No matter how competent a team is at producing marketing strategies, half the decisions made regarding client-agency relationships are often based on chemistry. The pitch phase so often involves a meeting of main points of contact to check how the working relationship will be. Meanwhile, in order to keep that client on the books with your agency, you’ll find that a lot of it comes down to their thoughts on the individuals involved in their account. Unfortunately, building a good client relationship is also one of the hardest things to teach.
As digital marketers, we talk all about the importance of personas when we are selling things for our clients. By categorising your audience group into core persona groups and understanding their objectives, you can make high-quality content targeted towards them, thereby increasing their chance of purchasing. Well, when it comes to building agency-client relationships, you can do exactly the same.
By creating four core persona groups of the stakeholders in the businesses you interact with, it becomes easier to gauge their thoughts and objections before they’ve voiced them. By pre-empting their questions and their concerns in how you present your work, you guarantee they’ll feel more like you understand them.
- The Playfuls – There are some people who are instantly relaxed and joke around, regardless of the situation. They’ll be most likely to forgive a mistake, as long as the relationship remains fun as well as productive.
- The Powerfuls – The decisive ones, who get things done and will feel like the most efficient person in the room. For them, it’s all about timelines as they’ll be impatient to see results and action.
- The Peacefuls – Patient and stable, those who fall into the category of a Peaceful will want to avoid conflict in the business and approach each situation from a rational, considered perspective.
- The Precises – Focuses on processes and numbers, anyone who tends towards this persona will want accuracy in your work. Take time to ensure every angle has been thought about, rather than rushing to deliver your thoughts to them.
So let’s look at some specific scenarios…
Before the First Meeting
It’s easy to turn up to the first meet with a client, or potential client, with a tonne of research on their business but not very much on them as a person. Treat the individual you’re meeting as part of the preparation required and you’ll start to see your success rates increase.
The majority of people have accounts across multiple social networks now; whether it’s a simple LinkedIn look-up, their twitter profile or a personal blog, there are many different ways to find out about the meeting attendees before the day.
I’m not saying you should walk into the meeting and ask them about their 2011 holiday, but there’s no harm in just avoiding any red flags. People relax on their social media and often it’s the easiest way to get an unguarded response on some issues, so you may as well use it to your advantage.
Note: This does not mean being false or pretending to like something just because your potential client likes it.
Get Started on the Right Foot
“First impressions matter. Experts say we size up new people in somewhere between 30 seconds and two minutes.” Elliott Abrams
There are two scenarios here for when you will first meet the client -either an initial pitch or when you begin working on their account – both are equally important to get right or else you set a precedent for the entire relationship going forward.
During the Sale
Sales are all about managing expectations. It’s easy to get carried away in the process and promise the world to someone, only to discover down the line it’s not really possible, especially not on the budget they have available. By being honest and upfront in the sales process, you can set a tone for the project as a whole. The key here is to find targets and aims which are realistic but still, will push your team to perform the very best work and ensure the client really feels like the work they’re receiving is pushing their business forward.
This is also an opportunity to get to know the client a little better, gauging their understanding of everything digital and the level at which your team will need to explain the various concepts to them.
If your first meeting is once the contract has been signed, this can be a bit trickier to manage. The client is already used to one group of people from your agency and has worked out a dynamic with them that can be difficult to disrupt. Often the client may be most comfortable calling their original point of contact with an issue or to talk through the project, which is problematic if that person is not able to provide the answers needed. In order to take charge of this relationship, and create a productive working environment for both client and agency, it’s important that there is clarity from start to finish. Explain the roles and responsibilities of each person from the first conversation so the client knows who is best placed to help them. The handover which takes place is also key here; with thorough contact reports of all communications, the new point of contact can get a much better understanding of which types of conversation have gone well and which have been difficult to put them in a stronger position for carrying that relationship forward.
In both situations, by being open with the client you can ask them how they prefer to communicate. It is early enough in the relationship to establish if they’re an email person or you get the most out of them with a quick phone call. Simply ask if they want a written report full of graphs, or if they find data easier to digest when left in raw numbers. By questioning them before the relationship is established it means you’re much more likely to get it right first time.
“The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy. The essence of trust building is to emphasise the similarities between you and the customer.” Thomas J. Watson
Every on-going relationship is different, which is why it is SO difficult to teach account management or building client relationships. However, the theory that it comes naturally is just something I don’t buy into. My first few clients will be able to tell you just how awkward I was at all times, and also how much I struggled to get rid of this illusion of professionalism I had in my head. But instead, I’ve realised that as well as everything else here, the easiest thing to do (if you feel like you’re struggling a bit) is to stick by 3 core principles for every client:
- Be responsive – Even if the response is ‘sorry I don’t know, can I get back to you’ the worst thing you can do is make a client feel like they aren’t important to you. The reality of it is, agencies are paid for their time so if a client feels they aren’t getting that when they ask, then the relationship is bound to become strained.
- If you don’t care, don’t ask – This is possibly the strangest bit of feedback I’ve ever heard from a client but is so true. Discussing interactions with some other businesses he commented ‘I just wish they’d stop asking how I am/how was my weekend generically when they obviously don’t care – it’s nice but takes so much more time as I wonder if I bother to answer the question or get straight to work’
- Welcome and encourage feedback – If you’ve done a good job of building a working relationship, that can develop into something that feels like a relatively fragile friendship. Of course, you get on but there’s a line still where one of you is reporting to the other. As the agency reporting up to the client, you need to make this easy for them by actively encouraging feedback and handling it well.
When Something Goes Wrong
“The earlier you admit to your mistakes, the more time you would have to learn and grow from them.” Edmond Mbiaka
No matter how good you are at what you do, there’s always the risk of something out of your control impacting the results you’re generating. Be it a Google Algorithm update or an aggressive new tactic from a competitor, often there can be an impact on your performance from external factors. I’m a firm believer in holding your hands up and saying sorry when it all goes wrong. Admitting a problem early, rather than withholding information or going silent on your client means a lot. If you’ve put the time in to build that relationship early on then you will know the best way to explain the situation to the person, connecting on a human level rather than just business to business.
Practice Makes Perfect
All of the above can provide the foundations of building strong client relationships but it also requires a little bit of something extra. Every client is different, just as every member of agency staff will be different too so there is no one-size-fits-all rulebook. If you’re genuine and trying hard to deliver the very best service, it’s likely your clients will see that and appreciate the effort.