The 4 Pillars Of Successful Agency-Client Relationships

Blog Categories:  Executive Management  

It may be asking the impossible to expect marketing agency-client relationships to last forever, but every agency would like them to last longer than a month, or a year, or maybe even five years.

The question every agency ponders: How can we improve client retention? To find the answer, it helps to break down the relationship into its four key components. If an agency performs well in all four areas, retention will improve. If it bungles the job in even one, though, a client may be gone as early as tomorrow.

Pillar 1 — Onboarding

When a client signs on for a campaign, jubilation reigns. However, at the risk of being a party pooper, I must point out — the minute a contract is signed, an agency should start worrying about retaining that client. Action steps for onboarding:

  • The first few months (or even days) of a campaign are critical. Buyer’s remorse often sets in. If the agency is slow to return a phone call or overlooks a seemingly minor detail, the relationship could go into a tailspin immediately after takeoff. To prevent bad first impressions, everyone involved with the campaign must be on top of their game.

  • Equally important, the agency must set the appropriate expectations, or better yet, review with the client the ones that were set in the proposal that led to the contract. When agencies overpromise and underdeliver, they get clients quickly — and lose them quickly. When agencies underpromise and overdeliver, they set up themselves to delight clients month after month.

  • Agencies must make it easy for the client to ask questions and express concerns. In the early stages of a relationship, clients are often hesitant to complain, so instead, seeds of doubt are planted that slowly but surely grow into oak tress of discontent. However, if a client is made to feel comfortable calling an account manager or a partner at the drop of a hat, then any onboarding issue can be resolved while it’s still easy to resolve.

Pillar 2 — Production

Online marketing campaigns are nothing if not complicated. Lots of moving parts, approvals, reviews, designs, development projects, content creation, data collection, analytics, testing, tweaking, bidding, benchmarking — you know the drill.

It is therefore imperative for an agency to have a clear, comprehensive and documented process to manage communication and workflow — and here’s the tricky part — and review it systematically to improve efficiency and adapt to ever-changing best practices.

Many clients and some agencies believe success inevitably follows from brilliant strategies. This leads to disappointment and client loss, because no matter how solid a strategy is, sloppy execution will undermine it. Every agency must have people on staff who get excited about managing details, and are good at it. These people also must be able to work closely with campaign managers, because when a campaign is coming up short, the problem could be strategic, tactical, process-related, or a combination. Without the ability to examine all three areas collaboratively, an agency is likely to come up with the wrong diagnosis or an incomplete one, ultimately resulting in lost clients.

Things to think about:

  • Do we have a documented process to manage workflow and communication?

  • Does our project management platform meet our needs?

  • Is our project management user-friendly and not overcomplicating our execution?

  • Do we have a way to review our process to identify weaknesses?

  • Do we have a way to evaluate the productivity of our staff and the quality of their work?

Pillar 3 — Performance

Of course, even if an agency has a rock-solid process, it will be judged on results. This takes us into the realm of strategy and tactics. A campaign is almost always initiated with an agency having one arm tied behind its back, because it is basing its campaign execution on a limited number of facts and limited experience with the client and/or industry. As more campaign data and testing results come in, strategy improves and tactics can be sharpened.

Sometimes, data and testing indicate the initial goals were too ambitious (or too modest!). When this becomes evident, it should be discussed with the client to reset expectations. It’s better to tell the client today that a conversion goal is beyond reach than to let the campaign twist in the wind for six months until the client figures it out.

Whether initial goals were accurate or not, agencies should review performance internally first, and then with the client, every month (and possibly more frequently during the onboarding phase). I can’t emphasize in-house collaboration enough on this score. When the relationship managers and execution team are working in a vacuum, both sides miss out on key information, with the upshot being clients are not getting an accurate picture of performance and action steps being taken, and the execution team is not getting a full understanding of the client’s expectations and concerns. As time goes on, client and agency perceptions about performance drift further and further apart until separation is inevitable.

Pillar 4 — Relationship Management

Everything discussed in this post so far has touched on client relationships — setting expectations, facilitating easy and frank communication, and reviewing performance in particular. In addition, important aspects of building strong client relationships involve:

  • Being transparent. Showing all of your work in reporting, not hiding errors, and bringing clients into the office build the client’s confidence that whether results are good or bad at the moment, the agency is upfront in acknowledging the situation and committed to improving it.

  • Being communication wizards. Great relationship managers can explain the technicalities of Internet marketing in everyday terms, which puts clients very much at ease. They return phone calls and emails promptly, provide complete and convincing answers — and, above all, are superb listeners. They are able to communicate client issues quickly, completely and clearly to the agency team, nipping problems in the bud and seizing opportunities to shine.

  • Showing appreciation. When clients feel neglected, separation is only a matter of time. Ironically, feelings of neglect can set in just when a campaign is starting to roll. If the agency feels the campaign is a success, it may focus its attention on other clients where problems are looming. Mistake! Whether a campaign is running hot or cold, whether it is a week old or 10 years old, clients need to hear how much the agency values the business.

  • Going the extra mile. When is the last time you gave a client a sales lead? When is the last time you ran a new marketing idea by a client? When is the last time you told a client about a potential supplier that could take its business to a higher level? When you do something like that for a client, the client never forgets it. And when the pressure is on, memories like that keep the client firmly in your camp.

Over to You

How do you build and maintain strong relationships with your clients?

Thinking of selling your agency? Here’s a great article to show you how: Selling Your Company.

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