< More blog posts

Collaborating with External Teams on Client Work

November 4, 2019

We’re a digital product agency – agency being the keyword here. Clients hire us to bring their digital products to life and elevate their business through strategy, design, and development. As an agency, we know how vital collaboration is in order to achieve results. And, unfortunately, we know agencies don’t always deliver on what they say they’re going to do.


Do any of these scenarios ring true?

  • Things started out strong, but quickly devolved to the point that we stopped working together.
  • There wasn’t a positive dynamic between our teams.
  • I wished there was more frequent communication and updates.
  • We’ve never had a positive agency relationship with any of the teams we’ve hired.
  • The last agency we worked with didn’t understand what really mattered to the business.


While I wish none of these happened, we’ve heard things like this over the years from prospects and clients about their previous agency relationships. I’ll say it – not all agency/client relationships go well! But we operate under the assumption that they can and should.


This post aims to illuminate the different strategies we use at Crema to prevent these less-than-desirable outcomes.


Partnerships, not projects.

Our clients are the experts in their field. From the initial conversation all the way through to the end of an engagement, we rely on the client team to serve as the subject matter experts of their industry. Simultaneously, we operate as the experts in our respective crafts – product strategy, product design, web & mobile development, and test engineering (QA). Leaning on each team’s core strengths allow us to create meaningful work together. We’ve found that a partnership philosophy allows the engagement to flourish, instead of being focused on individually scoped aspects of a product.


Many times, we are hired to collaborate closely with an existing team inside an organization. Whether that group is managing DevOps, back end development, branding, data or growth – we’ve had experience adjusting processes to fit the needs of specific clients teams. This is where the power of partnerships really makes an impact. By breaking down walls & identifying how to stay aligned during an engagement, we are able to fit into an organization’s workflow to make meaningful advances on digital products.


Listening to learn.

Creating value requires a creative problem-solving team that learns and unlearns fast. This is why we prioritize listening from the get go. To truly understand what makes an engagement successful, it requires a significant amount of discussion and research. Upfront, we ask questions that get to things like must-haves, nice-to-haves, cost centers, alternatives, impact areas, and more. It’s imperative to understand the landscape and business value for every client engagement.


We know there’s different ways to measure the ROI your of software investment, but if we can have a shared understanding of what the end results need to be and work backwards, we can start off on the right foot.


Level the playing field.

Whether our clients are in Switzerland or headquartered in KC, our process looks fairly similar. Using tools like Slack, Zoom, Miro, and others we’ll get into below, we are in frequent communication with our clients to ensure that everyone is aligned and feedback is being delivered in a timely manner. We use scrum-like ceremonies so that our priorities are clear for each 1-2 week sprint. Many of those meetings are attended by the client. Others are more asynchronous in nature. We find that the most successful engagements are those where collaboration is high & communication is frequent, no matter where our clients are located.


Real-life strategies.

We’re committed to a process that we believe in, but we know what to hold loosely. Our team is constantly refining our approach to build products that produce the highest value to our clients. The result of that is true collaboration between our teams – an extension of each other vs. traditional agency-client silos. Here are some specific ways in which we promote high levels of collaboration.


Shared Slack Channels

  • As we onboard clients, we create a shared Slack channel for our team and theirs to regularly communicate about the engagement. This is where we may post daily standup updates, share designs for immediate feedback, post recordings of user testing, troubleshoot on an issue, and more. Creating this space takes almost no time and generates so much value over the course of the engagement. What used to be reserved for weekly calls back in the day can be addressed and solved within minutes. Frequent communication is best.

Tool Selection

  • Depending on the project, our project management software may change. We’ve used tools like Asana, Ora, Jira, LeanKit, and others to track progress on every engagement. Regardless of the tool, it’s imperative that all parties are invited and using a system so that there’s a mutual understanding of what’s in progress, what’s upcoming, and what’s getting in the way. As mentioned above, our clients often have well-established tools that we get invited into. Other times, we may create a new project from scratch and add our clients as users. The point being: everyone should have access to all the information at hand.
  • This is especially helpful when we’re hired for the frontend development, for example, while our client handles the backend. This is a scenario where “playing nice with others” is especially crucial. We’ve thrived in this style of collaboration and rely on tools to ensure we’re all marching to the beat of the same drum.

Strategy & Alignment Sessions

  • Almost every engagement kicks off with a Strategy & Alignment session. Ideally, these are done in-person, but we’ve had clients call in from all over the globe to join these 1-2 day workshops thanks to tools like Zoom and Miro.
  • Out of these sessions, the collective team identifies key value propositions, core problems we are solving with technology, and unique offerings that product development with bring.  Together, we often create a story spine, which is used as a basis to start capturing the initial needs for design and development. These are later logged into a PM tool, allowing the team to quickly move into sprints.
  • In addition to those outcomes, this kickoff session helps to set the tone for the engagement and builds trust & rapport between teams.

Bi-weekly Client Satisfaction Calls

  • As our engagements move into a regular rhythm, we realize the importance of “zooming out” to assess how things are going. To accomplish this, we set up bi-weekly calls between our clients and members of our leadership team to speak candidly about how things are going. These conversations help to illuminate what’s going well and what could be improved that may not as naturally come up during retrospectives and other meetings that are regularly taking place.

Quarterly Summits

  • Sometimes, our engagements span 6-12 months or more. When this is the case, we’ve found it’s important to schedule and conduct summits with the team at large. These meetings often bring in ancillary stakeholders who are being affected by the work but may not be as involved in the day-to-day. It’s a chance to demo what’s been completed, assess the roadmap, and identify a shared path forward.

Setting Up The Engagement

  • Before all of this can begin, paperwork needs to get completed. We’ve written about our approach to agile contracting before. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but loosening fixed scopes to a more duration and price methodology has allowed us to stay flexible with our clients with the inevitable changes of a project crop up. This requires a high level of trust and collaboration with our clients, and ultimately results in process where the team is focused on results – not a spec sheet.


Recap.

Over the last 10 years of business, Crema has partnered with companies on all spectrums of the business lifecycle. During that time, we’ve built hundreds of digital products. We’ve had the privilege of working with high-growth startups looking to scale fast, small businesses wanting to increase margins by gains in efficiency, and $1B+ enterprises building new lines of revenue and intellectual property through innovation.


We are a team of creative thinkers and doers that simplify the complex. We are radically transparent with our internal team, clients and partners – working together to create trust, do good work, and create amazing products. Applying our deep experience across sectors, audiences, and platforms, we envision new possibilities with our clients and deliver innovative solutions that bring these visions to life. Collaboration is a natural part of that.


We’d love to be the shop you hire to join forces with your internal team to build the products your business needs. Get in touch today to learn how we can partner to achieve great results, together.