5 Important Factors for Better Agency-Client Communication

At Content Marketing World, Allée Creative founder Melissa Harrison (@MHBossLady) shared a fascinating talk called, “Welcome to the Dance of Client-Agency Communications.” Here’s what we learned. 

Today’s marketing agencies face a number of unique challenges. For example, Melissa Harrison, founder of Allée Creative, shared at Content Marketing World that she’s seeing a trend in more project-based work and less retainer-based clientele. This can be troublesome for agencies that forecast revenue and employee workload on a retainer model.

Additionally, it’s common today for agency marketers to communicate with more than one stakeholder at a client’s organization—and these stakeholders often have differing viewpoints and opinions.

These and other challenges mean agencies have to engage in a delicate dance of client-agency communication. During her talk, Harrison shared a number of helpful tips for taking that dance from an awkward shuffle to a graceful waltz.

Here are our five key takeaways.

1. Set expectations during the contract phase.

Your agency, like every other, has probably updated and iterated your standard service agreement over time. No matter the evolution, there is one mainstay: You must use the contract to set expectations.

One of Harrison’s suggestions was to avoid guaranteeing metrics in your contract. At this juncture, you shouldn’t guarantee clients that you’ll provide a 120% increase in web traffic or 500 new subscribers. Setting goals or identifying key performance indicators (KPIs) is okay, but it’s unwise to sign your name to a specific number before you dig into the project.

Harrison also recommends giving an overview of who’s on the client team, and include some verbiage to indicate that teams may shift over time for various reasons—but that you always have backups ready to jump in.

It’s also wise to indicate in the contract how long you’ll hang onto deliverables, files and other electronic information at the end of the service agreement. If a former client comes to you five or 10 years after completing work and requests design files, will you still have them on hand? Will you charge that client for prepping the files again? Lay these ground rules out in your contract to manage expectations from the outset.

2. Communication values are key.

Harrison shared a wise adage during her talk: “You teach people how to treat you.”

This is especially true of your clients. How will they know the communication values your agency upholds if you don’t tell them? In every contract or in subsequent conversations, you should include things like:

  • The hours your team is available and how to contact them. If your team isn’t required to answer emails outside of business hours and on weekends, this is where you lay out those guidelines.

  • The minimum turnaround time when seeking approvals from clients. Communicate clearly that responses outside of that timeline may cause project delays. By reading between the lines, your clients will understand that same-day turnarounds may not be feasible—and shouldn’t be the expectation.

  • The goal for your partnership, in terms of communication. For example, you could say, “It’s our goal to build a partnership that includes respectful and timely feedback, open communication and ongoing support of business goals through marketing.”

  • What will happen if the client becomes unresponsive. It’s your responsibility to teach the client your expectations of ongoing communication. Use the contract to inform them that if communication is stopped, you may pause work until the client is able to fully commit to the project at hand.

3. We shouldn’t have to “hound” our clients.

Agencies have much more meaningful work to complete in a workday’s limited time than chasing down clients for feedback, catch-up calls and other methods of communication.

Tell your client how you’ll avoid hounding them—or vice versa—by laying guidelines like the following:

  • General status updates: Brief Friday emails with that week’s accomplishments and the next week’s goals.

  • Content reviews: Ask the client how they’d prefer to give feedback (tracked changes in a Word document? Over the phone?) and plan accordingly.

  • Reports and stats: Give your client all of the information in comprehensive reports, but pull out the most important snippets for them.

  • Campaign wrap-ups and dashboards: Hold a meeting or call to review together, and send the dashboards just before the call so you can provide context and set the narrative.

4. Sometimes we have to expertly navigate the pivot.

Sometimes, clients pivot. It’s just one of the facts of marketing agency life. You send a proposal, have a call, and everyone seems to be on the same page—until the client decides they’d like something completely different.

The truth is, your client hired you to be the expert. Don’t be afraid to push back and force them to think through whether the pivot actually makes sense.

Once you’ve developed an educated and thoughtful opinion on the pivot, be firm in your stance. 

Don’t forget, it’s our job as agencies to educate our clients. Often, clients might make an ask without realizing how much time and effort it requires. It’s okay to teach them about your processes so they understand the full scope of their pivot. In that instance, be clear about added costs and hours. 

5. Firing clients isn’t ideal, but it can be necessary.

If all else fails, you may have to let a client go. It’s not the best feeling, but sometimes it’s necessary for your team and your bottom line. Here are a few red flags to keep in mind when you’re considering whether you need to part ways with a client:

  • They demonstrate that they’re not ready for an agency relationship.

  • You’re running the entire show, without the client upholding their end of the responsibilities.

  • Their communication comes in waves, with long periods of silence and then multiple big asks through emails and phone calls all at once.

  • Late payments or failure to pay altogether.

  • Making unreasonable demands.

  • Ultimately, if the client doesn’t bring you joy, it could be time to make a change.

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