Whether you’re looking to become a COO at an agency, or thinking of hiring one yourself, there’s a lot more to the position than you might expect. As Nolte’s COO, let me walk you through different aspects of this position, as well as my reflections on how to succeed as a COO in an agency.
The role of COO (Chief Operations Officer), Operations Director, Operations Manager, or whatever title your team uses, is a hard role to define other than by “what the company needs in its current state”. I’m going to define my role at Nolte, which I feel from speaking to colleagues at other small agencies, is somewhat typical. This article focuses on smaller digital agencies, not the large multi-national behemoths.
At the most basic level, the COO oversees the agency’s day-to-day operations. In my case, this covers everything the agency does from when we win new business, through to its completion, plus our admin department (finance, people, and facilities). I also support the team in the pre-sale phase, too.
Typically the scope of a COO at a smaller agency is equivalent or smaller than this. For example, many agencies have a lead project manager in an operation lead role, and they are often responsible for production but not the admin. The exception worth mentioning is when the agency is run by an owner/operator, who manages everything in the agency from sales through to production and admin (this becomes tough once the agency grows beyond 10 people or so).
Read on— I’ll take you through what it’s like for me as a COO, from before the new client meet and greet, to the final project delivery.
Sales & Marketing
I’ll start here since it’s the start of our customers’ journeys. Our Sales & Marketing area is run by our CEO & founder, Jeff Nolte. My involvement generally comes at the pre-sale stage – when I will coordinate the production team with Sales and Marketing to put together a proposal for a hot prospect. It’s also my job to make sure the production team knows what’s coming down the pipeline, and to oversee scheduling and other pre-preparation work.
While this isn’t the area that most COOs spend a lot of time, it’s crucial to have a strong understanding and relationship with sales and marketing, to ensure projects start and end smoothly.
Onboarding & Kick-off
Once we’ve verbally closed a deal, I will make sure the onboarding and kick-off process goes smoothly. We want to ensure our clients feel comfortable from the outset, after all, a bad first impression can be hard to shake if it causes a client loses confidence.
My role here is to handle the legal documents required to finalize the deal, set-up invoices in Harvest according to the project schedule, and introduce the client to their Product Manager. We also hold an internal handover meeting with myself, Jeff, and the project team gets together to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Getting Work Done
The lion’s share of my focus is spent on ensuring we successfully serve our clients whilst turning a profit. This involves a number of moving pieces, from supporting the team as they follow our in-house process, unblocking issues, dealing with challenging clients or situations, and capturing and reviewing metrics to make sure things are going to plan.
While making sure the day-to-day runs as smoothly as possible is all well and good, there is always room for improvement. The CEO/founder’s job is to set the vision, mine is to lead the team through carrying it out. I try to base decisions on empirical data when we have it (yes, time tracking is important); if not, this becomes more of a guesstimating exercise.
Together with the team we evolve and document or processes as required to constantly improve the business. This is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the job for me, but it can be hard to find time to step out of the weeds and work on it.
My advice: trust your leaders to manage their teams and empower them to escalate issues when required, and take some time to unplug from time to time.
Administration and Human Resources
Our people mean everything to us. And the business won’t last long without cash. It’s my job to make sure the team feels good about what we’re building together at Nolte, and of course to hire the right people to keep us growing. I also manage our Virtual CFO and accountant, manage our cash flow and help Sales and Marketing understand what’s required to hit our targets.
Sorting sh*t out when it goes wrong
If there’s a production issue, I often end up involved at some point. My background in engineering, project management, and freelancing gives me a pretty broad set of relevant experience to fall back on (anything apart from design).
In many cases, I’m the one who has to hold difficult conversations with clients when these things happen, not really my idea of fun. Nevertheless, this is often the place where any agency has the most opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. While we all dread these conversations, they’ve lead to many breakthroughs for us and our team, and they’ve made us a better agency in the process.
Being a COO isn’t an easy job, but it’s extremely rewarding for process-minded leaders who like having an impact in an agency. It’s crucial to focus on the team, and the bottom line simultaneously to succeed in this dynamic role.
Are you a COO? Got any tips and tricks of the trade to share? Comment below, I’d love to hear from you.
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