How To Improve Client-Agency Relationships
Feb 21, 2020 ● 7 min read
Strong client-agency relationships can overcome a multitude of sins. See seven ways to improve them here.
It’s an interesting time to own or run a digital agency.
On one hand, research shows most agencies are growing, if slowly. Most are hiring.
On the other hand, more and more businesses are taking their marketing in-house, or are at least thinking about it.
Martech Tools Are Making Marketing Easier (For Agencies and Brands)
This move to bring work in-house is driven in part because of another problem for agencies – the same tools that help us become more efficient can also help in-house teams become more efficient. And as some of those tools become easier to use, it’s easy for in-house marketers to think they don’t need their agencies’ expertise as much as they once did.
This is especially true if the agency is an “order taker,” rather than a source of strategy, big-picture planning, and deep expertise.
But those are all exterior forces. Sure, they affect whether you keep or lose clients. But agencies are still human organizations. Or at least they should be.
After all the hours are logged, the contracts signed, the reports delivered, agencies and client relationships come down to people. If the business relationship is strong, a client will overlook a bad quarter of performance. If it’s really strong, they may overlook a whole year’s worth of bad performance.
That’s just the negative side of why agency and client relationships matter. Good relationships can do more than just help you avoid losing clients – they can also get you new clients. A lot of new clients.
Good agency relationships prompt referrals. And referrals are actually the secret engine of new business. Social media and SEO and content and advertising and speaking and all the other channels for new business are great, but referrals beat them hands down. Times two.
More than twice as many agency owners said their primary source of new business comes from referrals than from any other channel.
This doesn’t come from just one study, either. Other surveys of agency owners show referrals beat out all other new business channels, and by a factor of two.
Honing your skills with client relationships could also help you keep your job. A survey of agency professionals done by MarketingLand found that “strong client communication” is a skill agency pros believe will be sorely needed in agencies two years from now. It came in second only to “strategy,” and even beat out “analytical” skills, “effective writing,” and “leadership” skills.
So the benefits of building up agency-client relationships are clear. Here’s how to do it:
1. Manage Expectations.
Your clients’ expectations frame everything you do for them. One piece of work, viewed through low expectations, may be viewed as excellent while the same piece of work, viewed through high expectations, may get rejected. It might even get you fired.
Because expectations are so powerful, and because issues with expectations tend to come up so often, it’s critical to manage them early and often.
The most obvious way to do this is to be specific and repetitive about deadlines and deliverables. Walk your clients through every phase they’ll see of a campaign’s development. Explain what the work will look like at each phase and what you will expect from the client at each phase.
That’s all a good start and it will help avoid some problems. But the place where agencies really run into trouble is with results.
Results show up in two ways: In terms of the time required to see them, and in the final, measurable improvements. The “measurable” part is key: To appropriately manage expectations, be specific about what clients can expect. Say things like “we expect to increase your organic search traffic by at least 30% by June 1st,” not “you’ll get way more traffic if you do this.”
Take content marketing as an example. Even optimistically, it takes 4-6 months to see results from content marketing. So you better be sure your clients are ready to stay the course for at least that long. Now, do some companies see results earlier? Sure. You might be able to deliver results earlier, too. But set expectations low, then overdeliver. Your agency will look *so* much better by slightly under-promising and even incrementally over-delivering.
2. Have a Great Onboarding Program.
One of the best ways to manage expectations early on is through an onboarding program. According to one study from the Harvard Business Review, “More than 80% of executives said that an increased focus on onboarding offers significant or moderate positive impact over the life of the contract for revenue, client renewals, and client referrals. Similarly, 85% agreed that successful customer onboarding will ensure long-term customer loyalty.”
Setting up even a simple onboarding program could help you retain clients, but it may also put you one step ahead of your competition. According to a 2019 survey of agency pros done by HubShout, 36.2% of agencies don’t have any kind of a formal client onboarding process.
3. Make Reporting Clear, Consistent, and Frequent.
Clients want you to be accountable. They want to understand what you’re doing, why, and what the results are. And they don’t want to wait around for this information.
This is why clear, easy-to-understand reporting is so critical. You don’t have to snow your clients with 20-page reports every week. All they may need is a one-page summary. But send that summary. Make sure they understand what it says.
Being able to automate and customize reports can save you a lot of time and help your clients understand and appreciate what you’re doing for them so much better. But being able to add comments to your reports (like Whatagraph customers can do) brings in the meaning behind all the data.
So yes: Send consistent, clear, and useful reports. But go one step further: Help your clients understand what those reports mean. Make your reporting actionable and meaningful.
Let’s face it… marketers are dealing with a tidal wave of data these days. What we crave is actionable insight from that data. Provide that, and your clients might keep you on just for the quality of your reporting.
4. Connect With Them on a Person-To-Person Level.
“People do business with people.” It’s one of the oldest sayings in business. A more modern twist on this classic is “people do business with people they know, like, and trust.”
We’ll assume you’re likable and trustworthy, but how well do your clients really know you? This doesn’t have to tilt into weirdness or oversharing, but it is smart to make time to connect with your clients beyond the meeting room.
Lunches and dinners out are an easy way to make this happen. Getting to conferences and events are other opportunities to connect. But sometimes even that can be a challenge. Especially if clients are busy, don’t know you at all, or are themselves a little “distant.”
If that’s the case, start small. It’s easy to remember someone’s birthday, for example. It only takes a few minutes to walk out with them from your office. You can ask about their children, their weekends, their hobbies.
Or you can go even one better. Making recommendations of things your clients might like can help you score points and build trust. So if you know they’re traveling, make a few recommendations. Connect them to other people in your industry they might want to know.
Once you start looking for opportunities to connect, you’ll find plenty of ways to do it. Especially if you focus on what they would value most.
5. Understand What They Really Want.
Here’s a humbling fact that everyone at digital agencies (or in marketing departments) needs to embrace immediately: Our clients and our CMOs don’t really care about clicks. They don’t care about content, or SEO, or social media.
Our clients want more business. Unless you’re an ad agency, marketing’s sole purpose is to generate business. The clicks, the SEO, the content – those are all just vehicles to get them there.
Every business has a different view of what they really want. Sure, they want to drive business, but the specifics of that will vary. And to fully deliver on this principle, you’ll probably have to go one level deeper than understanding what your clients want. You’ll have to understand their business. This is exactly the sort of expertise clients hope for from agencies… and it’s exactly the sort of disconnect that strains business relationships.
Once you understand what your clients really want, you’ll be about 100x more effective at delivering it for them. All your strategies and tactics will hum once they’re in attunement with that goal.
To Have Better Business Relationships, Consider Working on Yourself
Weird, right… (“Is she about to suggest we go to therapy?”)
No, you don’t need therapy to have good relationships with your clients. Unless you needed it before. But personal development, honesty, integrity – those are all key aspects of a person who can be a good business partner.
If you’re weak in those areas, or if you simply lack confidence, or have a few not-so-great habits (like interrupting people, assuming you know everything, etc.) consider working on one of those shortcomings.
This is, after all, a great time of year for resolutions.