Strong client relationships are the bedrock of successful agencies. Learn how to create better client experiences in this post.
Clients come to you for the work. They stick around for the experience.
This is as true for 2,000 strong mega agencies as it is for 2-person boutique shops. The client experience is as important as the ‘work’ for building a sustainable business.
Unfortunately, there is a mismatch between agencies and clients when it comes to defining “client experience”. Agencies don’t always understand what clients truly value. They over-value work and undervalue the process of delivering it.
If you want to build an enduring business, you need to create better client experiences. In this post, I’ll walk you through the core issues plaguing agency-client interactions and share insight on how to wow your clients every time.
- The agency-client divide and how it affects your business
- Why it’s critical that you understand the client (and their business)
- How to earn the client’s trust, one email at a time
- How to avoid confusion and add clarity to your client communication
The Agency-Client Experience Divide
What does your agency want from a client relationship?
More work? Sure. Better deals? Definitely. Referrals? Of course.
But have you ever wondered what clients want from the relationship?
Sure, they want results - that’s a give. But too often, agencies focus only on the results, ignoring the usually bumpy ride it takes to deliver those results. What might be working “perfectly” for you might actually be leaving clients insecure and mystified.
This agency-client survey by Setup captures this gap perfectly. Agencies overwhelmingly prize creativity, while for clients, the agency’s ability to understand their business and deliver a strong client experience are top priorities.
Understand: clients are not in the same boat as you.
When a client approaches an agency, they’re essentially leaving the future of their business or job in your hands. A failed project is a loss for you. For the client, it might mean the end of their business.
This leaves clients in a particularly vulnerable position. They have to trust your ability to deliver. But without reassurances at every interaction, this trust can falter.
Agencies focus on deliverables, clients on interactions
The top priority for every agency is to create the stated deliverables on-time and under-budget. On the operations side, that’s pretty much all you need to create a successful agency.
However, in any project, the deliverables are far too few and far too spread out. You might be able to ‘wow’ your clients, say, thrice in a quarter if you’re meeting your deadlines.
In the meantime, agency-client interactions keep piling up.
Every email, every Zoom call, every meeting counts towards the client experience. These might not be a priority for you since you’re focusing on delivering those punchy, deadline-beating, once-a-quarter results. But for clients, the lack of enthusiasm, attention, or even basic professionalism at these interactions sours the client experience.
This mismatch between agency and client priorities is the source of most poor client experiences. Agencies focus on deliverables. Clients focus on the interactions needed to create them.
If you are to create a better client experience, your goal should be to make every interaction delightful. And numerically speaking, you have far more daily interactions with clients than big delivery deadlines.
Daily interactions - email, video calls, phone messages - are as important as big deliverables for creating memorable client experiences
Understanding this is the heart of better client relationships.
In the next section, I’ll share some strategies to create spectacular client experiences.
Six Strategies for Stellar Client Experiences
Clients want results. But they also want the journey to get those results to be reassuring, comfortable, and predictable.
Here are seven approaches to make the journey smoother and create better client experiences:
1. Jump Into the Client’s Shoes
Of course, you know the client’s business - you’ve based your marketing strategy off of it.
But do you really know who they are and how they work?
Agencies are often walking blind when it comes to their clients’ ways of working. What might be the norm for you can be completely out of the ordinary for the client. Collaboration and quick decision-making - so innate to agencies - might be slow and arduous to a client.
It’s important, again, to remember the imbalance between the agency’s and the client’s priorities. You can be faster with your decision-making because the project might be one of a hundred. But clients might be slower and more deliberate because their business depends on that one project.
The first step in crafting better client experiences, thus, is to truly understand the client’s business.
Go beyond the basics of their marketing strategy or their product portfolio or even their management structure.
Instead, learn how they work. Figure out their decision making processes. Their reporting hierarchies. Their internal culture. Even what qualifies as “casual Friday” in their dress code.
Besides long, meaningful conversations, here are some ways to get this information:
- Employee exchange: Ask a couple of junior employees between your agency and the client for a week or two. This will help both sides learn how each other work. If nothing else, it shows your commitment to understanding their business.
- Join their meetings: Ask to sit in on their meetings for a week or so. You don’t have to contribute - just observe how they work and make decisions.
- Executive shadowing: Shadow a senior executive, preferably a stakeholder in the project, for a couple of weeks. This will give you an in-depth understanding of the client’s work patterns and culture.
2. Earn Their Trust
Agencies believe that trust in the agency-client relationship is earned by demonstrating results.
But that’s only partially true.
While results obviously matter, trust also depends heavily on the path you took to get those results.
Remember: clients are more vulnerable than you in the relationship. They have someone to report too; a failed project can jeopardize their career.
To foster enduring trust, you need to go beyond bringing in results. You need to communicate well, be transparent, and stick to established standards.
Some approaches that work well for building trust include:
- Frequent updates: Agencies are often guilty of a flurry of communication before a deliverable and radio silence after. This leaves clients uneasy during the periods where they get no regular updates from the team. Fill this awkward silence by periodically sharing project updates.
- Transparency: In your daily/weekly/monthly updates, be as transparent as possible. Tell clients exactly what you worked on, what issues you faced, and what needs their attention.
- Clear billing: Early in the relationship, billing is often the breaker (or maker) of trust. Clear, transparent billing that ties to the client’s expectations can quickly establish trust. Make sure to choose a billing process that works for you and software that can help you make invoices easily.
- Stick to expectations: Don’t bait-and-switch the client with a different team than the one they thought they were getting. Don’t add or remove people beyond their estimates. Simply sticking to the client’s expectations can be a massive trust-builder early in the relationship.
When in doubt, just communicate more. Over-communicating never truly hurt an agency-client relationship. In fact, a 2017 survey found that clients actually want more communication.
If there is an issue you can’t resolve immediately, don’t fill the gap with radio silence. Tell clients that you will get back to them within 2-3 days. This alone can help reassure clients.
3. Establish a Common Vocabulary
What does ‘ASAP’ mean to you?
For some agencies, it literally means getting the work done as soon as possible, i.e. immediately.
For some businesses, however, ASAP is shorthand for “do it when you have the time”.
This gap between the vocabulary of the client and the agency is one of the most common causes of unsatisfactory client experiences. Clients might mean one thing, agencies might infer something else.
This problem is particularly acute when we use open-ended terms like “asap” or “soon” or “crucial”. They pop-up in most conversations yet no two organizations have the same baseline for inferring them. “Soon” can be two days for one organization, two weeks for another.
For a stronger relationship, establish a common vocabulary early on.
This doesn’t have to be an awkward interaction where you sit down with a spreadsheet and a list of words. Simply asking for some clarity when a client uses an ambiguous term like “soon” can be enough.
Just ask - “when you say ‘asap’, what is your timeline?”
Or “if you say ‘urgent’, does it mean ‘911-emergency urgent’ or ‘microwave isn’t working urgent’?
Knowing what clients really mean can avoid a lot of conflict and confusion later on.
4. Setup Service Standards
Customer-facing companies on the consumer side almost always have clearly established service standards. All emails must be answered within 12 hours. All calls must be returned within 6 hours. And so on.
Agencies, on the other hand, rarely have clear service standards.
Emails are answered as and when you find the time. Sometimes that’s two hours. Sometimes, it’s two weeks.
The lack of consistency opens up a whole can of worms for clients. It can leave them in the dark when they need reassurance.
For the long-term health of your agency, consider setting up service standards - just as a customer support unit of a B2C company would.
These service standards should include:
- Minimum response time for incoming queries via different channels
- Client engagement standards, such as policies for leaving the camera switched on for Zoom calls, or adhering to a dress code at client meetings
- Issue prioritization matrix, for categorizing issues as ‘urgent’, ‘high-priority’, ‘mid-priority’, and ‘low-priority’
You don’t have to turn the agency into a customer support center, but establishing a baseline of service standards will go a long way towards making you more professional, reliable, and trustworthy.
5. Show Expertise Beyond Your Work
Here’s a survey that asked clients to rate the importance of different attributes in their agency partners:
Notice how the two biggest concerns are about the agency understanding the client’s business?
This isn’t an accident. Clients highly prioritize agencies that not only produce good work, but also truly understand their business.
(Though good work can rarely come from a poor understanding of the business.)
Study the client’s business. Understand their industry and the challenges they’re facing - even if it doesn’t fit into your marketing strategy.
Good work can win you contracts and industry awards, but it can’t earn you long-term client relationships. For that, you have to be a partner - someone the client can turn to for advice and ideas even outside your domain.
Never give up a chance to learn more about the client’s business. And never hesitate to share insight with clients. If nothing else, it shows that you’re thinking about the client’s business - even outside of work.
6. Bake it into Your Culture
Agencies that excel at creating strong client experiences don’t just stumble into it by accident.
Almost always, it happens because service, transparency, and trust are baked into the agency’s culture. Senior executives emphasize it, it’s a core part of your employee onboarding, and it’s reinforced by leaders at every level.
I understand that shifting your culture isn’t easy, but if you want to build a sustainable business, you have to place the client experience at the center of your agency. Perhaps even more than your creative output, you have to prioritize how you treat your clients.
Read this guide to learn more about building a client-focused agency culture.
Over to You
Effective agencies are built on strong client relationships. Besides churning out stellar creative work, the best way to build strong relationships is to create transparent, trustworthy client experiences.
One way to boost the client experience is to streamline your client-facing interactions. Something as simple as switching to an integrated online proofing and collaboration tool like Workamajig can create moments of delight for clients
Switch to Workamajig to create a truly client-focused agency. Tap the button below for a free demo today.