Always treasure a good client-agency relationship. Good relationships carry a level of trust that lets ideas transfer easily between organizations. They also make for speedy and effective project execution.
But relationships are fragile things especially when money is involved. Clients can switch agencies for a number of reasons. Maybe you made a mistake or haven’t been giving them enough attention without realizing it. Either way, you’re left with one less client (at least) and some lost revenue.
Don’t let it come to that! To help, we’ve listed some of the most common causes of a failing client relationship and the steps you can take to patch things up.
Issue #1: Your agency made a (big) mistake.
Everyone slips up sooner or later. But the stakes are so much higher when you’re an agency. Everything you do impacts a client’s brand image and reputation. That’s a lot of responsibility, and we don’t always get it right.
Clients can and have dropped agencies for a single mistake. It doesn’t matter if you consider it a minor issue. If the client thinks its a big deal, then you could be out the door!
We recommend completing all of the following steps when the 💩 hits the fan:
Find out everything about the issue.
Get a full, first-hand disclosure from your account manager on the incident at hand. Get all the gory details.
It’s a good idea to hear it from your client, because someone on your team could attempt to cover their 🍑.
Be the bearer of bad news.
Get the highest-ranking person on your client’s team on the line and set up a meeting as soon as possible. If the matter is absolutely urgent then call them.
It’s much better for you to break the bad news to them instead of them finding out from someone else.
Be prepared to compensate for your agency’s error. You might have to sacrifice some agency profitability or revenue in order to satisfy the client (depends on how serious the mistake is).
Be prepared to rationalize whatever amount you volunteer. Some clients may not see it as commensurate to the damage.
Hold your team accountable.
Owning up to your mistakes is tough, but it’s 100 percent necessary. If one of your colleagues makes a mistake then it’s paramount to fix it and hold them responsible for their error.
Some people believe that a level of anonymity is an effective management style. However, many will argue that those who don’t take ownership for their mistakes will never learn how to avoid them. Ownership helps you learn from your mistakes and advance your career.
Your management style should be left up to you. However, do keep in mind that firing an employee should be your last resort. Your client might push for it, but it will severely damage agency morale.
One helpful alternative is to assign a more senior person to take over the account rather than axe your employees. The client will be happy to see a change in leadership, and your team will understand how to learn from their mistakes by working on a new project.
Don’t fire people if you don’t have to.
Get any agreements you make with the client in writing and follow through with them. It’s equally important to make sure the account team is fully aware of those agreements.
Contain the damage.
The client may want to fire the agency in extreme situations. If the client is part of a large corporation that has multiple brands or accounts, your goal is to contain the damage and salvage other brands or clients not directly connected with the issue at hand.
If the client is still around after the dust has settled, take pains to ensure this mistake doesn’t happen again (nor any other kind of mistake). The client will be more sensitive to future mistakes. They’ll remember the previous incidents long after you think they’ve forgotten.
So keep your team’s nose clean!
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Issue #2: The relationship grows lukewarm.
Most agency-client relationships start with both parties in good spirits. It’s a honeymoon period where everyone is still excited at the prospect of working together. Everyone is full of energizing new concepts.
But even great agencies can’t keep the momentum going forever. Things will eventually become routine: ideas get recycled, the novelty is gone, and minor complaints begin to grate. The client distances themselves from you, and quietly without you knowing it they start searching for a different agency.
Once you suspect this is happening, you should immediately do the following:
Conduct a thorough account review.
Meet with your client do a comprehensive examination of everything you’ve done for them to date. This includes seemingly minor requests and/or issues. Be prepared to show metrics and KPIs for everything.
Next, compare current projects to early ones. How were they different? How are they performing?
Get your client’s honest opinion on whether or not they are still excited by your work, and uncover the reasons for their answers.
The objective of an account review is to get an accurate picture of how your client views you right now, and how likely they are to continue working with you.
Don’t settle for shrugs and “we’re fine” answers. Try your best to probe. Explain that constructive criticism is the only way that you can make your services better for them.
Creatives who have worked on the same project for a long time might fall out of love with it. This happens all the time. We’re only human. There’s only so many days you can eat pizza in a week before it loses its luster (…the jury is still out on this example, though).
Humans are susceptible to boredom—although, boredom can be a necessary evil to spark creativity!
One of the most effective ways to conquer boredom is by conducting a company-wide brainstorming session to gather new ideas. This can help your team find new ideas that your client (or your agency) has never tried before. Getting inspiration from new perspectives is an effective way to reinvent a strategy and a brand.
Clients can absolutely tell when a team loses enthusiasm for an account. And while you can’t force a team member to be enthusiastic about something, you can switch them out for someone else who will be.
Switch up account assignments to bring new perspectives and a fresh voice to the client’s projects.
Pitch the client like they’re new.
Make the client fall in love with you all over again!
Introduce the new team (if you have one) and pitch the new idea to your client. Give your client a reason to believe that you’re still a creative and innovative agency.
Remind your client of past successes to help reinforce the positive aspects of your relationship. It can be easy for a good client-agency relationship to get to your head.
The reality is that an unhappy client might not remain loyal. This is a good reason for you to always be on your game!
Actively engage them throughout the pitch and get them talking about what they like and don’t like about the idea. Adjust your plans accordingly.
Once you’ve breathed new life into the agency-client relationship, keep it going as much as you can. Remember: there is no need to force yourself to pitch new ideas. Re-inventing the wheel can be extremely stressful.
One of the best ways to avoid getting into a rut is by conducting regular account reviews. Use critical thought and criticism to your advantage. Get into this habit to help you look at all your accounts with a fresh set of eyes.
Issue #3: Your client has unrealistic expectations.
Agencies can sometimes market themselves unclearly. This can happen if your agency mission or collateral is vague or ambiguous. It’s also possible if your agency upsells its ROI (we’ve all been there at least once in life).
Although it seems harmless (or like a great marketing idea), it can lead clients down the wrong path. They could expect you to deliver outcomes or services that you don’t actually provide.
Sometimes, clients are so enamoured with marketing agencies that they think their agency can solve all of their businesses problems.
The last thing you want is your client to have unrealistic expectations of your agency. It might lead them to believe in misguided expectations of how the industry works, or how much your team can really do to help them.
These types of clients are ripe for a reality check! Sadly, reality checks hurt.
Disappointed clients are dangerous. When clients like these don’t see the results they were expecting, they can take it out on you. They might spread unsavoury sentiments with other business owners and sour your reputation, or even take their business elsewhere.
Here are some ways you can help manage this situation:
Get the client perspective.
If the client didn’t get the results they expected, ask them what they did expect. We’ve found that clients carry a lot of wrong assumptions and will keep them even if you took pains to address them at the onset of the project.
Give the optimistic reality check.
While you absolutely need to tell the client the truth about what you can deliver, you don’t want to sound like a negative Nancy.
Focus on telling the customer the best possible results of working with you and what you can achieve. Temper it with all that needs to be done first in terms of effort. You’re setting realistic expectations of what is required from each of you.
Perhaps the team initially assigned to the account just didn’t get it. Or maybe they and the customer didn’t have good communication. Assigning new team members in this instance will serve to both provide a new, fresh (and hopefully correct) take on the project. It’s also a visible gesture that shows the client you’re taking their concerns seriously.
Conduct these reality checks multiple times to emphasize the reality of the situation. Clients have a hard time letting go of their assumptions, especially if there are multiple people on the client side who share this opinion (and one of them is a CEO).
How To Move Forward: Know when to cut your losses
Sometimes, despite all of your best efforts, the customer is just too angry, disappointed or flighty to keep the relationship going. Don’t spend more emotion or energy than you already have. Cut your losses and move on.
Before you let the client go, however, you’ve got some last-minute things to do:
Conduct a client exit interview.
You learn more from your worst clients than your best ones.
Get all of your clients talking about their experience with you. Ask about initial expectations and daily interactions, until you get to the bitter conclusion.
It’s very important to listen and not get defensive. They’ll appreciate the chance to air their grievances. Use this knowledge to make adjustments to your own operations.
Take what you learned from the exit interview and host an internal account post-mortem.
Detail every step, be it right or wrong, and figure out how and why the account ended the way it did. Do not cast blame during this discussion. Figure out how and what needs to be improved instead.
If the customer doesn’t want to have an exit interview, don’t worry about it. Just proceed with your internal post-mortem and rely on the opinion of your account managers.
How To Be Your Best Self: Prevention is the best cure
Hacks for fixing a damaged client relationship are well and good, but you really shouldn’t let it get to that point in the first place.
Here are some useful tips for making sure you never have to use any of the tips we gave you above!
Master managing expectations.
Half of the communication problems that agencies and clients face are due to improper expectation management.
Agencies can and should promise results, but temper those predictions with real-life limitations.
Manage expectations by getting as much in writing as possible. This will provide something that your agency can point to if things eventually go south.
Always call! Don’t email.
There are so many reasons why phone calls are so much more useful for agencies than email. But the biggest one is that phone calls help you establish a deeper connection with your client and solidify your relationship.
Email doesn’t communicate small talk, sudden bursts of laughter, or your client’s sigh of relief when you tell them you fixed that really bad social media post that slipped through the approval cracks.
The phone does all of these things! Use it and resist the urge to email.
Define a process.
Clients are most nervous when they don’t know whats going on. That’s why the most effective agencies have a defined communication process that they share with clients.
This can be a simple laundry list of tasks and dates, a simple way to have your client approve content, or a full-blown project management plan complete with Gantt chart. Anything works as long as the client isn’t left adrift.
Over-communication is overrated.
Sales managers tell you to over-communicate to get the point across, but in our experience, it just gives people an excuse to talk your ear off. Clients don’t have time to listen to you say, “we need this from you in seven different ways across three different channels.”
Communicate effectively through clear and concise means, and clients will be much happier to listen to you speak.
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Unfortunately, the question isn’t if you’ll mess up, but when.
Mistakes are inevitable. But things will work out as long as you always try to do right by your customer. Every member of your team should carry that attitude, whether they’re project managers or graphic designers.
Your agency’s integrity will shine through every interaction and will win you loyalty from the majority of your clients. At the end of the day, all clients are looking for is someone they can trust.
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