve only worked with more mature mid-to-large-sized businesses, the pace and rhythms of working with small businesses can take you off guard.

Things that are otherwise formal and process-oriented in larger businesses are done with a wave of the hand and five-minute informal meetings.

At the same time, things that would otherwise be cleared within minutes at a larger business are often scrutinized and over-analyzed to death at smaller businesses.

Chiefly, there are five things that you need to look out for:

1. Decision making

Decision-making in smaller businesses is usually centralized. You don’t need to go through half a dozen stakeholders to get the final nod on a decision - the owner(s) often decide everything alone.

The pros are obvious - no running around and no waiting on approvals. You get everything done faster and if the owners and your team are on the same page, things can move as smoothly as a well-trained orchestra.

The cons are also clear: when the decision-maker is away, everything gets held up. Small business owners also have to wear many hats. Your deliverable might not get the attention it needs. An owner might give the nod just to get things moving and end up being dissatisfied with the final result.


2. Formal processes

If you think your agency does things informally, you should see a small, fledgling business handle its operations.

Most things are ad-hoc. Decisions are taken fast. Long meetings are rare. Process follows action - instead of the other way around.

While this can make for exciting work, it also means that your own process-oriented work culture has to adapt. You have to fit their fast-paced workflows with your more organized approach. This can make things a little complicated, especially if the client wants to move faster than you can.

Speaking of pace…


3. Working speed

Savvy small businesses have adopted startup practices. More and more digital-focused brick and mortar businesses are jumping on the “move fast and break things” bandwagon. 

 Graphic quote
(Image source)

This faster pace is exhilarating for your creatives but it can leave you and your managers exhausted. It can also turn into extra work - the client might backtrack on a decision, leaving you with a stack of change requests.

You have to change your own pace to match the client’s pace. Or sometimes, get them to slow down to match your pace. Both of which can be an immense challenge.


4. Unfamiliarity with agencies

Most mature businesses have at least some experience of working with agencies.

The same can’t be said for small businesses.

They will often be unfamiliar with your approach, your lingo, and your ways of working. This means you often end up investing a lot of effort upfront just to get them up to speed. Expect a great deal of handholding, especially if the client has never worked with an agency before.


5. Profitability and creative output

In the end, it’s about profitability.

Small businesses simply don’t have the same marketing budget as a $100m mid-sized company. They need to watch their expenses. Expect every bill to be scrutinized and every expense to be argued against.

Limited profitability means that you can’t offer custom solutions to smaller clients. You have to create more scalable solutions, which, while profitable, can dampen your creative output. Have too many such projects and your creative team will get burnt out - a recipe for long-term disaster.


So how do you balance these issues? What can you do to make the entire process of working with small businesses fun, profitable, and comfortable - for clients and for your team?

I’ll share some pointers in the next section.


5 Strategies to Succeed with Small Business Clients

The challenges of working with small businesses are clear - pace, rhythms, decision making and profitability. Your onboarding process should be built to address each of these challenges while putting new clients at ease.

Here are five tactics that can help you achieve this.


Fine-tune your onboarding process

Place yourself in the shoes of a small business owner.

They’ve just signed on with their first agency. It’s one of their biggest expenses so far. They’re excited, hopeful, and at least a little nervous. 

They might see your fancy office (or well, your Zoom videos!) and your list of blue-chip clients and your industry jargon and get intimidated. What if they made the wrong decision? What if you’ll ignore them and focus on your $500k accounts?

Marketing challenges Chart

Most small businesses continue to struggle with core marketing activities and eventually turn to agencies (image source)


This is why you need to create a separate onboarding process for smaller clients. 

This process should focus on the issues small business owners face at the start of a relationship, such as:

  • Unfamiliarity with industry jargon
  • Unfamiliarity with agency processes
  • Feeling insecure that they won’t get the same attention as bigger accounts
  • Concern about the timeline for seeing results
  • Concern about costs and transparency
    Your onboarding process should address each of these clearly. For instance, you can:


  • Avoid using jargon in meetings and onboarding processes. If you absolutely must, make sure that you explain each term. Create a glossary of terms if necessary and make it easily accessible.
  • Explain your processes, especially the way you work, your timelines for responding to issues, and what’s expected of them.
  • Explain your billing process. Make it clear to them how and when they will be billed. Also, explain how you account for expenses. Share a sample bill if you have to - anything you can do to reassure them that they will be billed fairly and transparently.
  • Make yourself available. Don’t give them the impression that once the deal is signed, you’ll go AWOL and someone junior will replace you. 


You have to treat this relationship delicately. Small businesses are often sacrificing a great deal to use your services. Reassuring them that it will be worth it is the first step towards a fruitful relationship.


Understand how they work

Small businesses might not have the well-documented formal processes of a large company, but it doesn’t mean everything they do is disorganized and ad-hoc.

Most small businesses have some structure to their work - documented or otherwise. Understanding this is crucial to getting them on the same page.

During initial kickoff meetings, try to figure out how they manage their operations, especially in the following areas:


  • Preferred communication mode (phone, email, text messages, Slack, etc.)
  • Best time/method to contact
  • Best time/method to contact for urgent matters 
  • Alternate contacts and contact methods

Organization and project management:

  • Whether they use any dedicated tool for managing their projects
  • Their approach to organizing and delegating tasks
  • How they keep track of deadlines 


Knowledge management:

  • Whether they have any place to document learned knowledge (wiki, Google Docs, etc.)
  • How do they store and organize their content such as sales collateral, designs, etc.


This isn’t meant to be an interview. Your goal is simply to get a feel for how they operate and their familiarity with formal processes and tools. If, for instance, they’re familiar with Gantt charts and Kanban boards, it makes your job a little easier since they can understand how you work.


Temper their expectations

Small businesses often enter an agency relationship with the belief that it will instantly fix all their marketing problems. They might have been misguided by the internet, their own bias, or perhaps even your salespeople trying to close a lead.

You, of course, know that digital success is a process.

When you onboard a new client, it’s important that you set expectations early. Your services aren’t a magical panacea, nor do they work overnight. If there are faults with their business, people, or product, no amount of clever marketing can paper over it.

Most importantly, give them a reasonable timeline for results. Share your average results for similar clients over a 3 month, 6 month, and 12 month period. 

The less clients expect overnight success, the happier they will be.


Productize certain services

If you want to work with small businesses, you will have to productize some of your services. It’s simply not financially feasible to offer customized solutions to every small account.

Productizing your service essentially means relying on templates and ready-made solutions instead of creating something customized. You might not have 100-hour brainstorming sessions for a new brand. Instead, you might just borrow from a set of ready-to-use templates, customize certain elements, and offer it to clients.

99Designs price and screenshots

Transforming your services into products essentially involves atomizing them into smaller units - “landing page” and “logo” instead of a full-fledged brand identity - as followed by 99Designs showed above.


The problem with this approach is twofold:

  • It’s dishonest, especially if you’ve promised the client “custom solutions”
  • It doesn’t always lead to the best results for the client

The solution is to adopt a hybrid approach where you productize certain low-level elements and customize the rest.

For instance, for a new brand, you might create a completely custom brand identity. But for the website, you might use a ready-to-use template (with brand-specific customizations, of course).

This approach results in lower costs for both you and the client. It also means that the highest impact elements of the client’s marketing get the most attention. 

Essentially, it helps you maximize the client’s money. For small businesses, this is a huge win.

If you adopt this approach, make sure to take care of creative burnout. Productized solutions might work great for you as an agency, but for your creative team, they can be exhausting, morale-sapping drudgery. 

Rotate your teams on such tasks. Mix in anything “productized” they do with work they truly enjoy.


Over to You

Working with small businesses can be extremely rewarding - financially and otherwise. However, there are a few concerns and challenges you need to address for the relationship to work out.

Another way to make the entire small business onboarding process work better is to use an agency-focused management system like Workamajig. Workamajig helps you control the entire client journey - from initial lead to loyal client.

See how Workamajig can transform your business - try a free demo today!

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