Effective Planning For Small To Medium Sized Agencies & Consultancies

September 28, 2018 - 12 minutes read

As with the philosophical question “if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”, if SEO recommendations are not implemented, are you really doing anything of value?

I experienced this existential crisis early on in my career, after witnessing multiple projects fail in some part due to execution, or lack thereof. But this realisation set me on a path of discovery that has led me to the role of Operations Director here at Pole Star Digital today.

The challenge of getting recommendations executed is nothing new for SEOs. Clients may not implement recommendations for a variety of reasons, from a lack of development resource to a lack of understanding as to how and why these actions will benefit the business. But the truth is, the issue lies in the campaign planning.

With effective planning, you would have conveyed the importance of the work in relation to achieving the client’s objectives, you will have discovered the level of available resource on the client’s side, and this work (along with the implementation of recommendations) would have been agreed and signed off by the client in advance.

My passion for planning, and belief that it can be used to ensure successful campaign delivery, has led me to share my learnings at BrightonSEO, and if you missed my talk, here!

In this post I’ll summarise some of the key points from my BrightonSEO talk, covering what operations actually involves, and operations best practice that you can employ in your organisation to bring about operational efficiency.

The Importance of Planning

Effective planning is all about making sure you’ve got your house in order, and ensuring that your basic needs are being met as an organisation. This is important to your team, to your client, and your business:

TEAM: From a team perspective, knowing what work is coming up, who is doing what, how you will approach it, why you are doing it, and what the priorities are

CLIENT: From a client perspective, knowing what your role is, what services you are  providing, what deliverables they can expect from you, and how this is aligned to their business and brand objectives

BUSINESS: At Pole Star Digital, we like to work collaboratively with our clients, so it’s really important that the client has a good awareness of what we are working on, why we are doing it, and how we are adding value

What Does Operations Involve?

Operations focuses on creating the conditions that allow your team to get their job done to the best of their ability. This can include, but is not limited to:

  • Project Management
  • Process Development
  • Resource Allocation/Capacity
  • Project Scoping
  • Client Services (understand the client as a business and as people)
  • Team Development and Culture (beliefs and behaviours)
  • Everything in Between! (e.g. GDPR, Cyber Security)

Even if you don’t have an Operations Director within your business, there will be key individuals who are responsible for these functions. But life without solid operations in place can be a painful one.

Imagine for a moment needing to deliver a piece of work where you have not been provided with a clear brief, you don’t have the capacity to undertake it, and the client expects to see a copy by the end of the day. Being part of a team without operations can be stressful, chaotic and demoralising.

In order to avoid situations like this, make sure that operations responsibilities are clearly defined within your business. Let the team know who is ultimately responsible for these essential functions, and recognise that everyone has an important role to play in facilitating smooth internal operations.

Three Areas Of Planning And Ops Best Practice

Although the sphere of operations can be broad and far-reaching, attaining optimal operations is achievable! If you are new to operations or are looking to step up your operations game, there are three areas that you first need to address no matter whether you are a team of 4, 40 or 400. These include:

  • Time tracking
  • Scope of work
  • Overservicing

Time Tracking

The commonality between agencies, consultancies and freelancers can be seen in their invoices…they all charge for their time. If time is our currency, we need to make sure we’re using our time efficiently and effectively. The only way to qualify and quantify this is by tracking it. Time tracking is not just an internal operations consideration, it’s the foundation of the agreement you make with the client, providing you with accountability and transparency.

Imagine you find yourself in this situation, a new client stakeholder comes onboard and they request a summary of activity for the last 6 months, including performance highlights and also a breakdown of time. Essentially they want to know what they’re paying you for and whether they’re getting value for money. It’s a perfectly reasonable request, but if you’re not tracking time, you can’t provide a complete answer.

Here at Pole Star Digital, we use Harvest to track out time, that has a Chrome extension and Basecamp integration (our preferred project management and communication channel).  

A key consideration for time tracking though is ensuring that there’s a clear process in place. For example, you should know what data you’re gathering, how and why will it be used, and clearly communicate this to the whole agency. Misunderstandings about time tracking or an over-zealous approach can have a detrimental impact on team morale and productivity. No one wants to feel like they’re being spied on!

Scope of Work

Now that we’ve covered time tracking, it’s time to turn our attention to the activities you’ll be undertaking during that time. These activities should be outlined in the scope of work (SOW). The SOW acts as the blueprint for your project, for both your team and your client, that includes:

  • Who is doing what and the expected outcome
  • How this fits into the strategic objectives
  • Project parameters (e.g. budget, timings, etc.)

The SOW is integral to the effective planning of a project as it helps to define clear roles and responsibilities, and ways of working. This document can manage internal and external expectations, ensuring that you deliver on the agreed work alongside the client upholding their end of the agreement. Once the SOW has been signed off by the client, you can set out clear milestones to monitor the progress of the project, and review the SOW if needed.


Despite the negative connotations, overservicing is a common occurrence amongst agencies, consultancies and freelancers alike. The risks around overservicing lie in not knowing how or why it’s happening.

As I’ve mentioned above, a SOW may need to be reviewed from time to time if a project is experiencing scope creep due to unforeseen circumstances. The SOW is the best place to start investigating the cause of overservicing. Questions you can ask include:

  • Have you scoped out the project correctly? (Have you given yourself enough time to deliver the agreed work?)
  • Is the client clear about your role? (Is the client expecting something different to what has been agreed?)
  • Is the client asking for work outside of the agreed SOW?

Once you have identified the root cause of overservicing, you have the opportunity to put processes into place to ensure it does not happen again. Below are some of the processes and approaches we use at PSD to tackle overservicing from onboarding a client right through to delivery:

  • Have a robust new business process: By asking the right questions during initial discussions with a potential client, you can establish compatibility. Such as whether or not you can meet their strategic needs, is your setup right for their business, and whether your values align
  • Over-invest in first 1 – 3 months: Onboarding takes time! Recognise the value in investing more time at the start of the relationship to really understand your client, their business and to establish clear ways of working
  • Don’t discount: If a client is asking for additional work outside of the SOW, find out what activity is business critical, and pause agreed work if necessary to accommodate the new work
  • Don’t forget project management: The industry standard time allocation for project management time is 20%. Remember to build in additional margin if there’s a complex client-side structure that will require more of your time to manage

Setting out processes, whether that is for the execution of client deliverables or internal ways of working, can help to safeguard your time and allows you to accurately scope out new client projects. We look to innovate wherever possible, automating and streamlining our internal processes, freeing up our time for other exciting things!

I hope that this post has given you lots of actionable operational insights that you can use to revolutionise your internal project planning and approach, no matter whether you’re a freelancer, agency or consultancy!

If this post has whet your appetite to learn more about ops, I’ll be sharing a follow-up post soon that will focus on the importance of defining and establishing your company’s WHY that I touch on at the end of the slide deck, so keep an eye on our blog to find out more!