How Agencies Can Have Successful Client Partnerships [Part 2]

Let me start by saying that I know you’re successful and probably wonder what you can learn from me as an agency owner, leader, or staffer.

I will humbly admit that I can and do continue to learn from you; I have some great relationships with other agency owners and always learn something when I’m in the room with them – even if it sometimes feels more like a therapy session than one where we solve all of our problems.

The agency business is hard.

Whether we’re talking about advertising, digital, PR, or other niches and specializations, we’re in a hard industry. We care deeply about people – our own and those who are our clients – as well as the missions and causes that factor into the reasons we’re in our current gigs.

This article is my companion and “part 2” in this series. The first was about how brands can have successful relationships with agencies. In this one, I’m taking the other side.

I’m here today to share the 8 things I’ve learned over my nearly 20 years in agencies – mostly from the mistakes I have made – so if there’s anything you haven’t experienced, you don’t have to go through it yourself.

1. Know What You Want Or Need

This seems blunt, and I apologize if so. But it probably should be.

If you don’t fully push clients to share their goals or help define what success looks like for your partnership and their investment in an agency (or any resources), you’ll risk wasted dollars and time (for both sides) in getting to their ROI goals and risk churn or attrition of the client relationship.

For some clients, it is a process to figure out what they want and many agencies (including mine) have a robust planning and strategy process to help get to the definition and strategy mapping stage.

However, if you don’t work to elicit objectives and truths for their ROI math and measures that show if something is profitable or not, they might not be ready to go down the path of evaluating an agency partnership and, unfortunately, may sign on with you, but not last long.

2. Be Clear On Communication

I often emphasize to prospects and clients that I want them to be bold and honest and to share with us the details of when and how they want to be communicated with.

That is definitely not a one-way street.

Whether you have highly defined communication processes and cadences or typically adapt them to the client, I want to encourage you to be clear early in the relationship about what works best for your agency.

Be open to sharing how you like to communicate. That could be through email, Slack, text, phone calls, scheduled meetings, tickets, or messages in a project management system. Whatever it is, when it is, and what the response times they can expect, you are definitely best served in sharing about your communication parameters.

We never want clients guessing or our staff being caught up in out-of-cycle, off-hour messages or misaligned response windows.

Despite the constant change in subject matter (that we have to contend with), algorithms, and attribution, one of the biggest reasons prospects and clients still reach out to me is that they weren’t getting the communication they expected from their previous agency.

I know this is a two-way problem, and in many cases, the agency would probably acknowledge communication was an issue, too – or wish that they knew, as it is something that is, in many cases, easy to correct compared to the other challenges we face in meeting performance goals in an ever-changing marketplace.

3. Remember The Scope

My companion article mentions scope, and I want to make sure it isn’t lost or forgotten on the agency side as well. I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting to add value (aka over-service) to clients to show them love in the relationship.

Despite the goodwill built and the potential for growing lifetime value with a client, we have to make sure that our teams understand the scope.

If you have tailored scope documents to different clients, then maybe your team is really dedicated to scope management. However, regardless of what your scope management looks like, if you aren’t tracking utilization, efficiency, and profitability in your agency – down to the client level – then you’re likely operating without all of the information you need.

It is really easy for an owner, salesperson, or anyone to get a scope approved in a contract, SOW, MSA, or other document and then for the team to take over and not look back at it.

Be diligent about what is in scope and what is out of scope, and have dedicated processes to monitor and implement the proper change orders and management techniques to stay on budget in a professional manner.

4. Be Invested

This is a weird one. We all say that we are invested and excited about any client who comes through our doors and chooses to work with us—and that we choose to work with. However, I have seen a lot of strange things in my career.

Again, no judgment here, and I can’t say that my team has been fully engaged or invested in every single relationship. Naturally, there are clients and brands in some less-than-sexy industries.

There are clients who are not the easiest to connect with on a personal level. There are clients who are not themselves invested in the work. Or, there are clients who are not pleasant to interact with, and for any number of reasons, you can’t fire them at this moment.

In any situation, it shows when we aren’t invested in the client. Maybe they were the first to show it, or maybe we were. They could be quiet quitting on us.

Whatever it is, we need to show our commitment to not just the day-to-day but to being the idea-bringing, problem-solving, solution-seeking, and proactive communicating member of their team that we can be. We must show our commitment and do all that we can to be fully invested in the relationship.

5. Share Your Expectations

Understanding and managing client expectations is important in the agency/client relationship. It has been talked about forever and will continue to be.

Expectations, however, are a two-way street. We want to know what our clients expect and to help shape those expectations to be realistic based on the scope, our expertise, or the scale of the services we’re offering.

However, what if we also stated what we expect of our clients? I’m not saying it is a perfect process, as the party who is paying the bill typically wants to feel catered to and have their expectations met.

At the same time, as I think back on some of my team’s biggest challenges, they often stem from some type of asset, approval, deliverable, or step that a client hasn’t followed through on or done in a timely manner.

Did we do our best to clearly state our expectations on what we expected from the client? Did they know the consequences of not delivering?

Whether it is a balanced, mutual client agreement, a manifesto, bill of rights, or some other expectation-setting tool or document, I believe that agencies (including mine) should do a better job of stating our expectations while also trying to understand, manage, and set those of the client.

6. Be Patient, Yet Expect Accountability

This one is hard – sometimes really hard.

Accountability can be intimidating and something that is hard for agencies to accept as we typically, by default, don’t have control of client branding decisions, sales teams, ultimate marketing approvals, product roadmaps, or financial performance.

Yes, we often can get transparent ROI math, access to CRM, and possibly a seat at the marketing table.

The difficulty of accountability is that when we don’t have full control, we often can’t be fully accountable for results and actions. In relationships with little digital agency accountability, it is easy to stay on the search or marketing side of the table. That means doing what we can from the outside or a couple of levels deep.

We can report marketing metrics and KPIs and collaborate, but ultimately, it is up to the client to judge the effort’s ROI and connect all the dots.

On the other hand, to get to the depth we need in order to fully prove our ROI, we might not agree with or like the decisions being made and still have to settle for a certain level of accountability that isn’t totally fair to us.

In any situation, we must find a balance between being patient as we navigate getting as deep as possible with our clients versus pushing too hard or being walled off from information.

7. Provide A Clear Escalation Path

Most people in the business world are respectful and professional and want to maintain a positive reputation.

This leads to cordial relationships and often great camaraderie between people on the client and agency sides of the relationship.

However, if the day-to-day person on the agency side is close to the work or close to the client contact, chances are that the client contact may not feel super comfortable providing negative feedback.

Feedback is a great tool in general, as getting it early and often in a relationship allows for minor adjustments to strategy, communication, or other factors in the relationship. However, if someone doesn’t know where to give objective feedback or doesn’t feel they can do it without hurting feelings or being confrontational, then that is a problem.

I mentioned quiet quitting earlier.

I have observed a lot of quiet quitting of clients in agency relationships over the past couple of years. While I don’t know that having an escalation path is the biggest factor, I can definitely recommend making it clear and comfortable for the client to know how to give direct feedback, anonymous feedback, and feedback to others in the chain of command in a way that will be handled professionally so they aren’t shy about giving it.

8. Celebrate

This is possibly the most overlooked aspect of any agency relationship. It might be easy to keep the client at arms distance or even to assume they are celebrating their own wins separate from yours.

Assuming they have real wins in their company that have any attribution to or opportunity to bring in your agency for, then encourage it!

Good agencies care about their clients and their success. Companies who see that success and feel like their agency is a partner, not a vendor, should naturally want to celebrate together.

If you have a partnership that isn’t at arms length, please share your successes with the client and push them to share data and reasons to celebrate with you as well.

With how many years I’ve been doing this, I know our type. I know that we’re agency people who know how to properly party and celebrate things and love to hear about wins and share them.

Chances are, if we are good at sharing wins and cultivating a culture for our clients to share wins with us, we’ll be able to properly party with our clients and be one team instead of two in the relationship.

It might not seem like a big deal, but believe me – in the post-COVID era and in a decade with a lot of burnout, we need to celebrate wins more than ever.

Have Honest, Clear, and Difficult Conversations Earlier

While some of what I talked about might feel like tough love, please know that I will be the first to say that I’m not perfect, nor is my team.

Everything I have shared is what I believe in and is also something I want to be accountable for.

Whether it is setting expectations, making sure the fit with the client is right for both sides, being open to honest feedback, managing scope, or any number of other things that you can do to enhance the client experience and have smooth client relationships, I want to challenge you to test these things out and see how they improve retention, performance, and efficiency in your agency.

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Featured Image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

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