Top Three Ways Agencies Can Fix Client Relationships

Agencies take heed. You have developed a proven process, nurtured a staff of experts who are client-service focused and utilize the best technology. Yet the client/agency relationship is suffering.

While clients certainly share some of the responsibility for less-than-stellar agency relationships (more on that in part two next week), agencies tend to exhibit certain common behaviors and traits that become pitfalls that can doom client relationships from the start.

How often does your agency reflect on its processes, people, resources and approaches to the market? Agencies should be ultra-critical of their "product," not just their offering and positioning. Besides, blaming the clients who write the checks is never a good idea.

Fear not, because to a great degree your fate rests in your hands. Applying the following three recommendations will dramatically increase your client satisfaction rate this year.

Stop Overselling and Under-Delivering:  Overselling during the pitch is a surefire way to ruin your agency relationship from day one. In today's competitive agency environment it's an all-too-common a scenario. The implications transcend a single client relationship, as unrealistic expectations make it difficult for agency staff to perform, which in turn this affects morale and motivation. 



Agencies also tend to regularly remove some of the key thought leadership from existing business to take part in new business pitches. There is a lot of motivation to include smart people in a pitch for a new client, particularly when the half life of each new relationship is exponentially greater than many existing relationships. However, this creates a deficiency in account leadership for existing clients and contributes to the shortening of client/agency relationships -- a vicious cycle.

Provide Effective Account Leadership: Agencies have a hard time making a true distinction between account management and account leadership. In fact, clients, when was the last time your agency used the phrase "account leadership"? The former coordinates internal resources to ensure day-to-day tasks are on schedule and project objectives are being met, while the latter provides client advocacy, fosters a proactive rather than reactive mindset among their team, understands the bigger picture, helps steward strategy through execution, facilitates insight generation, provides ongoing thought leadership, and integrates into the client's culture.

Sometimes account leadership even includes a little mind reading. Every client deserves account leadership. It may be one individual or several staff members, but the buck has to stop somewhere. Ultimately the best account managers provide effective account leadership. An agency committed to solid account leadership empowers their staff to advocate internally in the best interest of the client. Sometimes managing agency profitability and client's best interest is a delicate balancing act, but a worthy challenge.

Demonstrate Strategic Thinking Daily: Clients expect their agencies to understand all aspects of their business and market, the behaviors and motivations of their target consumer segments, and the ins and outs of the competitive landscape. Agencies are expected to apply their collective knowledge and experience to develop thoughtful and creative strategies that maximize the contribution of digital channels to the growth of their clients' businesses. Clients expect that technology is not utilized or recommended for technology or innovation sake, but rather to be effective. Sometimes this means creating operational efficiencies that allow for more time allotted to higher strategic-value endeavors.

Assigning inexperienced staffers to make these decisions or manage these tasks is a recipe for unsuccessful client relationships. But it happens every day in the quest for profitability amid the laborious rigors of the digital marketing industry. When, rather than focusing on building a sound team structure, responsibilities are given to staffers who may not have been ready to take the training wheels off, or individuals are assigned too many diverse responsibilities, everybody loses. Just because "developing strategies" was in a job description, doesn't magically give that person the ability to do so. Agencies pitch strategy. But good strategists are hard to find.

From the agency side, the underlying causes of most agency / client relationship issues can be rolled up into these three major buckets. Next week we'll delve into the top three recommendations for the client side of the equation. While these three recommendations seem like common sense, implementing these concepts is sometimes easier said than done.

Clients, agencies -- I'd love to hear about some of the changes that you have observed or implemented that have helped positively impact the client/agency relationship. Chime in on the Spin board!

6 comments about "Top Three Ways Agencies Can Fix Client Relationships".
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  1. L john Yarusi from Olive LLC, May 10, 2011 at 3:20 p.m.

    2 words - Thank You!

    I am so in line with your thinking - especially #3 (Demonstrate Strategic Thinking Daily)... In the words of Rudy G

    'Change is not a destination, just as hope is not a strategy.'

    ( :


  2. Jason Heller from AGILITi, May 10, 2011 at 4:12 p.m.

    Thanks John. Unfortunately hope has been a hail Mary strategy for so many.

    BTW - there are some great agencies out there. Definitely not knocking agencies. But even the best have "A-teams" and "B teams". Strategic thinking and account leadership tend to be a little problematic when working below the A team level. It's important to know who you are working with.

  3. Tim Clark from TrueAction Network, May 10, 2011 at 5:42 p.m.

    There is a missing component here - what's the agency protocol when strategic thinking, effective leadership and over-delivery are all met with blank looks and a favored conservative approach? I think the judgment of overselling and under-delivering depends on which side you stand (obviously). If an effective strategy is explained and recommended in a pitch, chances are it's not designed to live in a vacuum. Those on the client side need to take ownership of the fact that if you only agree to half of the tactics, results will also vary. We've used a project board that catalogs tests, specific levers pulled, if/how the test was abbreviated and potential impact on originally expected results. Not only does this eliminate confusion, but it serves a library for quick reference.

  4. Jason Heller from AGILITi, May 10, 2011 at 8:22 p.m.

    Thanks for chiming in Tim. Stay tuned for next week as I turn the light on the client side of this equation. You're definitely right - clients have a responsibility here as well.

    However, the three primary buckets on the agency side are still essentially where a lot of agencies are dropping the ball. Maximizing what digital channels can contribute should have been caveated with "within the constraints provided by the client". Effective account leadership is vital in managing expectations and working with a budget or process constrained client. Often the noble or ideal aspirations of the agency are greater than the realities of what a client is willing to do, whether right or wrong. How that scenario is handled makes all the difference.

  5. Rusty Borkin from Diver Client Consulting, May 11, 2011 at 7:07 a.m.


    Good points to consider. Another perspective is that account leaders need credibility. Strategic thinking is part of that but also softer skills such as facilitation and great communication. Throw in empathy and the emotional intelligence as well. Credibility for an account leader ultimately means creating a vision of what the client/agency relationship can be and the conviction to make it a reality. It's tough work!

  6. Jason Heller from AGILITi, May 11, 2011 at 9:23 a.m.

    Thanks Rusty.

    Account leaders definitely require credibility! However, I would add that credibility is earned, not assigned. Often credibility (and trust) is lost without the agency recognizing this and once this is lost it is an uphill battle to regain trust in the eyes of a client. This is why inflection is so important. To be able to honestly assess how trust and credibility were lost, try to understand why, do what is necessary to earn it back, and apply this to other client relationships to keep them healthy.

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