Rocking the Client Vote at UpBuild

When I founded UpBuild in 2015, my primary goal was fairly singular: create the company I’d want to work for. Like it or not, my work is directly tied to my personal quality of life and, fortunately, I don’t think I’m alone in that. If I have a bad day (or days) at work, my personal life suffers, which in turn causes my work to suffer. With UpBuild, I suppose you could say my goal has always been to systematically create as many good days as possible while minimizing the bad ones.

But this isn’t UpBuild’s origin story; this is a post about one specific aspect of who we are, which is directly related to this overarching vision.

Since nearly the very beginning (in Month 2), the UpBuild team has voted on each and every prospective client. We do this because we never want to send a proposal to a client for their signature without first ensuring that the team is all in. As such, before we start working on a proposal, the whole team is asked to weigh in on whether or not A) the new client would be a good fit for us and B) we would be a good fit for that new client. The latter is especially important because we’re honestly not the right fit for every organization. UpBuild connects fast-moving companies with what equates to a part-time Director of Optimization. If a client is simply shopping around for an agency to evaluate their backlink profile, we’re overkill for that.

I’ve heard plenty of talk about agencies “firing bad clients” — and that “F You, Pay Me” video seems to make the rounds every year or two — and that’s all well and good, I guess. But, rather than being reactionary or acting in anger at the end of a relationship (even if one communicates a “firing” civilly), wouldn’t it be so much easier to be proactive and thoughtful from the outset and avoid bad situations altogether?

I think so. Being proactive and thoughtful is very UpBuildy.

Now that we’ve been voting on clients for the better part of three years, I wanted to write a post looking back on how that’s gone for us, what we’ve learned, and where we’ll go from here.

Client Voting By The Numbers

Here’s a quick look at our client voting by the numbers. Since 2015,

  • we’ve had 210 quality leads enter our sales pipeline.
  • the team voted on 65 prospective clients (across 39 calls for votes [via Google Forms]). Of those 65,
    • 63 prospective clients passed and were sent proposals.
      • 50 of those resulted in signed proposals (~80% close-rate).
      • 3 of those are active today and have yet to close.
      • 10 prospective clients passed but didn’t sign.
    • 4 prospective clients didn’t pass the vote.
      • 2 were mainly for low votes on efficacy (the team didn’t think we could provide enough value or be effective enough).
      • 2 were for ethical/moral objections from one or more team members (check out Lessons Learned below for more on how this changed our process).

A couple of notes and observations are warranted at this point:

  • Some prospective clients might not truly need what we offer. Over the last three years, we’ve been actively working (slowly but surely) on helping those folks opt out before they even contact us or hop on an introductory phone call. We make it pretty clear what our pricing and engagements look like, we make our non-negotiables known, and — of course — we’re upfront about the fact that we vote on clients. As a result, our “lead flow” is significantly lower than it would be otherwise. At the end of the day, it’s a good thing since no one likes having their time wasted.
  • Only 30% of the leads received over UpBuild’s lifetime have been voted on. Laura (our Client Discovery Manager) and I — and Ruth to an extent, as well — do a lot of upfront qualification. We don’t want to waste a person’s (or our team’s) time if our upfront research indicates that there isn’t a good fit.
  • Our team votes through 96% of the clients that we put a vote. That’s a pretty great success rate and, in my mind, that means our Client Discovery Team is doing its job of prequalifying potential clients.
    • Most poor fits are identified early on in the sales process. On two occasions, I told a lead outright without even having a call that our team wasn’t going to vote positively.

The Results

So what has the client vote done for us? Has it proven to be a good thing or is it more trouble than it’s worth? The results below speak for themselves.

Excitement

It should go without saying that the team here is excited about having a say in who we work with (who wouldn’t be excited about that?). But the pleasant surprise — which in hindsight seems obvious — is that prospective clients really appreciate knowing that our team wants to work with them. As it turns out, folks like being thought of as more than a paycheck. Go figure!

Here are a few of my favorite reactions that clients have shared upon learning that they passed the team vote.

Client Retention & Success

The client vote has, across the board, allowed us to deliver high-quality, innovative work that is far above my personal standards (which are borderline ridiculous). And we’ve done so for clients that our team is proud to partner with.

Anyone can do two SEO audits — one for a client they love and one for a client that they really just aren’t on board with — that come out perfectly fine. However, UpBuild’s not in the business of “perfectly fine”. We’re in the business of fostering the cutting-edge “aha!” ideas for clients. It’s my fundamental belief that these are much, much harder (if not impossible) to come by when you’re working on client accounts that you aren’t stoked about, or you’re working with unreasonable expectations, timelines, resource limitations, etc. This is all to say that a team that’s motivated and bought into the plan is a team that’s going to get better results.

This manifests positively in our client retention as well. Over half (56% to be precise) of our clients today have been with us since our first year in business. Most of the ones that aren’t with us have simply wrapped up their engagements or one-time projects with great results.

That’s not always the case, though. Since the advent of client voting, UpBuild has been let go by a client twice (more on that in Lessons Learned). Beyond that, we’ve intentionally wound down an engagement or two when we saw diminishing ROI ahead for a given client. We’d rather tell a client to stop paying us while we’re still able to do valuable work than drag things out to get paid longer but breed feelings of resentment, dissatisfaction, or worse.

Outstanding Team Member Retention

Over the last three years, UpBuild has seen the departure of just two team members (this includes voluntary and/or involuntary departures). The first time was because a team member wanted to explore the world beyond digital marketing. The second was an unfortunately poor fit who left UpBuild after just a single month. That means UpBuild has a 0% attrition rate from causes such as overwork and being lured away to other digital firms where the grass is greener. I think that having the client vote as part of our company’s DNA absolutely plays a part in that.

Our Learnings

What have we learned from holding 65 client votes over the course of three years?

The Team Usually Knows Best

I mentioned under Client Retention that we’d been let go by two clients in our history. The first time when our biggest client account to date (measured in $) let us go over our holiday break (on Christmas Eve, no less). If that doesn’t at least partially sour your time off, you’re more grounded than I am. The second instance was a client who’d believed (unbeknownst to myself and the team) that SEO alone would get their business off the ground and make them attractive to Series A investors.

I’m glad that we lost both of these clients because it taught me to listen even more closely to the team. Those two clients had earned some of the lowest voting averages we’ve seen and still moved on to the proposal phase. We vote across three criteria on a scale of 1-5; an average of 3.0 or more passes and these were between 3.0 and 3.5. Sure, the dataset here is limited but there’s a strong correlation between a low voting average and the risk of signing on a poor fit.

Averages Can Lie

It’s a pretty classic problem; averages can really oversimplify. Most of the time, it’s worked pretty well for us, but there was one notable instance where looking at the averages alone got us into a bad situation. We were talking to a prospective client who seemed pretty great (they needed what we could deliver, there was a budget fit, etc.) and they were qualified to move on to the voting stage, so we put it to a vote. They averaged a 4.0 with the team and we told them we’d start working on our formal proposal right away.

That’s when a few team members messaged me. In my rush to keep things moving along with this prospective client, I had gathered the averages from the voting form but had failed to fully read through the “additional comments” in the voting results. As it turned out, I’d overlooked some feedback that a few team members actually had a moral objection to what this potential client stood for. If we moved ahead at that point, I’d be going against everything that I believed UpBuild should be about. I had to write one of the most challenging emails I’ve had to write since founding the company.

How UpBuild started vetoing clients

We Need A Way for Team Members to Raise Red Flags

The last lesson learned is a direct result of the above. As of that day, UpBuild began including the ability for team members to veto a client. The following is from an email that I sent to the team announcing the change. It’s been slightly modified to protect the client’s anonymity.

Hey team,

I wanted to loop you all in with a difficult decision that had to be made regarding a prospective client and an important change to our client voting process.

[Client Name Omitted]
As you all know, we recently voted on [client name omitted]and they passed. With a 4.0, in fact. What most of you didn’t know, and what I didn’t give proper consideration to, was that a few team members expressed some reservations (in the comments) about working with an organization that exists to facilitate [controversial topic]. Despite adding a point myself about [controversial topic] in the notes about “potential downsides” when the vote went out, I kind of glossed over the feedback received and let [client name omitted] know that we were moving forward with them. That was a mistake and I feel like I owe everyone an apology for that.

While [client name omitted] isn’t an inherently bad organization in my mind, the feedback that I received makes them simply not the right fit for UpBuild. I’ve reached out to them to let them know that we’re not going to move forward with their proposal. However, we’ve offered our full discovery and engagement plan up to them so that they can use it as they continue their search. It represents about 8 to 10 hours of work (a $2,000 value!). We’ve also made a sincere offer to help match them up with an agency who will be a better fit.

[Team member name omitted], this was a referral from you and I’m really sorry that it didn’t work out. I love that you referred a potential client to us and I hope this doesn’t discourage you from doing the same in the future. [Client name omitted] was a fantastic connection and I hope [he/she/they] doesn’t come away with hard feelings.

The Vote & Team-First
Regardless of whether it’s [controversial topic] or any other issue, your feelings and ethical boundaries are yours and valid. Even when the majority of the team is enthusiastic and/or indifferent, I always want to look out for the minority, too. Ruth and I had a Jumpstart session with Michelle and Ashley on Tuesday about Being a Builder, and one of the points I made is that the team always comes first. It seems appropriate that I had to make this call and break that news to [client name omitted] on the same day.

We’re kind of an all for one and one for all kind of organization if you haven’t gathered by now. 😉

After huddling up with Ruth yesterday, we realized that this vote exposed a weakness in our system — the fact that relying exclusively on the average vote can mask serious and legitimate concerns and reservations. There are so many people now that a good handful of high votes can overshadow low ones. One person who I spoke with about [client name omitted] let me know their vote was the lowest rating they’ve ever given an UpBuild client and the average vote was still a solid 4.0!

To address this moving forward, the voting process will now be modified slightly. Each voting form will now go out with a “veto” checkbox. This veto is for you to use anytime you feel that you wouldn’t be comfortable working with a client or that you wouldn’t be proud to say that they’re a client of UpBuild’s (even if you’re not touching that account). It can be for ethical, moral, or any other reason.

Vetos work like this: If a client gets 1 veto, we pass on working with them. That’s true for as long as we’re 10 people or less. Once our team is between 11 and 20, 2 vetoes are required. At 21-33 people, it’s 3. And so on.

If anyone has any questions or wants to talk to me about this decision, just let me know and I’ll make myself available.

Keep being the awesome people you are.

What’s Next

From my point of view, having the team vote and sticking to it even when it took a lot of extra work to make it happen or delayed a proposal delivery (a few leads have balked at how long our client discovery process takes and walked prior to the vote even happening) has been invaluable. The vote has allowed us to produce awesome work, show the team that they’re valued here, and allowed us to stay true to our values as we’ve grown.

At this point, it’s hard to say what the client voting process will look like in UpBuild’s future, but I can definitely say that it’s part of who we are. As we scale, we’ll probably have to continue to adapt because what works well for a team of 10-20 people likely won’t function as well if we grew to a team of hundreds.

I’m happy to say that an idea I feel would have gotten me laughed out of my boss’ office in any other job has become an aspect of UpBuild that’s so valuable and so crucial to our mission that I can’t imagine running this company without it. For the UpBuild team members reading this (those past, present, and future) thank you for your input, insights, and honest feedback. Teamwork certainly makes the dream work.

Until next time. Happy optimizing.

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