Are you afraid of your clients?
Most people's knee-jerk answer to that question would likely be “no.” However, if you were to reframe the question, the answer might be different. Are you afraid of telling your clients the truth? Or, more specifically, are you afraid of telling your clients hard truths?
Chances are, there would be fewer people saying no to each of those questions, and for good reason. Agencies are not in the business of trying to make their clients feel stupid or unhappy; therefore, massaging the truth — or simply leaving some of the harsher truths out of conversations — seems reasonable. What many agencies don't realize, however, is that this fear is damaging. It erodes trust and, slowly but inevitably, leads clients to look for other agencies.
Client-agency relationships are getting worse on average. Many of the problems in a relationship with a client can be boiled down to a lack of trust and transparency. It's time for agencies to stop being afraid of their clients and to start opening up — even in ways that might seem harsh.
Why Being Direct is Vital For a Good Relationship
Many agencies make the mistake of letting the client guide the process instead of the other way around. Your clients might know what they want, but that's very different from knowing how to get there.
In PR, for example, a client might want to use a specific message or target that message to a specific audience, but it's the agency that has the actual experience and knows whether that messaging will work. Unfortunately, many PR agencies will go ahead with misguided messaging if it's what the clients want, rather than risk rocking the boat. This is bad for the client and, ultimately, will damage a client-agency relationship.
If you, as the agency, put out an ineffective message — even if it’s supplied by the client — the outcome of the results will be your fault. Refusing to put forth a message the client wants might lose you that client, but it’s better to lose a client than your reputation.
Two years ago, we almost lost one of our clients due to a lack of transparency and honest communication. This client went dark on us for almost four months; we didn't even know if the contacts were opening the reports we sent or how our work was translating to ROI because they didn't show up to our monthly meetings. Finally, we got word that the client wanted to quit, claiming we weren't hitting the goals. Turns out, the goals the contacts mentioned were completely different from the ones we had been working under. The client's goals had changed, but we didn't even know about it.
So we had that hard conversation with them. We told them that they hadn't held up their end of the partnership and that their lack of transparency had limited our ability to do our best work for them. Because of that conversation, we earned another shot with the client. I made sure to include a stipulation that the client must meet with us monthly going forward. Today, this client has grown to be one of our biggest accounts.
Where Agencies Tend to Fall Short
Of course, this is all easier said than done. Even if you're willing to put the kibosh on damaging messages, there are still myriad other ways little white lies can snowball into a loss of trust. Agencies should feel more comfortable being actively educational and directive with clients. After all, clients hire agencies because they don't have the expertise or resources to accomplish something in-house.
It can be very difficult, for instance, to critique the creative style of a client. Sometimes a client's taste doesn't match with the messaging you're trying to get out, and it's important to let the client know. But letting a client with bad taste run the show will damage you and your client, even if it seems like you're just letting go an inconsequential thing such as the layout of a website. It's important that you, as the expert in these matters, advises and directs the client on better decision-making.
Return on investment is another big area in which agencies need to take more ownership. An unspoken understanding in the business world is that some business owners are not particularly good businesspeople. A marketing agency could be doing a great job and getting a big ROI, but if the client doesn't understand it, it could want to quit anyway. It can be very difficult to tell the client it isn't seeing the right numbers because of its own business, but not doing so could mean kissing that client goodbye.
Another area where agencies need to take a bigger lead is results tracking. Often enough, the client won't actually follow up or use the program the agency requires. This can cause a huge hang-up for agencies, but it's hard to call out clients for doing something wrong. Telling them you don't believe they are using the program in place to ensure both of your transparency is tough, but it will hopefully lead to further discussions that allow you to dig deeper into tracking and, ultimately, a stronger relationship.
How to Create More Authentic, Transparent Communications With Clients
The bottom line is this — your clients hired you to get good results, not to stroke their egos. Not every client responds well to honesty, but most clients will appreciate an agency that is upfront and does the best work possible for each and every client, even if that means shedding light on some hard truths.
This doesn't mean you have to gain a reputation for being mean to clients. It's all about openness, transparency, and respecting the time and reputation of both client and agency. Follow these three steps to strengthen your relationship and boost trust with clients.
1. Agree on Cooperative Transparency.
Although most clients will claim they appreciate transparency, that doesn't mean they are used to receiving it from their agency partners. So set the bar from the beginning: Make it clear from day one that your agency will be transparent and honest, even if it's uncomfortable. Then, encourage your client to do the same with your team. In fact, don't be afraid to go as far to make total trust and transparency a requirement in the working partnership. Set up the expectation that both sides should know exactly where the other is, and you'll find that those hard conversations are much easier to navigate.
2. Solicit feedback.
At various stages in your partnership, reaffirm to your client that not only do you appreciate the ability to be honest with them but that you also appreciate their honest feedback with you. Ask directly for feedback at several points in the relationship, and provide several avenues for clients to provide that feedback in case they don't feel comfortable delivering feedback in a certain channel or to a certain team member. Surveys are a valuable tool for client relationships. They provide a structured, low-pressure way for the client to tell you what's working and what isn’t. You’ll be surprised by what a survey can illuminate.
Of course, don't just seek feedback and leave it untouched. Be sure to address that feedback by making changes to eliminate the pain points or amicably bringing up identified issues with the client in order to find solutions that work better for both of you.
3. Stage monthly calls.
Require clients to get on a call with you at least once per month. That way, there's a regular appointment on the books that gives you the opportunity to go over progress and plan the next steps in your relationship. This keeps everyone on the same page and opens the door even wider for honest and fluid communication. The monthly call has crazy power: It can repair damaged relationships and build trust that might have been lost. A client sitting and stewing about what work you might or might not be doing for them is not a happy client, so hop on the phone and let the client know your efforts. Keep those conversations open, honest, and solution-focused, and you'll be on your way to strong, fruitful relationships.
Transparency on both sides is the key to success in a client-agency relationship. The basic goal for each of these steps is to prevent the lines of communication from lapsing. Always shoot for a proactive approach rather than a reactive one. It doesn't take long for a relationship to sour when communication fades away. With diligence and a commitment to active honesty, there's no reason that has to happen.
About Shay Berman
Shay Berman is the CEO and founder of Digital Resource, a full-service digital marketing agency located in South Florida. Shay’s clear-cut approach to internet marketing has driven his clients' businesses to new heights and allowed Digital Resource to land on the Inc 500 list after just four years.
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