The monthly report is odd little creature. It’s created with the best of intentions but is too often under utilized by the people it was created to inform. There’s also the problem of the document itself. It’s confusing, or it focuses on the wrong things. It means well but too often it’s a relic of the past.
Anyway you slice it, chances are you have room to create a better monthly report.
Surely, you’re thinking, this must be one of the most boring topics in all of business. In my personal experience of creating reports for clients for over a decade, rarely have these reports done their job: be meaningful to those it was created to inform.
Ninety percent of the time, the only time I ever heard from a client specifically about their monthly report was if they didn’t get one. Basically, they were only aware of it because of it’s absence.
In their mind, the monthly report was proof that something was being done. When I would send out monthly AdWords reports to my clients, only a few would want to talk about it. Most clients just filed it and forgot it.
The clients that filed their reports weren’t intentionally ignoring their website. I’m sure some of them treated them like their monthly financial statement from their broker: They trusted me to do what’s right for them with their AdWords account and take on faith that what’s in the report affirms that belief.
The real problem was that the report didn’t have any meaning to them. There was a bare minimum of analysis, charts from Google Analytics, and AdWords data. It was fun to see the green and red arrows showing how data changed from the month previous but none of it allowed the client to make a decision. And in a world where time is limited, to a business owner, if there’s no decision to be made, there’s no reason to read it.
Rule #1: Do Talk About Fight Club
Rule #2: Do Talk About Fight Club.
Fundamentally, the monthly report is about communication. The best way to make sure the the report is useful and is used to maximum effect is to hold a brief meeting to talk about the various considerations the report reveals.
Focus on Business Goals
The biggest problem with monthly reports is that they are overwhelmingly created as works of fiction. Everything in the report might technically be true but there’s a desire on the part of the creator to send a clear EVERYTHING’S A-OK OVER HERE BOSS message. It’s just one of those things. Once somebody gets a budget, they’ll do a lot to keep it. And bluffing in a monthly report is a good way to do it. It’s security through obscurity.
I’ve seen reports sent to clients that were hundreds of pages of screen shots. The only reason I can think that was done was because somebody thought it was a good idea to make the report seem huge. As if a report that can double as a paper weight is somehow more valuable than one that focuses on its usefulness.
A useful monthly report is one that focuses on the web plan’s goals.
A monthly report is an extension of the web plan. If there’s no plan, then you’re right to wonder why a monthly report is even necessary. So if you don’t have a plan, stop now, rewind the website to our blog posts last week on the initial client meeting and start there.
If you have a web plan then you should know the:
- Business goals
- Website goals
- Time Tables
In short, the monthly report needs to echo all of those facets of the report, provide an update on what’s happened in the past month and then it should provide a way to discuss how to move forward. If any decisions need to be made or if there are items that need to be discussed, they need to be noted.
I’ve been using the odd phrase “web plan” to this point in this post. In my opinion, a web plan is really a plan that addresses all aspects of your web presence. A web presence is the sum-total of a person or business on the web.
It’s your website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, YouTube channel, SoundCloud account, search engine visibility, advertising, and feed subscribers combined.
If all of this is taken into account when creating the plan, as I think it should be, then you have a Web Presence Plan. Everything else is a subset: a website plan or a social marketing plan or a SEO plan, what have you.
The point is, you have to design the report around the plan, and the plan should be as comprehensive as possible. Applied fully, this report will contain a lot of data. As the months pass and historical data is available, the amount of raw data will only grow. This is a good thing. Normally, this is how monthly reports die a slow death. But because of how we intend to use this document, in this case, it’s a good thing.
It’s more than communication, it’s education
My AdWords clients that I used to talk to about their monthly liked to sound informed. We’d have conversations filled with discussion about click-thru rates, cost-per-click, and page placement. Rarely though were they interested in cost-per-conversion, which is the One Metric to Rule Them All in the AdWords universe.
It’s not that there isn’t value to be had by looking at the click-thru rates, cost-per-click and page placement, it’s just that they are wholly explanatory data for the only metric that really matters: how much it costs to get a sale.
The problem was that there was a knowledge gap. On some level, clients know that web dev and web marketing firms are not going to ultimately take responsibility for what happens on their website. We’ve covered this before. As such, they feel invited to take a peek at the underlying data and to work on the analysis themselves.
While the desire to be involved is commendable, it’s at this point that the gap in knowledge and training on these topics can become apparent. Every web developer I know has a story about a client misusing technical jargon. They’ll say things like, “I need to increase my XMLs!”
Which you have to admit is a little ROFL.
It’s the job of the monthly report to point out what’s important. It needs to highlight the cost-per-conversion and use the other data to support why it is what it is.
The only way that’s going to happen is if the report makes it clear which data is primary and which is supplementary.
Analysis: Inputs and Outputs
Websites are about two things: getting people to it and what they do once they’re on it. Every facet of a company’s web presence can be grouped into one of these few categories. All social networking, all SEO, all advertising is about driving traffic. The website’s graphic design, functional design, and content are all responsible for what people do once they’re on the website.
It’s through this lens that data should be analyzed. Looking at these two sides of the web-coin will keep the report relevant and will lead to smarter conversations.
The initial plan probably lays out specific target metrics for the social networks, SEO, and advertising. Certainly, measure all of that and work to meet or exceed those targets. But more importantly, and more generally, how is traffic to the website? Has it been trending up? Do you know why? Do you see opportunities in SEO, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., to increase traffic?
How are sales/leads? How has it been trending? What’s the average bill of sale? What are the best sellers? Why are they the best sellers? What’s being done to address strengthening the critical path? How does the conversion funnel look? Has any user testing been done? Has that testing revealed anything about page-specific elements that need addressing?
Build from the ground up, present from the top down
The key to the whole thing is to provide the data but to put it in an appendix at the end of the document. The monthly report is about business, not technology. The technological concerns arise because they support the business goals. So kick the tech stats to the back of the report and put the analysis front and center.
In most monthly reports the data is front-and-center and the analysis is gravy. The data shouldn’t be front-and-center, it should be be the supporting documentation. The meat of the report should be a discussion of the various decisions, considerations, and opportunities that rise out of the data.
It’s also necessary to recognize that business happens in a larger context: what time of year it is, changes to how things are done online, etc. It’s a good practice to get in the habit of summarizing the current environment before moving into the analysis. You want to set up the discussion so that everybody sees as much of the field as possible. Providing environmental context allows the client – who is probably not online every day – to orient themselves before being asked to make some decisions.
Put it all together and a typical report would loosely be structured like this:
- Current environment (1 page or less)
- Analysis: Decisions/Considerations/Opportunities (2 pages or less)
- Supporting Data
- Full Data Appendix
I’m a big fan of accountability. That goes for the developer as well as the client. If a client says they’ll be responsible for creating some content, they should be responsible for the outcome of not creating that content. After all, it’s hard to promote a blog that rarely has new content.
The best way to force accountability is to get signatures next to all decisions. Then if things aren’t done according to the plan, there’s a physical record of who dropped the ball.
The thing is, there are a few ways things can go right and about an infinite number of ways they can go wrong. Getting signatures is a way of enforcing the rules set forth in the original web plan. It might sound like a grumpy old man to demand a physical signature but it’s really just trying to prevent problems down the road.
I recommend adding one page to the monthly report after the monthly meeting: it’s a page that details what’s going to be done in the next month. Next to each line item is a signature of everybody responsible for making that line item happen.
Once you have that document, make copies and send them to everybody involved. You keep the original. At the end of the year when you’re doing your annual report, these documents will be the star of the show. And because there are literal signatures on what was supposed to be done, nobody can feign ignorance.
The goal, of course, is not to get people in trouble or to create ill-will but to keep everybody accountable for their responsibilities.
We’ve all experienced the problem of people helping in places where they aren’t supposed to be. This provides a way to discuss that issue too. If your name isn’t signed next to the line item, you don’t need to be involved. Simple as that.
The monthly report is the way the web plan gets accomplished. It’s a tool. And accountability is an important part of that. Without accountability by all parties, entropy starts to increase and the project suffers. Better to stop all of that before it starts. Get the signature.
It’s A Living Document
Monthly reports are their most effective when they’re treated like a living document. It’s meant to reflect conditions on the ground, both in the past month and historically and to provide a way for leaders to make decisions to accomplish the business goals.
Over time, the goals are going to change. The things done to various parts of the company’s web presence will change. When it does, let the report change too. Don’t fit the data into the report, fit the report to the data.
The bad monthly reports we’ve all seen in the past failed to change as the business needs changed. They’re paper zombies; undead and here to eat your brains.
Rather, stay focused on your client’s needs. Create a document that addresses those needs and updates the web plan and talk about it, every month.
A report that does all of that creates the conditions for success and growth and validates you as the monkey that knows how to keep its eye on the banana.
This post is Part 2 of a 2-part series of blog posts on the initial prospect meeting. Jump into the first one or keep reading to jump right in the thick of it.
The setup for this meeting is one I’ve encountered dozens of times over the years: I’m out and about and meet a guy who runs a business. When he finds out that I do web design, he starts talking about how he needs to get his website into shape. We make an appointment to talk about it and that’s that.
From his point of view, he just made an appointment with a web guy to talk about websites. It’s no different to him than making an appointment with his car guy to change his oil.
But from my point of view, I want his website to work better for him. At the meeting, I’m going to tell him how I can make that happen. Chances are, it’s going to be a bit much to take in. My pitch has a high upside: more money comes out; but it also has a potential downside: loss of some control. It won’t be a problem for every prospect, but it’s worth keeping in the back of your mind that change is hard for people. As an agent of change, you’re going to encounter some resistance from time to time. The key to lowering their resistance is to continually point back to how you’re working to meet their specific business goals.
The goals of this initial meeting are to:
- Find out if we are a good fit
- Kick start the relationship
- Find out their situation
- Propose a way forward
- Set a date for a future meeting to make things official
Not every meeting will go this way. It all depends on the relationship you have with your prospect before the meeting and whether or not they are willing to think and act on this level. Not everybody will get it, and that’s okay. But in a general sense, here’s how I’d do it:
This is my 10-step critical path for a successful initial meeting with a prospective small business client.
Take a few minutes and find some personal points of commonality. Try to connect with them. Do not be perfunctory with this. Take the time for a little business gossip. Be prepared but be genuine. It lays the foundation for the next part. If this were a date, consider it a quick coffee date. You should already know about their website, their Twitter feed, their YouTube channel, their Facebook wall, and a bit about their SEO. Use probing questions about each of those things to ferret out point #2.
2. Discover their problem(s)
Invariably it’s going to be “not enough sales”, “not enough leads”, or “I can’t find myself on Google” which is really the same as saying “not enough sales/leads”. Let this take you on a discussion about the sales/lead performance. If you can, discover their break even point or other numbers that let you contextualize their revenue. You have a duty to their bottom line so asking about it is a fair, if delicate, game.
There’s also a fair number of businesses who don’t think about their bottom line as much as they think about some other aspect of their business. For some, their website is an exercise in branding. For others, they really do just want some simple web changes. Whatever the reasons are that made the meeting happen in the first place, find out what those are.
Note: People don’t always know what they want. The Internet is still an ephemeral place for a lot of people. For this reason, it’s a good idea to stick to business objectives or their kissing-cousin, business related political decisions.
3. Find out who their stakeholders are and what those people do
Many times there are other people, not at the initial meeting, who are affected by how the website performs. You need to find out who they are, what they do, and what their needs are from the website.
Revenue will always be the #1 goal but a close second comes office politics and we cannot be successful unless everybody’s concerns are addressed and there’s institutional support for the project. This even applies to 1-man shops. If a guy has a business and a wife, it’s a safe bet that his wife has an opinion about the website. She’s a stakeholder, and so, what she thinks matters. These are the people that are going to be talking about the website and who feel responsible for it in some manner, so they have to be accounted for. Find out who they are and what’s important to them.
4. Determine the Win State(s)
It’s not enough to know that a website needs to drive revenue. We also need to know how much and how soon. In my mind, an ideal win state looks like this.
“Steve needs website revenue to increase from an average of $100 a month to an average of $500 by July 31st.”
“Ann needs to provide an easier way for customers to return unwanted merchandise by December 26th.”
These Win States can be viewed as goals and objectives and should fit the SMART criteria.
Specific – Targeted to a clear and unambiguous business goal
Measurable – Answers the question “How will I know when the goal is met?”
Attainable – Can be achieved with effort
Relevant – Answers the question “Is the goal worthwhile?” “Is this what I really want?”
Time-Bound – Creates a time-frame and deadline
Essentially you need to know who needs what by when. These are known as SMART goals.
5. Do the math and create the mission(s)
When a SMART goal is written in the format above, it’s easy to do the math. Once you do the math, those answers can be stated as missions. Let’s look at the above examples:
“Steve needs website revenue to increase from an average of $100 a month to an average of $500 by July 31st.”
$500 – $100 = $400
Nov. 11 – March 31 = 4.5 months
The mission: Increase the website’s average monthly revenue by $400 (or 400%) in 4.5 months.
“Ann needs to provide an easier way for customers to return unwanted merchandise by December 26th.”
Nov. 11 – Dec. 26 = 45 days
The mission: Create a measurably easier way for customers to return unwanted merchandise in the next 45 days.
Now that you know your mission, you can develop a plan to accomplish it.
6. Define the relationship
In light of these missions, discuss the kind of relationship the prospective client is expecting. Is this a one-time thing (in which case all the mission planning is unnecessary) or is this the beginning of a business relationship? Personally, I wouldn’t do anything without a minimum of a six-month commitment. We want to make the website perform better in measurable ways. A six-month commitment is trivial in the larger context of a never ending web presence.
Think about it. If a business currently has a website, unless the web changes fundamentally or goes away, those businesses will ALWAYS have an Internet presence from here on out. Six-months is not a lot of time to ask for starting a relationship with a client.We want ongoing relationships with clients. It’s the only way we can be sure to effect positive change. If you start off without a sufficient length of time to be successful, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
7. Rough out a framework for success
Most projects fail when they lose momentum. Successful projects maintain a sense of energy throughout the project. When people feel energy loss, they get stressed out and it makes the whole thing less fun. Instituting a calendar for the cycle of measuring, analysis, changing, and measuring again and sticking to it is the quickest way to alleviate the problem of a project losing energy.
Next, assign roles and responsibilities to everybody involved. This includes the prospect. If he’s responsible for content (say, a blog post) – make sure he knows it and agrees to write it by a certain date. And tell him you’re going to quarterback the whole thing so if he waits until the last minute, you’re going to be on his case about it.Ultimately you’re responsible for making sure the system laid out here is implemented. That’s your role, Mr. WebGuy. You’re the quarterback – insofar as you are responsible for making sure the plan comes together. Don’t disappoint the Colonel.
But, do remember that this is an initial meeting so treat this exercise at this point as a back-of-the-envelope plan. It can be broad as long as it illustrates the point. This will be done more in-depth at the next meeting. Getting the point across on how the process works is more important at this stage than getting mired in the details.
This is also the place where you can whip out all your fancy toys. Show off Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools, Inspectlet, Feng-GUI, Usabilla or whatever other tools you use. These are powerful tools and they will make a strong impact on your prospect.
8. Set broad budgets
Budgets come down to time and money. To some business owners, time is money. It may be the first thing that is discussed because for many it is a deal breaker. In general though, the more time, the more money.
In my meeting, I’d offer an annual monthly plan that’s tailored to achieve the above missions. It’s okay to use rough numbers. But remember, there are pricing strategies. Use them.
The goal here is to get comfortable with a pricing window. Pricing is based on the cycle of measuring, analysis, changing, and measuring again. Each cycle is its own unit. Broadly speaking, pricing can be thought of as buying a certain number of units.
Your pricing may vary, but broadly speaking this will be true.
If $50 is the best a client can do – but they’re committed for a year, they can move the needle. It may be a fraction of what $500/mo. could do but it’s a start. Meet them where they are. If you have a minimum spend, that’s fine. But aim to find a solution for their problems that works for their budget. Be honest and set expectations here. If you don’t, this will bite you later on.
If the website meets or exceed the expectations you set here, you can bet that they’ll become more receptive to speeding up the process.
9. Give them the back-of-the-envelope worksheet
If you’ve made it smoothly all the way to budgets, you’re in the home stretch. You’ve answered the Who, What, When, Where, Why, How and for How Much by hitting all the points above. Things should be pretty clear. Make a copy of the notes you’ve been writing while talking to the prospect and give them the original to take with them.
Two points here.
1. People like it when you’re personal. Nothing says personal like a hand-written worked over worksheet that is all about generating more revenue for their business. That’s a valuable document to them. They’ll be glad they have it and thus glad they met with you.
2. Give them the original. You need the copy for your notes but the original – in pen – is a nice personal touch. Make sure they have it.
10. Setup a second meeting with all of the stakeholders to agree and further develop the plan, get the okay, and to sign the contract.
I believe that asking a small business owner to commit to a plan is something they should sleep on. If they are impulsive to get into it, they will be impulsive to get out of it or to change the details of the plan. I don’t believe in having them sign a contract at the first meeting. It undercuts everything that’s come before it. The whole meeting has been about clarifying their business goals and matching them to how the website functions. Shoving a contract in their face at the end of it is a bad note to end on.
Let them take the worksheet with them. Let them make a few phone calls and talk it over with the wife or the business partners or their drinking buddies or whoever else they talk shop with. This meeting, done properly, is going to get them thinking about their business in all kinds ways that are energizing to them. They want this system because in short, it’s the right way to do it.
Your goal is to setup a second meeting, or at least a phone call to set a second meeting. (They may have to check with other people to find out their schedule.) If at all possible, get all the stakeholders in the room. The system works best when everything is obvious to all of the stakeholders. They need to know what’s going on. I cannot stress how important it is to get the initial communication with them right.
Get them all in the room. Explain the situation. Hash out a plan. Come to an agreement and sign. But leave that for the second meeting.
You want to end this meeting on a strong note, but one that shows your ability to plan too. So set the next meeting, say your pleasantries and say good bye.
Follow up with your prospect within 24 hours. Give them another piece of information about their business or their website that’s useful. Thank them again for coming by and sitting down and ask if you can follow up with them in a few days (if you didn’t get a meeting set) or confirm the meeting.
In short, be pro-active, do your research, offer a high value proposition, and keep focused on achieving their SMART goals. It’s all somebody could ask for from a designer and it will give you a real platform to create successful web sites.
Better User Experience Podcast #13: Managing the Developer/Client Relationship by Implementing a System
These days everybody is talking about relationships. And, so are we.
Ben and I talk about the nature of relationships between Business Owners and Web Designers. We argue for a process-based relationship, and argue against an ill-defined series of interactions … okay, call them ‘One night stands’.
Without clearly stating goals and establishing boundaries, fear and doubt [FUD – Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt] will creep into your interactions and it will harm the project. However, by committing to goals and a process, everyone reaps the benefits of gradual improvement and ‘getting what you want’… unless you don’t want to be in a relationship. It’s complicated – We plan to write about this more. Check back for future blog posts.
Also, we chat a bit about card sorting tools.
Remember you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes – episodes each Monday!