Episode 414

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Does your agency have what it takes to provide best-in-class service to your clients? According to Susan Quinn’s research, there are 9 traits that an agency should have in order to get there.

It’s not always about being the fastest or having the best prices. In fact, it’s almost never about price when you’re providing top-notch service. What it ultimately comes down to is living by your agency’s core values, innovation, and an intense focus on quality.

Susan Quinn and her team have been living by these traits so well that they began studying them to find out just what makes the best client experience and best-in-class service. So, if you’re ready to take your agency to the next level and partner with next-level companies, tune in to learn how they constantly improve their client experience and how you stack up against the competition.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

best-of-class service

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The basis for the research about the 9 traits of agencies with best-in-class service
  • Breaking down each trait
  • Why adopting the 9 traits will set your agency up for continued growth
  • How Susan’s agency conducted their research
  • The 3 ways C-Suite employees categorized their best-in-class status
  • How niching down has changed Susan’s agency over decades
  • The importance of partnering with other agencies with the same core values
  • Why you and your agency should always be learning and innovating

“Core values are the behaviors that support the culture. And if you don't have culture, then you can't optimize the employee experience.” - Susan Quinn Share on X
“The numbers will tell the story, ultimately. You have to constantly innovate and improve whatever that may look like within your company.” - Susan Quinn Share on X
“In 2013, we saw that by 2020, the customer experience would overtake price as a brand differentiator. So we started to adjust the way we were focusing on brand, employee, and client experience at a higher level.” - Susan Quinn Share on X
“How we show up as business leaders has a lot to do with the way we think.”- Susan Quinn Share on X
“When they know the essence of your agency, how you think, what you do, and there's a congruency to that, you start to make lifelong uniquely remarkable relationships.” - Susan Quinn Share on X

Ways to contact Susan:


Hey, before we get to the show, I just wanna remind you that we have created a private Facebook group just for you, our podcast listeners. there are almost 1500 agencies, agency owners, inside that Facebook group every day talking about what’s going on inside their shop, asking for resources, gut checking decisions, talking about everything from pricing to hiring, to biz dev. All kinds of things are happening there. We’re starting conversations. You guys are starting conversations. What I love about it is the community’s coming together and sharing resources, encouraging each other, and just sort of having a safe place to talk about what it’s like to own an agency. So all you have to do is head over to Facebook, search for a Build, a Better, Agency Podcast group, or Build, a Better, Agency Podcast.

And you’ll find the group. You have to answer three questions. if you don’t answer the questions, we can’t let you in. But they’re simple. It’s, do you own an agency or do you work at an agency? And if so, what’s the U R L? What are you trying to get out of the group? And will you behave, basically? So come join us. if you haven’t been there for a while, come on back. if you haven’t joined, join into the conversation. I think you’re gonna find it really helpful. All right, let’s get to the show.

Running an agency can be a lonely proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. We can learn how to be better faster if we learn together. Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build, a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ. Tune in every week for insights on how small to mid-size agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market with 25 plus years of experience. As both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute, back with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Super excited about this episode. I think you’re gonna find it fascinating and from a lot of different angles, actually, which I’ll talk about in just a second. Before I do that, I do wanna remind you that we have Money Matters coming up. Money Matters is October 16th and 17th in Denver. It is built for agency owners and right hand folks. Typically, CFOs or people in our financial role could be a director of account service that you want to be more in tune with sort of the metrics that matter to running an agency. But we get rave reviews from this workshop.

I, I love teaching this workshop. It is eye-opening in all of the best ways, but it’s also gonna point out to you some places where you can get stronger and better and more profitable. And so we talk about for two days, nothing but money. So pricing strategy, compensation models, sales taxes, you name it, anything tied to money, we cover it. And it’s all the agency best practices that you just don’t learn any place else. You, you’re not gonna learn it in an M M B A program. You’re not gonna learn it in school or in a book because it’s very specific to agencies. So we would love to have you join us. Head over to agency management institute.com under the How We Help.

You’re gonna find a workshops subtab. Money Matters is right there. Get registered and come join us if you attend and you’re like, yeah, this, this was not awesome. I didn’t learn anything. Drew and Danielle suck, whatever. We’re happy to give you your money back, we’ve never had to before, but there is no risk for you to attend. And I promise lots of R o I to attend. So join us. All right, so let me tell you a little bit about our guest today. So Susan Quinn is an agency owner that a m I has known for many, many years. We’ve worked with her and her business partner and her leadership team for a very long time, on and off. And they’ve just done some really remarkable things.

And I wanna dig into some of the ways that they have differentiated themselves, some of the learnings that they have, and in particular, the niche that they’ve landed on is very interesting. It’s gonna be interesting to you as a business owner. And it’s also gonna be interesting to you as an agency owner or leader in terms of doing strategy and guidance for your clients. So, lots of information packed into this episode. Lots of insight for you, again, both about running your agency, but also about how you can help your clients grow their business better. So without further ado, let’s get Susan on the show and let her start to telling you the story. Susan, welcome to the podcast.

Good morning, Drew. It’s great to be here with you.

So tell everybody a little bit about your background and the agency and then we’re gonna dig into sort of how you decided to niche and, and some of the fascinating things you’ve learned since you’ve done that. But first, give everybody just a little bit of background,

But Drew, I am one of those accidental agency owners for sure. I come from a family. My mom’s father was a business owner, owned a small little grocery store. My father was one of six boys, four of the six had their own company. Own company. I’ve got three brothers. My youngest brother owns a company. It, it’s just in my d n a. So

Yeah, right. You were born to do this? I

Was born to to be somehow involved with a business agency. I don’t know, maybe it landed in my lap, but I did do, I started out in marketing and I loved marketing. And then when my daughter was born almost 40 years ago, I hung my own shingle. So today we are a boutique firm based in Richmond, Virginia, and we focus on experiences. We focus on three of them, a best brand experience. And I’m sure a lot of the agencies are involved in that, creating a best in class employee experience. And that’s pretty important today.

Yes. To attract and talent that will ultimately you do those two things well, and then the customers, the clients, you should be able to reach that goal. And so those three experience are, are what we focus on, connecting the dots and helping. I mean, we all want everyone to grow, but that is exactly what we focus on every day.

So, so for many years you as an agency were generalists and then you started narrowing in and had a depth of clients in certain industries. But as you and your leadership team really wrestled with, you know, how do we specialize? How do we niche down? How do we really dive in? How did you land on the best of class? ’cause really, I would argue that the best brands embrace the best of class of employees and clients. I don’t think you can be a best brand if you don’t wrap those other two things around you. So I think the work that you’ve done to sort of identify those three parts of the whole are really fascinating.

And I know that we’re, I wanna talk about the research you’ve done and some of the things that make somebody a best of class. But first, how did you guys sort of gravitate towards that niche for your agency? And those are the kind of clients now that you serve.

Well, we certainly have followed the wise person that I’m speaking to today that there are riches and niches. You know, narrowing your focus. The old saying, we can do anything we want Drew, we just can’t do everything. Right. if you would look at over, you know, for 40 years, my, my firm now in the last 25 as Circle S, we are a B two B firm. Yeah, no doubt that that’s where we have our expertise. That’s what we know and love. We also knew there were two areas that we did a lot of work in a e c, a lot of engineers, construction a lot in the financial world.

And we were really looking for a third leg to the stool, if you will, right? I mean, right. For me it was, you know, what would be consistent and a little bit evergreen regardless of that, that industry that you focus on

And really recession proof, right? I mean, there’s, there’s really never an economic time where a company doesn’t wanna be best in class.

I would say that the big brands that we all know, certainly in the B two C world, yeah, they’ve got a lot of money. They’ve got a lot that goes behind that they care about the brand, they care about. Oh, I mean, Starbucks back in the day, that was really what started that company. And so I think it’s more front and center, maybe not so much in the professional services where we have expertise. So it’s a little bit of the remi, we know what we need to do to be healthy.


But there are a million books on how to do it better. I think this is a good reminder for the industries that we serve, that it’s not just that you are the smartest engineer, you’re not just the smartest financial advisor. So I think it’s a good reminder of the traits that get you to the highest performing levels. Yeah. And the experiences Drew that we think, and I’m sure you would agree, ’cause I, I hear enough of your podcasts that we are in the experience age, we’re not in the information age. That’s right. It’s, it’s been coming as we’ve seen it for the last 10 years.

No, no doubt. And and I think some of the things you’ve uncovered and some of the things you’re helping clients with, you know, some of them, and we’ll get into what the traits are, but you know, some of them are like, well, yeah, but the combination of the nine is sort of the magic. And so, you know, I, I know that, that you did some research. So talk about the, so did you identify the traits first and then do the research? Or did the traits come out of the research?

Great question. The traits are what we have been consulting on for about eight years. So that those traits came from our own curiosity of looking at

And experience

In experience. Yeah. So 40 years of doing this research, we’re always looking, we’re always digging. And then it was our list of what we see for our clients. Gosh, when they do these nine things well, they are outperforming their peers. Yeah. So we started looking at that from a consulting standpoint. And then the research was testing, do they matter? And I can step through whatever questions you may have on that. Yeah.

Well first let’s talk about because, but I, because I think it’s fascinating that, again, decades of experience between you, your business partner, your leadership team, your core team. So this is not you guys sitting around a conference room table one day and saying, Hey, what makes a best of class company? This is you guys having lived it, watched it, experienced it with your clients, and distilling it down to these things. So it, it is decades of insight and knowledge and real life experience of watching how these traits transform a good company into something that is truly best of class.

So walk us through the nine traits and then we’ll talk about the research and what you learned about the nine traits.

I’d like to also, as I step through them, you said something very powerful. It’s not just, they’re like, yeah, okay. But every single one of them connect and every single one is done at a high level. So with that, your insight on that and on number one, you define your guiding principles at a high level. You not only have them, you walk them, you talk them, you live them, you breathe them. So on those guiding principles, your purpose, yeah, it’s clear and people can cite them. Your vision, it’s no kidding, it’s laser sharp.

Whether it’s a three-year, five-year. Now back in the day we’d do 15. Right? Your mission, how you do it, you know, a lot of companies have that. A lot of it, it’s a check the box, but the core values Drew, they do that better than a lot of other companies. They’re

Not, yeah. It’s not just something on the wall, right? They like, actually, they actually use the core values to make corporate decisions. And so, and that’s sort of their check and balance, right? To see if they are, is their litmus test to see if they really are on the right path.

And that was one of the questions in the research. So I love where you’re going with that. And we can come back, ask me to come back to a story on core values. Okay? You either have them or you don’t. Right? But we, we push on that. But the core values, they’re words, but they’re the behaviors that’s core the culture. And if you don’t have culture, then you can’t optimize the employee experience, which is the second one. These firms are doing it better from the time you’re a prospect as an employee, even as you have exited, retired, it is optimized at the highest level. And then those two in place, you can exceed your customer or client experience because you’re focused on all of the details of it.

Makes sense. Everyone does it. No, they don’t. But then the next part that we see in these firms is that the focus on quality is intense. And the qa qc program, you don’t just do it once again, you live it every day. The part of another component, the dashboard is rich. I mean, if you were flying a plane, that dashboard, it is in front of you and you have real time on key experiences, financial, what’s keeping employees, and that they’ve got a different dashboard. That’s pretty interesting.

Is there one? Well, no, ’cause every company and every person is different, right? There’s also this holistic approach to their ecosystem, particularly as they, they’re doing strategic planning. And so what they do, it’s the lens of all the stakeholders. And that is a slightly different, and we look at that too. Yeah, you can stay in your jar, but you have to know the intersection and how that creates stronger partnerships and alliances. So they do that. Well, another one, they avoid complexity,

Making the complex simple.

Yeah. Steve Jobs had a great, I mean he did did that. He made the, with a smartphone, but it took a whole lot to get it that simple. We’re in a world today, don’t make me think.


So if I have to pull out a manual to do the basics, then you’re making me think it’s gotta be pithy that that close adapt to change. And they’ve got means and measures to do so. So I don’t know about you, but they’re pretty strong headwinds that we’re seeing,


The ones that have these nine traits front and center every day, they are navigating, they are able to move that sailboat and they, they’re catching it, but they are navigating around a lot of it. And then the last one is, and this may be my favorite ’cause at the core, I think that’s who we are as a company, that you continue to learn and you continue to improve that you never just quite there. So those are the nine,

Those are a lofty nine.


Because a lot of them, I think a lot of companies give lip service to, right? But to actually weave them into your best practices, your boundaries, your guidelines, your how you hire, how you grow people, like all of those, everything you just listed, all nine impact. First the employee experience, then the customer experience, you know, as, as you know, because we’ve known each other forever. You know, I’m a big Walt Disney fan, and, and Walt’s whole premise was, if you take care of the cast members, they take care of the clients and the, and what they call the guests, right?

And from there, the money comes. Like, he had a very clear understanding. And I think the, the nine traits that you just listed are the same thing. Like, look, you gotta have your house in order first, everybody’s gotta understand where we’re going and why we’re going there. And then we have to treat everybody the way they wanna be treated. We have to create great opportunities for our people, and then we can put out a quality product for our clients and create a great experience for them. Oh, and by the way, no matter how good we are today, tomorrow’s gonna be different. And we have to keep learning and improving to get better. I mean, that’s, that is a, that’s one of those things that it’s, it’s every company says they do it, but do they actually do it?


I love that. And I think that’s what we see. And the numbers will tell the story ultimately. Yeah. If you’re not staying relevant, you know, we’re living and you have to constantly innovate and improve whatever that may look like within your company. Innovation isn’t, you know, you’re setting the greatest and grandest, but you know, innovation should be in every company, right? if you be doubling revenue or, you know, having someone want to trust you as a customer, or by the way, attract the talent that you want,


They’ve gotta see that in the core of your company.

Well, and I think it’s the trait of that, especially with the speed of change today. The reality of that is there isn’t, there is not a company that’s not being held to that standard by both their employees and their, and their clients or customers, right? It’s how, how are you helping me today? But how are you also preparing to help me tomorrow?

It’s a pretty high bar.


You know, it used to be perhaps the management, you know, you held a high bar and you would just tell people, your team, this is how we’re gonna do it. Right? Everyone wants to be part of the equation, right? You know, there’s leadership today. You’ve got context to how everyone fits into the puzzle. I’ve never seen it at a higher level.


We need context at every level. And that takes a lot of energy, you know? And does it impact profitability? Well, the numbers show that when you do best in class, you can double revenue within three years. Now we may be, the headwinds may be slowing that a little bit, but in more

Normal, even still though.


I mean, even if it takes five years to double revenue, that is still for, as you said, if you have a three or five year goal, that’s a pretty lofty goal. You know, as you know, one of the things we talk a lot about is, you know, you can only grow so fast without, without breaking all the systems and all the processes. But to double in size every three or five years is, that’s aggressive growth.

Yeah. It’s the good, the ugly of all of that.

But, but it is also for most companies, their number one goal is to keep growing. And so if behaving in these ways, if embracing these traits and truly living them, you know, that’s, that’s not about being cheaper. It’s not about making the stuff faster. It’s not about like, it’s not about all the things that I, a lot of the levers that a company would typically wanna pull or think they have to pull to grow in revenue and profits. This is really just about being a better company and being more true to who you really are and who you aspire to be. So I wanna talk a little bit about the research and then I wanna talk, but we’ll probably take a break.

But then I wanna talk about, okay, it’s great that you know all of this, but now how are you, how is, how is Circle Ss applying all of this and helping their clients embrace it? So first, talk to us a little bit about the research, how you did the research, some of the surprising insights that came from that research and then, then I’ll dig into more. I just have a million questions.

Sure. I think we mentioned in 2013 we saw that by 2020 that the customer experience would overtake price as a brand differentiator. So we saw that literally 10 years ago and we started to adjust the way we were focusing on brand, employee and client experience at a higher level, making sure their guiding principles were strong. So making sure everything was right at home so that they could, we could get the lift.


Then Covid hits, remember that fun little thing back in? Oh

Yeah. That, yes I do. I vaguely remember that. Yes.

Yeah. Well we thought we would be, you know, working from home for two weeks and then we don’t need to tell everyone the story. We’ve lived it, we’ve known it, but it was, wow, we have been following this whole experience part and now we’re seeing research that says in the great resignation that 89% are leaving because they don’t feel a sense of purpose at where they’re working. Yeah. And we’re, whoa, alright, how does purpose the nine traits covid disrupting us? Is there anything we need to be looking at differently?

Should we basically be consulting in a different way? So we sought our wonderful friend, Susan Byer, and said, okay, we’re ready. I’ve always wanted to do research.


The hypothesis was that purpose is really important and these three experiences will help us navigate the uncertain waters of Covid and, and the change that we don’t know. And then Susan said, well, you know, my job is to prove your hypothesis wrong. So I’m like, alright, go for

It. Right.