There’s a saying in the military, “Hope is not a strategy.”
That maxim is equally true in business. Wishful thinking doesn’t cut it. Crossing our fingers and just hoping that any given client—old or new—is happy with us is a recipe for losing a client.
Without a system to routinely analyze what’s working and what’s failing, leaders can miss red flags and be blindsided when a customer breaks off what was presumed to be a solid relationship. One group that takes a unique approach to avoiding complacency is Avalanche Creative. Based in Grand Rapids, Avalanche is a highly effective internet marketing service, specializing in SEO. I’m proud to provide them with both coaching and StratOp facilitation.
Avalanche Creative calls their analytic process a “Strategy Summit.” In short, it’s a monthly in-house focus group with team members discussing one client from many angles. During this lively think-tank, attendees from every department come up with ways that customers can receive increased value from their partnership with Avalanche. More than just “triage and treatment” to patch up problems, a Strategy Summit generates action steps for continuous improvement.
What intrigues me most is how systematic and proactive this approach is. To unpack their novel concept, I recently spoke with Deanna Grogan of Avalanche Creative. I found her keen insights especially helpful…
Tell us about yourself and your leadership role at Avalanche.
I’m a writer at heart, so it’s my joy and privilege to lead the Content Department. I love stories and thinking about the way people communicate, so if you want to nerd out about history, grammar, literature, media, etymology, or design, I’m your gal.
How long have you been part of the leadership team?
I’ve been the Content Lead at Avalanche since November 2021.
Tell us about the strategic planning process at Avalanche, and your involvement.
Avalanche has an annual strategic planning (StratOp) renewal meeting and quarterly check-ins with Jay Hidalgo, our business coach. I’m part of these meetings and also part of our weekly L10 meetings to follow up on the progress of our quarterly goals and discuss and solve any ongoing issues.
At a recent strategy session, you talked about conducting “Strategy Summits” internally to review client engagements. How did this come about? What inspired this approach?
One of our goals for Q2 of this year was to “drive an ownership mindset” among our service team. At Avalanche, we don’t have account managers, so it’s important that every employee feels like they’re responsible for the success of our clients. However, having employees that are highly skilled in their particular fields can lead to silos.
In an effort to encourage cross-team collaboration, improve client outcomes, and foster that ownership mindset, I thought it would be helpful to meet more regularly to discuss a particular client or two and really brainstorm as a whole team about how we could get them results.
Could you describe the typical structure or agenda of these Strategy Summits? What key components make them effective?
Avalanche’s SEO strategies renew every quarter, so I scheduled a one-hour meeting per month to discuss two clients whose strategies were about to be updated. These take place about a month or two before the clients’ contracts are set to renew. This gives us a chance to discuss not only strategies for the next 90 days but also the next year.
We start with Client History, where we open the floor for our entire team to answer some basics about the client: who they are, what their goals are, and what we’ve done for them so far. Before the meeting, I include a list of linked resources for our team to peruse to re-familiarize themselves with the client. This is particularly helpful for new employees, who may not know the full history of a client.
Then, we move on to Client Updates. I go around to each team and ask them to share their experience of this client. We start with the Sales team and ask them what the original selling process was like, as well as any sales opportunities that might be on the horizon.
Then we move to our Project Manager, who discusses how our communication has been with the client. Our SEO team discusses the effectiveness of our current strategies and what they’re seeing in the data, while the Content and Web teams talk about deliverables in their areas of expertise.
Finally, we move into a Brainstorming session where we utilize the Four Helpful Lists. Jay uses the Four Helpful Lists in our StratOp meetings, and I found it so helpful (no pun intended) that I created a modified version for these Strategy Summits. We talk about what we’re doing right for the client that’s worth celebrating, and then we discuss what’s wrong that could be changed, what’s confusing that could be clarified, and what’s missing that could be added. This discussion is very free-flowing, and we add things to these lists as we go along.
Then, based on our lists, we develop key takeaways—action items that we’ll put into effect after the meeting. Sometimes it’s developing a new strategy, creating a new sales opportunity, or reaching out to the client for an interview about their products, services, goals, or pain points.
How long does this take?
We go through the whole process for one client at a time, taking about 30 minutes per client. I share my screen the entire time so the team can see the notes and reflect on the insights taking shape. We keep the notes in a place that can be accessed at any point after the meeting. The idea is that we’ll do this for a client once or twice a year and can create a record of these notes to see how we’re improving outcomes for the client over time.
What are the key benefits you’ve observed from implementing these Strategy Summits, both for your team and the clients you serve?
The best benefit has been improved collaboration across our teams. Sometimes, we take for granted what we know about a client, and it’s helpful to get us all on the same page. It also encourages everyone on the team to think strategically about client outcomes; we’re eager to see our clients get results, so if something’s not working, we want to think critically about how to fix it.
Although we haven’t advertised this new process specifically to our clients, we often mention it when we reach out to the client as part of our key takeaways, and they love to hear that they’ve gotten the spotlight among our internal team. They’re more receptive to our proposals for new strategies or projects that we think will help get them results because we’ve taken the time to think about their business as if it’s our own. Of course, we’re doing this all completely free of charge to our clients, which I think communicates how much we care about their success.
How do you get your people to actively participate in these Strategy Summits? How do you create an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their insights and ideas openly?
The content of our Strategy Summits is 100% private. Although it may result in action items that we then share with the client, the process to get there is for internal eyes and ears only. That means people know they can share their real concerns safely.
It’s important to be honest about a client relationship or client deliverables—only then will we know where we stand and how to improve it. Plus, it gives us a chance to give feedback internally as well. Ideally, what’s shared in a Strategy Summit from each department should be no surprise to the rest of the team. When the Strategy Summits reveal that key insights or news have been siloed or hidden, it’s a good check on us to be more transparent with each other.
Client engagement reviews can be quite detailed. How do you ensure that your team stays on track and makes the most of the Summit’s time without getting lost in the details?
Because we have a specific agenda, we can move at a fast clip. I share my screen and fill out the template as we go, so the team can see where we are in the flow of things and what’s left to discuss. Every team has a chance to share their two cents, so we try to be respectful and leave enough time for everyone else. We also tackle two clients in an hour, so as we’re getting close to that 30-minute mark, I’m making sure to encourage us to move forward.
What strategies have you found effective for encouraging team members to provide constructive criticism or feedback during these Strategy Summits?
The Four Helpful Lists is a great tool to help us both celebrate what’s working well for a client and identify opportunities for improvement. Additionally, reminding the team of the client’s goals at the top of the discussion and then reflecting on what we’ve actually done for them so far can help reveal any gaps.
Can you share a specific example where a Strategy Summit led to significant insights or changes that positively impacted a client’s project or campaign?
During one Strategy Summit, it became clear that although a client was a great fit for our services—and would be an awesome team to collaborate with—their existing website was holding both of us back. We really valued this client relationship, but their website had been built before they started working with us, and it had a host of problems that negatively affected the impact of our work. The Strategy Summit gave us the confidence to see that we had worked very hard over the past few months to build trust with this client, and if we proposed a new website project to them, we could show them the clear benefits, and they would probably be open to our recommendations.
After the meeting, we let them know they had received a large chunk of our undivided attention as an entire team because we were passionate about getting them results, and we laid out a website project that we thought would help take their business to the next level. They were thrilled and agreed to the website project almost immediately because of the trust we had built between our teams. They knew we weren’t just trying to upsell or increase their contract—they knew we were only proposing this because we truly wanted what was best for them.
What advice would you give to others on how to address any potential resistance or reluctance among team members to actively participate in internal Strategy Summits?
During your first Strategy Summit, set the tone and cast a vision for what you hope to achieve with these. Explain that the goal is to hear from every department and every person. Reassure your team that no discussions are off the table and that this is a safe space to vent frustrations.
Provide resources for your team to review before the meeting so they come with ideas in mind. Send reminders so they remember to prepare for the meeting. Make it clear that each department will have a chance to speak, and “no comment” is not acceptable—we need to learn about each client from every angle. If you don’t know why we’re doing something for a client, now is the time to ask. There are no dumb questions in a Strategy Summit—the goal is to get us all on the same page so we can make recommendations to our clients from a place of strategic confidence.
For larger companies, I would encourage department leads to sit back and encourage their service members to speak instead. We want to hear from the people who are actually doing the work and communicating directly with the client. Managers can provide context, but they shouldn’t be the ones reporting in. There’s a reason that, during the Client Updates section, we ask to hear from each team, not each department lead.
During the Client History section, it’s also important for the leadership team to resist the urge to jump in with answers. The Client History section is a good time to see whether your team knows the things you may assume are common knowledge. There should be no punishment or reprimand for not knowing something—the goal of the Strategy Summits is to bring these information gaps to light. Offline, the leadership team can brainstorm ways to make sure client information is cascaded to the whole team from the beginning to prevent these gaps in the first place.
In general, what tips or advice can you offer for other firms looking to adopt a similar approach to client engagement reviews?
You might have meeting fatigue, but Strategy Summits are necessary to keep a pulse on clients and make sure your team feels responsible for the success (or failure) of your clients. From what we’ve heard, our team loves Strategy Summits—they like feeling like they can contribute something to a client’s strategy and gain clarity on aspects of the client relationship that may be fuzzy or frustrating. Set aside at least one hour a month to gain consensus about a client or two and make sure you’re not just going through the motions for your clients.
The more invested your team is, the more fruitful your client relationships will be.
Thank you, Deanna! I appreciate that Avalanche is so transparent and open-handed in sharing a system that I think is a great option for many organizations.
As I mentioned, I have the privilege of coaching the innovative leaders and teams at Avalanche Creative. If you are interested in what that might look like for your group, contact me to set up an informal chat.