Clients aren’t customers: Why most agencies suck at project management

Ian Lurie

Companies like 37Signals talk about their workflow: Efficient, uninterrupted sprints, team rotation, and projects finished in days instead of weeks. Guys like David Allen write about ‘Getting Things Done and the importance of eliminating distraction.

I admire them and their success. I spent years trying to implement their working styles at my company. It’s frustrating as hell: I can never attain workflow nirvana. Zero inbox? Sure. Working in sprints? Sometimes.

A solid 2-week period for a team to concentrate on a single project? Have a ‘no phone or e-mail day’? Switch teams from project to project every 3 weeks?

Are you [email protected]#)ing kidding me?

We can’t do any of this. Because clients aren’t customers.

Clients aren’t customers

37Signals builds their undeniably fantastic software and sells it to thousands of people. David Allen writes his great books and sells millions of copies. They both have a lot of customers. But they don’t have any clients.

Customers don’t individually control project or product launch. Customers each hold a small percentage of your income. Unless they’re named ‘Oprah’, no one customer can derail an entire project. The priority? A great product and consistent improvement. The challenge? Marketing to lots of people at once.

Clients typically control the fate of an entire project, whether it’s a marketing campaign, a new web site or an application. Clients each hold a huge percentage of your income. If an unhappy client ends, or even worse, drags out a project, the agency bleeds money faster than Congress. The priority? Individual client happiness.

Customers can’t interrupt production, unless a product defect gets them all screaming at once. Their happiness comes after you launch the product, when they buy it. And, if you’re a smart business owner, you design your product for the 10% who will love it, not the 90% who won’t.

Clients, on the other hand, have to interrupt production. Their happiness is an issue long before product/campaign launch. You’re working with them throughout the production process. For some agency services, like SEO, the production process never ends. So there are meetings, unexpected calls/crises and the inevitable call to get Everyone In The Room Right Now to figure something out.

This stuff sounds negative, but it is not. Clients are entitled. They shoulder 100% of the cost of a specific project or outcome.

If you’re an agency, a client is paying you lots of money precisely so that they can rely on you as expert/consultant/counselor. If you don’t like it, find a different line of work. Oh, you can still drink yourself into a stupor and tell stories of The Meeting That Wouldn’t Die or the Client Who Drove Down From Vancouver When You Said You Wouldn’t Work With Them Any More. But agencies are in the client services business, and that’s very different from the software business, or cell phone business, or publishing business.

Most agencies do it wrong

Most agencies face down clients as the enemy of productivity. They hire account managers to run interference. Those account managers are supposed to keep the clients away from the designers, writers, programmers and internet marketing nerds so that they can do ‘real work’.


The client is the real work. As an agency, you’re helping clients achieve a favorable outcome. That includes increased sales, more votes or whatever. It also includes not giving them a nervous breakdown.

Don’t be a wimp, either

I’d be the last person to say you should knuckle under every client request. Remember, your job is a favorable outcome. So you have to have the spine to stop a client from doing something foolish, including having so many stakeholders they achieve paralysis by committee. You also have to have the intelligence to pick your battles. Understand the difference between customer service, and customer enabling. It’s a fine line.

Next post: How we do it at Portent

All of this hand-waving stuff is going somewhere: Next post (tonight or tomorrow) I’ll show you how Portent handles the day-to-day work of an agency while still getting work done, and how we’re applying 37Signals’ BaseCamp to to these challenges.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Brillant article, productivity is a major issue in all companies. You really suprpised me at this statement: “They hire account managers to run interference.”
    I thought that was the optimal thing to do. Can you elaborate on what is the optimal way of working to clients this?
    Meanwhile, I will be waiting for your next post.

  2. Ian, is there an opportunity to list your client commandments of what success and remarkable results look like as part of the engagement process? And, to proactively address experiences of what has not worked before? Maybe what I am really brainstorming about, is to find ways to EXCLUDE the client, and if that cannot be done…then volia. A real possibility exists. Awaiting your next post. I’m engaged in this topic. Thanks for the thought provocation.

  3. As a certified master project manager, and familiar with supporting those “customer relationship managers” aka Account Managers, I can tell you they ran to me for help.
    Two things:
    1. Account managers are hired to be project managers.
    2. If the account managers have project managers to pull in, they run to them for larger projects.
    LIFE: If we encounter an account manager, we need to ask them if they have project managers to back them up or are they going to be “THE project manager.”
    If we set expectations on them, they pay attention or they face being tattled on. It’s not always that simple but it’s just about that simple.

  4. And, if you’re a smart business owner, you design your product for the 10% who will love it, not the 90% who won’t.
    Can I assume you meant the inverse?

  5. @goodnewscowboy Actually no – I’m a huge believer in niche design. Now, if you’re Apple, that philosophy eventually gets you into the hands of millions of cell phone users. But starting with a narrow, highly-focused design is a great way to build a great company.

  6. Important to know the difference even at the business model layer. Asking the question, am I trying to have both customers and clients? I suppose its possible, but I think its better to specialize in having one or the other.

  7. LOL. Great descriptive. I love your phrase “paralysis by committee” had I read this post three months ago I would have used it recently and saved myself a headache.

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