Episode 273:

For many agency owners systems is the S Word. We bristle at the idea of being confined. It feels like an attempt to stifle our creativity and ability to think out of the box. But if we’re honest with ourselves, there’s a lot of wash-rinse-repeat in our work every day. And without systems (which I translate to “the agency’s way of doing something) everyone develops their own way of accomplishing each and every task. Not only does that mean we are inconsistent at best but it also means that if that employees leaves, so does their tribal knowledge. This is a problem we can and should solve.

My guest for this episode is Josh Fonger, a Business Performance Architect and co-founder of the company, Work The System. The company is based on a book by the same name by Sam Carpenter and exists to help people implement the concepts. If you loved Michael Gerber’s book The E-Myth, but wished he’d told you HOW to follow his recommendations, you’ll love hearing from Josh.

In our conversation, Josh outlines not only why systems are important but the specific steps you can take to build them into your agency, no matter how long your agency has been around or how you’re functioning today. While the work may not seem sexy, once the processes are in place, you’ll love the reduction of mistakes, the ability to scale and the increase in profitability.

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.

Business Systems

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Practical tips for how to create systems for your agency
  • Why processes actually create more space for creativity
  • How the tribal knowledge method can fail you
  • Examples of how documenting systems allow you to productize your service
  • How to get started when it all feels so overwhelming
  • The agency owner’s role in building systems
  • How to document processes in a way that your team will actually reference them
  • How to get everyone (including the company owner) to follow the process once it’s in place
  • Productivity tips for how agency owners can extract themselves from the day-to-day in order to concentrate on business development.
“Systems and processes aren’t about crushing creativity. It’s about the methodology to get to the place where you can be creative.” @fongerj Click To Tweet “People come and go but systems stay.” @fongerj Click To Tweet “You have to see systems, not as a destination, but something you’re building.” @fongerj Click To Tweet “Creating systems and processes is about investing one brick at a time in your future.” @fongerj Click To Tweet “The more systematic you are, the less gray area there is.” @fongerj Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Josh Fonger:

Additional Resources:

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. The Build to Better Agency podcast presented by White Label IQ is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody, Drew McClellan here from Agency Management Institute. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. And this is an episode that is focused on a topic that a lot of you like to think about, maybe like to talk about, but actually don’t want to do. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, doesn’t mean we don’t need to do it, but this is not something that is going to excite you. So why in the world would I start an episode that way because by now half of you have stopped listening. So hopefully the rest of you have stuck around.

The reason why I want to talk about this topic is because I know a lot of you have growth goals and plans for 2021 or whatever year it is that you are listening to this because you always have growth goals and plans. And one of the things that gets in our way is the lack of systems and process. So in many agencies of a certain size, and I would say, I see this really raising its head when you get to about eight, nine, 10 people. You struggle with it smaller than that, but this is when it really gets to be problematic.

Is at an agency of eight, nine, 10 people, you’re finally getting to the point where there’s too much going on for all of you to know everything that everyone else is doing. So it’s uncomfortable, if you were a smaller agency and you grew into 10, 12, 15 people. First, particularly for the agency owner, it’s disconcerting not to know what is happening in the agency and not to know what everybody else is doing and where every project is at. But you’ve gotten to the point where you just can’t possibly have all of it in your head anymore.

And at this point you are also at the point where you don’t really have the agency way of doing things. You may have the outcome, maybe the same for the agency, but everybody who does something, let’s say design an ad, everybody who designs an ad does it a little differently. They approach the work in their own way as opposed to a defined agency way. So a couple of problems with that. Number one, somebody leaves, Babette takes off and goes to work for another agency. Everything that was in her head and how she did her work, gone.

Two, those discrepancies between how Babette does it, versus how Drew does it, versus how Mary does it, those are minor until they get to be major. And sooner or later, and many of you have experienced this, the discrepancy is that they get to be a bigger deal and it’s noticeable when one person versus another person on your team does something either internally or on behalf of a client. And the worst part of it is that every time you grow and you add another staff person or somebody leaves and you have to replace them, you have to reinvent the training and the onboarding because there is no documentation to the work that you do.

And I think that we as an industry really bristle at the idea of systems or processes because we think of our work as creative. And so if you remember back to the episode I did, the Wonder Bread factory versus the Artisanal bakery, those of you that love to make everything as unique and custom to the client, and there’s no, as you would call it cookie cutter to the work, the idea of systemizing that seems counterintuitive. For those of you that run more of a Wonder Bread factory, where you are doing the same kind of work for the same kind of clients on a consistent basis, one of the reasons why Wonder Bread factory agencies make so much money is because they have embraced the idea of there should be a common way of doing things that is efficient and effective and people can step in and out of the role and nothing gets lost in the translation.

So I’m going to argue and my guest, I think will argue that systems and process aren’t about crushing creativity. They aren’t about keeping you from giving your client a custom solution or a custom answer to their problem, it has nothing to do with it. It’s really about methodology to get to the place where you can be creative and you can do your best thinking. And even if you think all of that is garbage, you have to understand that you’re going to be stuck at 10 or 12 or 15 people if you don’t create systems and processes inside your business.

There’s no other way around it. You may not want to ever be a Wonder Bread factory. You may not subscribe to Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth, where everything is documented. But there are certain things we do that absolutely can be and should be documented, and that’s what I want to talk about today with our guest. But before I tell you about him, and before we jump into the conversation, I also want to remind you that without a doubt for every single one of you listening, one of the most important systems or processes that you can have, and frankly, one of the least likely systems or processes that I see inside agencies is your biz dev process.

So if you’re listening to this in real time Stephen Westner and I are teaching a workshop in Orlando on January 21st and 22nd called How to Build and Nurture your Agency Sales Funnel. And here’s what I’m here to tell you. First of all, the workshop is very hands-on. So you’re going to leave the workshop with a sales funnel built out, with a sales plan built out. You’re going to know who you want to talk to. You’re going to know what you’re going to talk to them about. You’re going to know how often you’re going to talk to them. What channels you’re going to use.

You’re going to have a calendared, like we’re going to make you do the work in the workshop, because I know that if we just teach you what you should do, but we don’t actually show you how to do it, and we don’t make you do it, you’re going to go back to the office and it’s not going to get done. So we’re going to make you do it in the workshop. But I promise you if you come to the workshop and you stay focused and you do the work and let us help you do the work, this will be the last new business system or process you ever have to build. That’s how powerful it is.

This is a workshop we taught for the first time in January of 2020, and the agencies that attended that workshop that put that into play for themselves, went into the pandemic strong, came out of the pandemic strong and have teed up for a killer 2021. So if you are open to joining us, we are capping the workshop at 25 people. It’s on Disney property. They have been incredible about safety. Not one person has contracted COVID from being on Disney properties as they reopened in July, so I am very confident that you’ll be safe.

But if you’re open to it and you want to kick off 2021 with the last biz-dev the system or process that you’ve ever had to create, if you’ve ever created one, and you would like a sustainable biz-dev program at keeps putting right fit clients into the sales funnel, come on down to Florida and join us and let us show you how. All right. So let me tell you a little bit about today’s guest. So Josh Fonger is a business performance architect and he is co-founder of the company called Work the System.

So Work the System, the company is based on a book called Work the System, that Josh did not write, but he connected with the author and they decided to create a company helping people implement the book. And many people say that Work the System, which by the way I highly recommend the book. That Work the System is the sequel to E-Myth that Michael Gerber could have, or should have written. So this shows you how to do what Michael Gerber inspired you to want to do.

So I’m going to pick Josh’s brain as aggressively as I can for you to get as much good wisdom and practical tips as I can about how we can and should systemize our business so that the agency runs smoother, more profitably and can grow without as much friction. All right? So let’s get to it. Josh, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Josh Fonger:

Glad to be here.

Drew McLellan:

So I gave a little bit of your background, but explain to everyone sort of how Work the System the company came to be and your role in that.

Josh Fonger:

Sure. Yeah, definitely. Well, it’s kind of a … I’ll give you the short version, let me just put it that way. So Sam wrote a book called Work the System. And he wrote it in his, I guess his late 50s, early 60s, and he was not writing the book to start a company. He didn’t need a company. He had his income from the company Centratel, which is what the book is based on. And so he was not trying to start a coaching or consulting company.

And meanwhile, I was traveling the globe as a consultant. So I was flying from company to company, to company fixing them with their inside sales and outside sales and their branding and marketing, just kind of a generalist, right? And I was getting pretty burned out with being on the road. And providentially, we met, we talked and we said, “Well, let’s just start this company together. We’ll call it Work the System based on the book.” And so that was over 10 years ago. And that’s how it began.

And really for me as a consultant, what I was noticing my work was that I would work with a company and they would improve, but then I would go away and then six months later, a year later, two years later, they were back to where they were before. And then I’d come back in and do the same thing. And I was noticing that the solutions were good solutions, but they just weren’t sticking. And that’s where the methodology really comes in. The Work System method is that it actually makes all your best practices stick so your company can actually grow instead of just stay at a plateau. And so we just had a great relationship and worked together and that’s how it started.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. Okay. So I want to read something that you guys have written about the company, because I think this tees up our conversation. As you and I talked about before we hit the record button, agency owners as a general rule don’t love systems and process. They feel confined by them as opposed to it being freeing to get the minutia out of way so they can do their bigger thinking. But something you guys wrote was and this is I think from the book.

“So the simple mechanics of making more and working less, helping business owners get unstuck using systematic solutions and helping businesses properly organize and systemize their operations so they can achieve exponential growth.” So talk to us a little bit about that. Everyone has seen the dark side of systems, which is, it tells me what to do and agency owners loath to be told what to do.

But talk to us a little bit about sort of your philosophy and the book’s philosophy around how do I do this? Like how do I do this to get to the point of growth? What is the methodology that frees me to grow my company?

Josh Fonger:

That’s a great question. I’m probably going to give you a long answer.

Drew McLellan:

It’s okay.

Josh Fonger:

Is that, a lot of times people get stuck in the tactics of the, how to do it, and I’m sure we’ll get there during this interview. But it starts with not seeing their world properly or not really thinking about their business properly. And so people usually complicate what they do and it’s more overwhelming than it needs to be. And so a big part of what we try to help people do in the beginning is to see their world differently, see their business differently and see it as a series of systems, repeatable processes that actually you could break up into separate pieces.

And if you did, you’d realize the simpleness, the simplicity of those pieces and the repetition of those pieces, and then the ability to delegate those pieces, optimize those pieces, document those pieces, whatever it might be because different treatment might need to happen to different pieces. Case in point, my wife and I have a system for our relationship. And so the goal is a great relationship, a great marriage, right?

And one of the components of that, because if I just said, hey, make a great marriage, that’s hard to do. One component is to have a date night. So the system is, every Friday night to go on a date. It’s a system. It’s repeatable, right? It’s something that we can count on and then we can improve upon that and make it better and make it consistent and make it … fulfill the requirements of a successful date night, we don’t necessarily need to document how we do that.

Drew McLellan:

You don’t have like a three ring binder on date nights?

Josh Fonger:

No, but I think this is where people who are creative, they get stuck in that. Well, if I did that, then it will take the joy out of it. But instead it’s just a routine, that’s a habit. Now, I’m not delegating date night to anyone else, right?

Drew McLellan:

And it will not make a great marriage by the way.

Josh Fonger:

No.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, having someone else plan or participate in your date night, not a good idea.

Josh Fonger:

Well, that’s the night without the kids. But in your business, if want to extract yourself from the day-to-day. You actually do have to find a way to take those best practices and document those specific elements so that they can be done at a consistent way. Because we say, systems stay, people come and go, but systems stay. And so what you want to do is obviously find great people and give them great tools to work in, but you ultimately are going to need to have those things written down so that training, delegation, cross training, optimizations, measurements can happen.

And so that’s what we try to ultimately get the owners to get to the how, but first it needs to start with having a mindset shift change, and then seeing their world as, oh yeah, you know what? There are a lot of repeatable things. They are actually simple if I break them down and therefore, because they’re simple, because I break them down, I know that I could delegate some of those pieces.

Drew McLellan:

One of the things that I talked to agency owners about a lot is they get to a certain size and they realize that everybody in a certain department has their own way of doing something. So it’s Babette’s way and Mary’s way, and Bob’s way as opposed to the agency’s way. And so to your point, when Babette leaves and takes all of that tribal knowledge with her, now it has to all be reinvented.

Josh Fonger:

Yup. Totally. I mean, it happens in every company and people don’t like to think about someone leaving, but it’s inevitable. I mean, every couple of years, people are going to leave sometimes sooner. So you want to extract the best practices as you’re going along instead of just waiting for the right time to do it. You just need to start doing it, knowing it’s going to happen. And I think usually where people get stuck is they think this is going to be a long time and I don’t want to document, that’s perfect, and so therefore I just won’t get started. As opposed to, if you’re going to have a sales call with somebody, why don’t you take notes as you do that sales call, make a little diary of how you’re doing it.

And then the next time you do a sales call with someone else and they take some notes, and then the next time someone new does it, so then you’re building those best practices in an organic way. And then eventually you’re going to formalize it and figure out the best way to do it. Instead of just seeing it as a project that you’re just going to do some day as opposed to just getting started.

Drew McLellan:

I can remember, gosh, this was probably 20 years ago. So I own an agency and I also run AMI. So in my agency, probably 20 years ago I read, of course like everyone has the E-Myth by Michael Gerber. And I was like, all gung-ho, we were going to systemize everything. And so I assigned the development of systems to someone on my team. And so like three weeks later they brought me this binder of systems and they had like documented ridiculous things like how to make coffee, right? And I was just like, I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about.

So I think one of the places where agencies get stuck is its overwhelming. When they think about everything they do that, the idea of documenting in air quotes, all of it seems over … So how do I decide what’s worthy of documenting or in what order I begin to create systems?

Josh Fonger:

That’s a great way to do it. And the order in which it actually happens might not always make the most logical sense on paper. So case in point is usually people will start documenting based on things they’re doing right now because they’re doing it. So it’s not like I need to stop what I’m doing and go document something different. I’m putting an event on next week, we should probably document it as we’re doing it, that just makes logical sense.

It might not be the place where we’re bleeding the most, it might not be the biggest opportunity, but it’s just something we’re doing, so that makes sense to do that. Also, for those people who are in smaller businesses right now, it’s typically things that you, as the owner are doing. So those day-to-day things that you’re doing, you know you shouldn’t be doing, you should be doing high level tasks, more CEO level things. And so those are things that are not necessarily are going wrong. They’re not necessarily things that are going to bring in the most money, but they’re just freeing up the owners’ time is always a smart thing to do. And so we’ll start with those.

And beyond that, it’s going to be the elements in your company that are done the most often. Those also should be documented. So you might say, hey, let’s do this thing that we do once a month that’s really important. And it might be, but if you’re doing 50 sales calls a day, you probably want to document that because it’s probably 10, 15, 20% improvement you could make on that if you really got down to the details and that’s going to have your biggest benefit quickest. And it’s funny because Sam does have, how to make coffee as a procedure in his business, right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Josh Fonger:

But they’ve been doing this for 15 years now, and so it wasn’t the first one. It probably wasn’t even in the first 150, they did. But also what I would say is the level of detail they did for that one was pretty small. They basically, they have a coffee maker. They googled it and found how to make coffee based on the coffee maker, and hit print, and they just taped it to the wall. So it took them seven minutes to make that procedure. So you also need to invest the right amount of time on the actual procedure you’re doing. So some of them getting it perfect really matters because working with this nuclear power plant, repair company and getting it perfect matter.

Drew McLellan:

Right, much more than the coffee, yeah.

Josh Fonger:

The other ones, not so much, right? You don’t have to stress yourself out by and getting those best practices in place. You’re always going to find innovations. You’re always going to find automations. You’re always going to find improvements that you didn’t see because you never really took just a few moments to focus in on it and write it down. And I mean the other key benefit is, other folks in your company will get a chance to look at it and say, “Oh, I didn’t know you were doing it that way. That’s an easier way to do it. Didn’t you know about this thing over here. And when you pass it over to me, I wish you would add this thing. It takes like four hours of work because you don’t.” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, that’ll take me two minutes to add this thing in there.” And all of these ideas will come to the surface because there’s a place for the ideas to go. Previously the ideas were just in people’s heads and they weren’t tangible. So it’s-

Drew McLellan:

And they probably were often unspoken.

Josh Fonger:

Well, exactly. And everyone just, well, I thought that they knew and I assumed they knew and they assumed this and it works. I mean, you can kind of grow, and see why my family businesses have done historically well, is that there everyone had the sixth sense. They all knew each other. They were in the same family. And so they were able to just because of the way they grew up and the way they work together, they can kind of fudge many of those things and loyalty and hard work plus that allow them to grow to a certain size. But if you don’t have that and you actually do want to grow beyond looking at the business, you have to get things documented along the way.

Drew McLellan:

Is there a size of company that you bump into that you’re like, okay, you can get by without systems until you’re about X people. And then the tribal knowledge method really starts to fail you and it becomes a barrier to growth.

Josh Fonger:

I would say and it depends on the industry of course, and your profit margins and stuff. But if you’re doing a half million, at that point, you really have to start to get some things in place because at that size, if you have three or four people that you’re working with pretty regularly, and they all are experts in what they do and you, as the owner are close enough to it, where nothing really goes off the rails. And you’re still figuring out your business model, you’re still figuring out what people want to buy. You’re still figuring a lot of core elements of your business. And so you don’t see documenting the systems as the key to your success.

But I will tell you that I’ve worked with a number of agencies under that size, some even startups, and they just started with this from day one, right? They knew where they wanted to go. And a big part of it was their mindset shift to see how they saw the business differently. And they just started with the idea of building a company that’s systematic, right? Because agencies, there’s one I was talking to yesterday, not a client yet. They’re a marketing, sales, design agency, whatever, they’re into all sorts of different things.

And I said, “Your core thing, it sounds like is putting on online events for people. You get everyone to the place, you put on the event. You do the stuff afterwards, you market it, you advertise it, just this event thing. Like that is a closed loop repeatable system that, there’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of people involved. But if you could just document how that operates and maybe there’s A event, B event, C event, now you can start to productize your service and then you can start to scale this service and actually not being as a nightmare.”

Because I put on events, you put on events, it can be a nightmare if you don’t have things dialed in, if you’re like, we’ll do all events differently. You don’t want to do that. You want to get into routine with it. And so that was the shift for her. And she was doing $150,000 a year, was a shift in strategy and mindset. Not necessarily let’s write a bunch of this stuff down, it was that, that she needed to get.

Drew McLellan:

I think this would be so much easier if we had all started with it in the beginning. I mean, if you had outlined how, and then you just up … that would have been easier. I think the challenge is to your point earlier, it feels overwhelming. And so how do I jump in and start? So I want to ask you about that. Like how do I do this and what is the agency owners’ role in it? I’m going to ask you about that. But first let’s take just a really quick break.

Hey there, you know I am incredibly grateful that you listen every week. And I want to make sure you get all of the support and tips and tricks and hacks that we have to offer. In every issue of our newsletter, I tell you, what’s on my mind, based on the conversations I’ve had with agency owners that week. We also point you to additional resources and remind you of anything we’ve got coming up that you might benefit from. If you are not subscribed to our newsletter now we can fix that in a flash. Head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com/newsletter and complete the symbol forum. And we’ll take it from there. All right, let’s get back to the show.

All right. We are back. And Josh and I are talking about creating systems inside your business based on the book and the company, Work the System. So before we took a break, Josh, I had said, how does an agency owner get past the sense of being overwhelmed? How do they help their team get past the sense of being overwhelmed? And what is the agency owners or the business owners’ role in beginning to systemize their business?

Josh Fonger:

Well, there’s a lot there and maybe I’ll start with the second part is, what is the agency owners’ role in doing it? And for most owners of most companies, it’s not their role to actually get down into the details and document the procedures and name them properly and save them properly and store them properly. That’s not what they often are good at. Some are, but it’s rare.

Drew McLellan:

And not so much as a general rule.

Josh Fonger:

It’s probably not for you. Ideally, you have somebody that you trust, who’s organized, who has administrative skills and some writing skills, who is somewhere else in your business that they can actually spearhead the project of doing this because owners can get excited and push hard for maybe a few weeks, maybe even a month. But it’s not going to be one of those things that they are going to continue to do over time. And if you know that about yourself, don’t get started and have something fail, that’s actually worse for you.

Instead, look at your team and see if there’s someone else in your team who’s capable of taking new and spearheading this. And if you don’t have someone like that, then what I would recommend owners and also the people in your team, if they’re just not the people that do that, is to start simple by just saying, you know what, when I make the sales call, I’m going to record it. When I do this proposal, I’m going to save it as a template. I’m going to start to record the regular tasks that I do.

I’ve got a guy right now that I’m working with where I’m just like, whenever you present to your team, hit record and at least save the video files. We’re not going to do anything with them yet. Just start to think of your work as bite-sized pieces of information that you know are going to be useful for onboarding and training in the future. And so that would be the way I would start to not make it overwhelming. And then as you take a step, the next step will become more obvious, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Josh Fonger:

So you take a few steps and like, oh wait, you know what? I do know that one person who could help me and then you take a few more steps and you’re like, well, and that’s really the more important thing. And I would say, don’t go from zero to 60 miles an hour in your system improvement with your business. Just start and say, we’re going to go 10 miles an hour. We’re just going to start with this. And the role of the leader is to cast the vision for your team and let them know our company is going somewhere. And I know the place we’re going is better than here. And the bridge to get there is going to be a company that’s professional, and the professional elements we need is, we need to actually have, think of our company as a collection of systems and we need to have some of those things documented.

And so we’re going to move in that way. And then you’re going to have to beat that drum from a strategic standpoint for forever, right? But the way it actually looks is going to build on itself. And that’s really the way you have to see it as not a destination, but something that you’re building. And you have to see it also as an investment, like a real estate investment. Like you’re investing one brick at a time in your future and you have to be patient with this. A lot of systems you build are not going to make you a million bucks tomorrow. They’re not hyper sexy, but they are going to make you exponential box in the future as you combine them all together. I think that’s the way to think about it. So it’s not so overwhelming.

Drew McLellan:

So when an agency begins down this path, I think a lot of them would argue that they’re going to go through all of this work. They’re going to document the systems. They are going to live in a proverbial, literal or figurative three ring binder somewhere, and no one’s ever going to look at them again. So how do you document the systems in a way that people actually use the documents to learn how to do the thing and then keep checking back to make sure that they are staying the course.

Josh Fonger:

That’s a great question. And I can tell you, you have some experience with this. And this is the most common thing is, I’m going to write this, then no one’s going to ever look at it again. But yet there’s plenty of recipe books and why is that? Is because people want to codify the best way to make something. And they know that they’re going to forget something. And they know that they’re going to want someone else to make that recipe. And they know when they go back to that recipe, they might make a little note and then say, actually, no, I’m going to add a little bit more vanilla this time, or a little bit more cinnamon this time.

So you have to see it as not something they’re going to put in front of your face 24/7, like you’re a robot. The act of getting these things on paper that in itself is going to be a huge benefit to your business. And so that’s the number one, is creating, it’s going to be a huge benefit.

The second thing is every new person who’s onboarded can have a huge benefit. Every person who’s trained on, it’s some huge benefit. The consistency for measuring is of huge benefit. And then once someone does something, like if you have a procedure for how to tape up a box, once you’ve made maybe two or three boxes, you’re not going to be looking at the procedure every day. Like you’ve got it. You’re taping boxes, that’s fine. And I would not want someone to be looking at that procedure either, right?

But when they have a new idea to do it better or faster, they’re going to go back to the procedure and innovate on the procedure. A new person is going to need to check that box making procedure before they get started, right? And then when they develop a new technology for boxes, a new tape machine, a new technology for printing labels, that box procedure will change. And so don’t feel like you have to be staring at it every day for you to get the value of it. The value of it happens once it transfers into someone’s brain; they’re using it consistently. Whether they’re looking at it consistently, doesn’t matter.

Now, with everyone that we work with, we do set up what’s called maintenance systems and protocols. And basically that means is that every six months or every quarter, every year, you’re going to go back to your systems, the ones that you maybe aren’t looking at all the time, and you’re going to read them together as a group. And you’re going to say, you know what, is there a better way to do this? Is there a faster way to do this? Are we doing it differently now? Did we forget to update this thing?

And then we’re all going to have to train on it and we’re going to file it back away, right? And that’s for most, your systems, but different. So other ones you actually do use all the time, right? Like there was a hotel I was working with where they print it off every day, the daily system for how to manage basically this hotel. And they would check it off every single day. It was all easy stuff. But the chance of forgetting one of those things was high and the repercussions for forgetting one of those things was also high. And so the procedure was used as a checklist that actually did get looked at every single day. So you have to kind of look at them differently, depending on how you’re going to use them.

Drew McLellan:

And how do you recommend someone stores them? Like are these just digital files that somebody keeps in a folder on Google Drive? Do you recommend actually having a book or a thing, like a physical thing? What do you guys recommend?

Josh Fonger:

It depends on the company. Whether it’s a bricks and mortar company or a virtual company, the common recommendation is that if it’s a physical location, you’re going to want to have one master company binders. Got everything in there. You got company-wide meetings. You can have the binder available. You can red line it when things come up during discussions. That’s great to have in case something goes wrong with your digital storage.

Works, you want a digital as well. If the people in your team don’t have multiple screens in their computer, chances are, they’re not going to like pull up the documentation library and review it while they’re doing their work. They’re just not going to do it, right? And so what I also recommend is that each person you give them a little binder and you put their name on it and say, “Hey, here is your binder for the systems that are most commonly used by you. Just print them off, put them right next to you. And then you can always have them.”

Maybe you only take sales calls once a week. Maybe you are developing a new brief every three weeks and just kind of keep the ones that you want to use pretty regularly right next to you. And maybe that’s just like 10 procedures. Everything else is available online. We can find it. We know where the master binder is. That’s usually enough for most companies. The caveat I would add would be put the procedures where you need them. So this would be actually like taping, like just like Sam’s procedure for coffee, it’s taped to the cabinet next to the coffee maker. That makes sense, that’s where you need it, right? And so get really pragmatic with that as well as with your processes.

Drew McLellan:

So I’m sure you’ve never seen this. But I have seen sometimes when agencies create process or systems, the one person who violates the process and system is the agency owner. So they’re the ones that are doing the end run around process and system. How do you, whether it’s the agency owner or someone else, how do you create, and I don’t know if it’s a discipline. I don’t know if it’s an understanding. I don’t know if it’s a carrot and stick public humiliation, but how do you get everyone to actually follow the system once you’ve documented it?

Josh Fonger:

Well, the way you get the team to follow but it is different than the way you get yourself to follow it, are two different things. In terms of the team to follow it, ways to help with that would be allow them to write it themselves or to review it themselves or approve it themselves, or test it themselves as long as they’re engaged and involved in developing whatever they’re supposed to do, the buy-in goes up a lot. And then also make it a rule for the business that when a new one has a better way to do anything, we’re all ears to improve it, right? We don’t want you to be doing a dumb system. We don’t want you be doing things the wrong way.

So always open, but if there isn’t a better way to do it, and you’ve all agreed, this is the best way, you make them initially. And then this is the only way to do it because you’ve determined, this is the best way. This is the only way. And then we will do typically random policing. So you’d randomly double check someone just to make sure that they’re doing it the right way for their own benefit. Now, where this becomes problematic is people are kind of rigid with systems because they think, okay, here is the thing, it must be this way.

But the way we write them is we say, hey, you know what, if there’s some variance in step number four, or if there is some subjective contemplation that needs to happen to go to step five, write that in there. Just say, hey, step five, we generally tell the client no, but if they’re friends of the owner, if they have a big list, then we come up with a solution. So just because it’s documented, doesn’t need to be rigid, right? You can have fluid procedures, right, that actually involve, when you get to the step, think and go forward or stop based on using your mind.

And so that gets a lot more buy-in when you allow people to reason, which is what you want them to do and not make it so rigid, so that’s partly the way we get buy-in. And then if people really don’t follow them, then ultimately, they’re reprimanded, they’re reminded, they’re written up, and then eventually they might leave the company. I have had that happen several times. But what you need to realize, if your agency is built up of people who are fly obviously by their pants, always making on the fly decisions all the time, they probably were extremely useful to you the way your company was before. Their extreme value in coming up with unusual solutions and situations, is it going to become less and less valuable to you over time and possibly a hindrance to your success and scalability over time?

And so that person who is doing a certain role now is going to either need to do a different role that is dynamic, unique and requires that kind of skill, or they’re going to probably not like working there anymore because there’s no problems. Things just kind of things work and there’s no stress. There’s no late nights. We don’t have to go back and forth with a client 10 times and they might just not thrive in that environment anymore. They might just have to find another job. And that happens, and that’s a good thing because lower cost labor typically thrives in a systematic environment. And so you might find that your cost of labor goes down because of the way you built a business and this person who was creative might just be a different part.

Yeah, it’s a long answer to your question. Part two of that would be the actual owner, right? So you, as the owner, are you going to want to follow your systems? Probably not, right? Probably you’re going to be the biggest defender. I know I’m probably the biggest offender in our company, right? And so the way I don’t offend is I try to remove myself from the day to day. The more I remove myself from the day-to-day, then the less I’m going to disrupt the flow of the systems.

And of course, when you go through our methodology, you have a strategic objective, operating principles, working procedures. Basically, documentation, which states where the company is going, how it’s going to get there. And so you empower everyone else and say, this is where we’re going. So if anyone’s going out of these principles or out of this strategy, you can let them know, to help them. And so people in my team let me know, “Hey, Josh, you’re not doing our system.” “Hey, Josh, stop doing that that way.” And I thank them for that because I want to know if I’m screwing up the systems that were built and I get in line.

But as an owner, you’re trying to remove yourself from the day-to-day as much as you can. And then when you do interject into the day-to-day, just try your best to be mindful of that because you know it’s costing you money. And I think the honesty of your team is the best way against that. I’ve done a lot of consulting where people are afraid to be honest with the owner. And in that case, they don’t tell the owner, and the owner doesn’t even know how bad, how much money they’re wasting by screwing up their own business.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and how much they are sort of mucking up everybody else’s day or work because they’re doing the sidestepping.

Josh Fonger:

Yep, definitely.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, and to me, the key of that sentence is the best way to A, not have to follow the systems, but be not muck up the systems is to get out of the day to day. So I know you’ve worked with hundreds of companies and hundreds of business owners. I want to sort of narrow this down now a little bit as we kind of wrap up, but what are some of the ways because here’s what I hear agency owners say, “I know I have to do my job, but I spend so much time doing, basically working in the business that I can’t work on the business.”

So what are some productivity tips or ideas that you’ve seen business owners use to extract themselves out of the day-to-day, so they actually do have time and brain bandwidth to focus on their job? Because as I’m preaching to them all the time, if they are so busy doing the day-to-day work, nobody’s doing the owner’s job. Like there’s no one lining up to do their work. So how do they get more time to do what’s actually on their plate?

Josh Fonger:

I’ll try to give some tactics and it’s not going to be very sexy, there’s no like app that’s going to solve this for you.

Drew McLellan:

Wait, you don’t have some secret methodology that no one’s ever heard before.

Josh Fonger:

No, I was going to give our-

Drew McLellan:

Oh, Josh.

Josh Fonger:

Unfortunately. Yeah. So what I do, we call it making time, it’s one of our modules and one of our programs. But we will do something very tedious. I don’t like doing it, but we will have the owner write on every single thing that they do for a couple of days, like down to like personal things and business things. Like what did when you got up? What’d you do next? What’d you do next? Every single thing, right? And you’re going to find is that you think you’re busy, but I mean, everyone uses all their time, but you might not really been using your time as effective as you think you are. Looking at news, watching video, driving to the store, they can do all of this stuff.  And so there’s usually an hour or two of just waste in everyday. That’s the first thing it’s like, wow, okay, we got some waste. So we try to just say, how do we reinvest that time in your business?

The next thing we’ll do is look at their energy levels. So people will have what’s called biological prime time. And we try to match when they have high energy with their mechanical work, which is business building. And so we make sure, don’t call your mom between eight and 9:00 AM. You probably want to actually be doing some hard work in that time. Like don’t go play tennis at 7:30 in the morning when that’s really, when you’re the most focused to really focus on your business.

And so we swap their schedules so that they are going to actually focus in on business building activities when they have the strength, the stamina, the energy to actually do that kind of work, because that work doesn’t work well on the weekends, it does not work well on the evenings. You can’t do it when you’re tired, it’s not going to happen, right? Because it’s a new skill and it’s hard work. And so we rearrange people’s schedules. Again, by breaking up their life into pieces, we realize which pieces need to be shifted, right, and combined.

And the other aspect of breaking up people’s day into pieces is you realize some of the things you’re doing can be batched. Some of the things you’re doing can be stopped. Some of the things you’re doing can be delegated. And so we also work on saying, hey, these three things, someone else could do this. Who else could do this? Let’s write a system to get this off your plate.

And the last technique, and I’ve given you a lot of techniques here, would be to just block out time and just say, hey, you know what, Thursday morning 7:00 AM to 10:00 AM is going to be building my business time. Let’s block out every single week. Every week you look forward to it. It’s during your biological prime time and you hammer out a couple hours every week building your business, the framework that you need to grow and you just stick to it, right? Rome wasn’t built in a day, your company is not going to be built in a day. You just stick with that. And then you’re going to see the results. It’s inevitable. But I wish there was a better way, a faster way, but these techniques have really worked well for our clients.

Drew McLellan:

I have been advocating for a long time that agency owners carve out either two half days or a full day to basically be unavailable for the working in the business and just make it their biz dev day or whatever it is they have to do that’s solely their job. And the agencies that do it, the agency owners that do it, they come back and they’re like, I’m stunned at how much I can get done in four hours or eight hours when I’m not checking email, when I’m not watching my phone, when I’m not on Slack, but I really am just focused on the big tasks. And so I think everything that you just suggested adds up to a much more productive work-life, which allows you to have, that you’re not working 80 hours a week, trying to get it all done.

Josh Fonger:

And you ask yourself different questions. Would you make me really block out those sections of time? It’s now that this is like a non-negotiable, I’m going to be gone working on business during these times. It makes you come up with new solutions and new ways of delegating things. Because you’re like, wow, if I’m not going to be here, what would have to change in my company for it to operate? Oh, I’d have to give more responsibility to this person. I’d have to tell my clients to do it this way and then … Oh, actually I just realized that I could have been doing this for the last three years if I just … I didn’t carve out the time though.

I think that’s really important for owners. It just life in general, is put the first things first. Put your rocks in first or boulders. Everyone would think of the analogy. And then build the rest of your business and your life around those things. But you can’t skip the fundamentals to get to the day-to-day Tiki-taka tactics. You have to start with the fundamentals and then with everything that’s left and then do those things.

Drew McLellan:

And that’s so true. Agency owners walk in the door literally or figuratively and their whole day is spent diagnosing which fires are the hottest and biggest, putting out that fire, then running to the next fire. And it’s not till four o’clock that they look at their to-do list and go, oh, shoot, I haven’t done any of these things. So you’re absolutely right. Getting some of those important things done before you walk in the door, before you put on the firefighter suit is critical to actually moving your company in the direction you want to move it.

Josh Fonger:

I would just say one more thing with agencies because I’ve worked with some writing agencies, and marketing agencies, and design agencies. And it seems like a lot of their effort and time is on coordination and back and forth and automatic expectations, and just all of the gray area. And just one of the things is, the more systematic you are, the less gray area there is. And so if you just say, “Hey clients, we only accept work or requests on Mondays.” Okay, well, if they send you a request on Wednesday you say, great, we’re going to get to that on Monday.

You build the machine that’s going to produce the best quality work for your clients. And then you tell them, this is how our machine works. Instead of every single client wanting your machine to work their way. You have to be the master of your own machine. And then you say, “Hey clients, this is how we accept requests.” I’ve got someone I’m working with right now, and I trained him, well, years ago now. And he will not start clients except for the 15th of the month. Like we only start new clients the 15th of the month, that’s it. Just that one shift has allowed his team to really onboard clients successfully, give them a great experience, billing, everything is fixed because they only start new clients on the 15th of the month.

And so I think that you really need to take control of your own business, but also make sure those who are entering and how things exit your business, you’ve also documented and defined what good and done looks like, because if you don’t do it, every person you work with, is going to define those handoff points for you and they will do it in their head. So you won’t even know how they’ve defined it and it’s going to change, I mean, moving targets. So it’s better for you to define the intakes and the outtakes associated with your business. And ultimately, you’ll do better work. Your clients will get better results, and they will respect you for having like an operation that does that consistently, and they’ll work around you instead of you working around them. So I would just highly encourage people to think that way.

Drew McLellan:

I’m anxious to hear the listeners’ feedback on that because of course that’s not how most agencies are structured. They’re structured to, when the client says jump, they say how high. So it’d be fascinating to hear how people can kind of recalculate their brain to do that, right?

Josh Fonger:

As long as they … I mean, the reason why people jump is because they want to be helpful, right? Everyone wants to be helpful. It’s just a, “Hey Mr. Mrs. Client, I’m going to help you the most by following these protocols.” And explain to them, and then if you stick with it, they’ll stick with it and it’s going to be great for everybody. So I think that’s … of course, the emergencies still come up, but instead of 10 emergencies a day, it’s 10 emergencies a year. So it will happen just less often.

Drew McLellan:

Josh, this has been fascinating. Thanks so much for being on the show. If folks want to learn more about you, about the company, about the work you do, what’s the best way for them to connect with you and learn more about how you serve businesses?

Josh Fonger:

I would go to workthesystem.com. As Drew mentioned, we give a book there. We give it away for free to download. Again, workthesystem.com. And I’ve got a podcast, there are resources, tools, examples, training, coaching, you name it. Anything that can help you kind of get over the hump of being stuck in the day to day in your business to actually living the life of a true entrepreneur, a true business owner. That’s what we’re about, and love to have you there.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. Thank you so much for being on the show, I appreciate it.

Josh Fonger:

All right. Thanks Drew.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. All right guys. Before I let you go, as I’ve been listening to Josh and nodding my head, which of course you can’t see. As I’m agreeing with him, I am reminded over and over again, that for so many of you, the reason you work such crazy hours, and your stress level is always sort of hyped up is because you’re doing not only your job, you’re trying to do your job, but you’re also doing some role inside your agency in that day to day role.

And so part of the stress and pressure you feel is that, you know you’re not really doing your job to the depth and quality level that you need to. So I want to remind you that we’ve got an ebook on the website and we’ll include a link to the ebook in the show notes that describes the agency owners’ ideal week, like where should you be spending your time? What should have your focus? And I think that reminder as a companion to this conversation today will help you wrap your head around, how you can deliver uniquely the greatest value to the agency by doing your job better every day.

So go check that out, grab the ebook. Hopefully it will be helpful to you. I’ll be back next week with another guest who will help you think about your business a little differently. I want to give a big thank you and shout out to our friends at White Label. As you know, they are the presenting sponsor of the podcast. So if you’re looking for a White Label solution for design, dev or PPC, they are serving many of our listeners and helping them grow their business by expanding their workforce. So head over to whitelabel.com/ami, because they have a special offer there just for you.

And in the meantime, I am around, if you need me, you can find me at [email protected] and I’ll be back next week with another guest. Thank you so much for listening. Take good care of yourself and I will talk to you soon.

That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of Build a Better Agency. Visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to check out our workshops, coaching packages, and all the other ways we serve agencies just like yours. Thanks for listening.