Human relationships are complex. Introducing money into the equation (i.e., agency/client relationships) makes it even more difficult to successfully navigate a relationship. So how do you go about building trust right off the bat?
There are the basics, like delivering your work on time and driving tangible results. But the common pitfall in agency/client relationships is being a yes man. Giving the client what they ask for seems simple enough, right?
But as any agency veteran knows, what a client asks for is not always what they actually want or need. I’ve found that three of the simplest words in your vocabulary can help establish trust in a relationship from the beginning in unconventional ways:
- Using the word no
- Remembering to ask why
- Pushing something to tomorrow
Word No. 1: No
Back in 2015, I was onboarding a new client that had a portfolio of lead generation sites in the insurance space. On the kickoff call, we were discussing expectations, and they said, "We saw [a viral campaign in the addiction space], and we want that." My immediate response was "I’m sorry, but that's not going to happen. Let's talk about what we can do for you, though."
Admittedly, that was a knee-jerk reaction; in hindsight, I would've taken a slightly more tactful approach. However, I stand by the core message. It can be so difficult to say no because you don't want to disappoint your client, but if you say yes knowing the likelihood that you can deliver is slim to none, you're delaying (and frankly, magnifying) their inevitable disappointment down the line.
In this situation, the fact of the matter is that insurance is simply not as emotionally compelling as addiction. (Not to mention that you can never promise that something will go viral.) If I had set their expectations that high, the relationship would've eventually ended on bad terms; however, because their expectations were set properly and early on, they stayed with us for several years and expanded four times their original size.
Saying no shows clients that you aren't just another agency making empty promises with no delivery. It shows them they can trust you when you say, "Yes, we can do that," and gives them more faith in your ability to deliver, which also typically means they’ll allow you to do your best work and not micromanage.
Clients: If you have an agency partner who's never said no to an idea or request from you, it's probably time to evaluate that relationship and the efficacy of your work together. While there will be times an agency should say no, generally we want to do what we can and go above and beyond to make our clients happy. It's just good customer service. That said, sometimes an agency needs more information from a client in order to provide maximum value.
Word No. 2: Why?
When you ask this, it could potentially be seen as pushing back on a request, but sometimes it's critical to gather more information so that you can give the client what they're looking for.
Take reporting, for example. I'm not a fan of standardized reporting for all clients because value (real and perceived) is nuanced based on a variety of factors. I'm not going to create a report for a CEO that's identical to one I would send an SEO manager. They care about different things, and your approach to reporting should reflect that. Sometimes, however, you'll get requests from clients that seem counterintuitive based on what you know.
For example, I had a client recently who had previously only cared about the number of direct links we were able to secure. Suddenly, they were asking for metrics like UVM (unique monthly visitors) for each site, article dates and more that were out of the norm. It wasn't an ask that was out of scope by any means, but I decided to dig deeper and ask why they suddenly needed that information.
As it turns out, there were some changes internally, and the PR team had recently become more involved with our work together so that information would be necessary moving forward.
We could've simply put the numbers together and sent them a report, but by digging deeper, used that information to become more of a strategic partner. We were able to report on our results in a way that demonstrated our work in a way that a link volume report simply wouldn't have conveyed.
As an agency, it's important to remember that our job is to make our clients look good to their boss, whether their boss is a director, CEO, or their customers. If we're not doing that, we're not doing our job. Clients, don't hesitate to give your agency some insight into your internal operations and expectations. If you're working with a good partner, you'll be surprised at how they can use that information to tailor your work together accordingly and make a bigger impact.
Word No. 3: Tomorrow
Distractions are everywhere in the modern workplace. Open office environments, multitasking, and Slack, in particular, are routinely under fire for their perceived negative impact on workplace productivity. When you add the responsibility of leading internal teams and client engagements, those distractions are compounded, and it can often seem like you're bouncing in a different direction every 15 minutes.
When you get an email from a client, it’s tempting to stop whatever you’re doing and give them what they asked for right away. After all, you want to give them the service they deserve, right?
That's not always the best course of action, especially if it's a more complex question or issue that needs a certain amount of dedicated, focused time and mental energy. If they've asked for an answer today, there's absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging your receipt of their email and saying something along the lines of, "I understand what you're looking for; however, I won't have an answer for you until tomorrow because I need a few hours to dig into this, and I want to make sure it gets the attention it deserves."
I don't think I've ever had a client push back and ask me to sacrifice quality in favor of faster delivery. Communicate with them proactively and explain why you need more time.
Clients: Often, faster isn't better. If your agency is consistently missing deadlines, that’s a big problem; however, if they push back on a timeline, it’s likely because they want to make sure they're dedicating the proper amount of time and effort into a quality answer/product/service and not because you aren't a priority.
Practicing honesty and transparency
Client/agency partnerships thrive when both sides are open and honest about expectations, statuses, priorities and goals.
Agency employees, even though it can feel awkward sometimes to push back or question something, ask yourself, "Do I need to do this to serve my client in the long run?" If the answer is yes, do it.
Clients, don't strive to work with yes man vendors if you want a true, valuable collaboration. Be open to honest feedback and strategy suggestions, and communicate any internal changes as they happen.
Are you in a healthy marketing partnership? What other tips do you have to share?