11 Actionable Ways to Build Client Relationships That Last
Some agencies manage to build a steady client base that strengthens over the years, while others ride roller coasters and eventually close up shop. What’s the difference? Client relationships. Strong client relationships make for greater success with projects and campaigns, loyal clients who stay with you longer and refer new clients, and a better reputation for your brand. Even better, they make everyday work more enjoyable for all.
So what makes for a strong client relationship? The same traits that define any good relationship: awareness, communication, empathy, dependability, accountability, honesty, and the list goes on.
In this post, I've compiled 11 ways your agency can demonstrate all of the above and more to achieve the best possible outcomes for both you and your clients. I’d say happy endings but then again, good relationships don’t really end...
How to build client relationships that last
In the following list, you'll find actionable ways to improve client satisfaction and build mutually-beneficial partnerships, with input from PPC agency experts like Mark Irvine, Francine Rodriguez, Akvile DeFazio, and Susie Marino.
1. Gather "hard" and "soft" information
A strong agency-client relationship starts before the client even becomes one. You know that you need as much information as you can about your client in order to come up with a winning proposal. But the solution you come up with isn't going to establish a meaningful connection between you and your potential client. It's how you present that solution with respect to both the business's goals and the personalities and values of the team you'll be working with.
This means collecting "hard" information like:
- Products and services they offer.
- Target audience and the end-users of their product or service.
- Top three competitors.
- Goals, in order of importance, and challenges.
- Strategies that have worked and not worked in the past.
- Software are they currently using.
But also "soft" information like:
- What they define as success; their “dream” outcome.
- Their future hopes or anticipations, like scaling, adding on new offerings, etc.
- The company’s mission, beliefs, and values, and distinguishing characteristics they're proud of.
- What makes them different from their competitors.
- Hobbies, interests, and preferences of the individuals you'll be working with.
Think with both sides of your brain when gathering information about your client. (Image source)
Side note: Be prepared to answer their questions too!
2. Internalize that information
This is the information you’ll be not only including in your proposal, but applying throughout your actual execution and ongoing communication with your client. Take the time to really internalize it so that it shines through organically in everything you do.
- Gather the information in person (or video): Body language and facial expressions tell a lot. Take note of what gets them excited (and not so excited). Also, be sure to send out a list of the questions you'll be asking far in advance so the client can have time to think on answers and produce follow-up questions.
- Iterate back: As you listen, iterate back to your client what you have interpreted so you can make sure you're crystal clear on the information you're receiving. Remember, incorporating the tiniest details into your proposal and execution is what will give your clients confidence that you truly understand their needs.
- Templatize: Have an internal templated document where you can collect all of the information you've gathered in one place. This gives every team member something to continually refer back to, and the uniformity makes it easier to internalize.
3. Go above and beyond with your proposal
From a project standpoint, your proposal shows what you’re going to do to achieve your client’s goals. From a relationship standpoint, it’s your opportunity to reinforce, once again, that you have a deep understanding of your client—both the business and its team members. Speak to both the client's business goals as well as the more personal pain points and desires of its employees.
To do this, think in terms of “what”, “why”, and “so that.”
- The what refers to what you’ll be doing from a process standpoint.
- The why ties the process to one of the business’s specific goals.
- The so that speaks to the pain point it will address for the business’s team members.
For example: We’d like to ramp up ad spend in the latter half of the month to drive more signups, so that your sales team isn’t scrounging for leads. Just be sure to use language that your clients used in the initial information gathering process.
This strengthens that partnership feel. You're not just looking to drive goals, you care about the individuals impacted by them.
4. Have an onboarding process
Once you get started, there will be more points of contact added to the roster for both sides. A streamlined onboarding process will set the stage for the clear communication and seamless execution needed for a strong and long-lasting client relationship to form. During this process, you may want to:
- Mail them a welcome kit: Send along some branded swag, a greeting card, and additional goodies based on the more personal information you’ve collected.
- Take care of housekeeping: Make sure each of you has the access needed for tools, accounts, and dashboards.
- Have a kickoff meeting: This is to ensure everything is lined up for perfect execution. You've also become pretty familiar with one another at this point. This is a good time to have a more informal atmosphere.
5. Treat clients like partners
Treating your client like a business will make your relationship purely transactional (i.e., no relationship at all). Treating them like family leaves too much room for miscommunications and unmet expectations.
Treating your clients like partners, on the other hand, sets the stage for a healthy mix of personal, purposeful, and transactional encounters where both your and your client's identities are preserved, and each of you supplies the essential ingredients for success.
- Embrace the truth: Remember that at the end of the day, both of you are businesses that want to make money. There's no need to skirt around that. They need your service to generate revenue, and you need their continued business to generate yours.
- Maintain structure with some fluidity: Keep deliverables clear and stick to the intended plan as much as possible, but always leave the door open for input and feedback.
- Let them in: While some of your tools and processes may be proprietary, give them access to dashboards and data when possible. Let them in on (non-confidential) tidbits about your agency that “outsiders” wouldn’t know. Their earning your trust is just as important as you earning theirs.
- Stay honest: This means giving pushback on your client’s desires or requests that may not be best for long term success (wants vs needs). A good partnership is not one where both parties constantly agree; it’s one where the two parties to come together with different perspectives to bring to the table, resulting in better output than either one could have achieved on their own
6. Be proactive rather than reactive
Akvile DeFazio, president of AKvertise, Inc. makes this a priority with clients.
Her team makes sure to proactively:
- Share ideas and propose new campaign strategies.
- Forewarn about upcoming platform changes and any action required.
- Educate the client to further empower them.
“This shows care and builds trust, and our clients share that they appreciate our diligent proactivity. When we work with clients, we aim to be a seamless extension of their team and we genuinely embed ourselves as so. When they win, we win, and proactive communication is the key to success for all."
7. Be empathetic rather than defensive
This recommendation from Mark Irvine, Director of Paid Media at Search Labs Digital, ties back to the partnership mentality in tip #5. The scenario here is that your agency is doing great work. Performance metrics continue to climb. But the client is upset. They aren’t seeing new business come in.
“A wrong response here is to dig your heels in. Telling them that their business is doing fine is at best tone-deaf. Instead, let them talk it out and listen to them. This may even lead them to discover the problem is in their other marketing or sales teams."
If this ends up being the case, Irvine recommends that you take yourself out of the problem to prevent it from becoming an "us versus them" situation. Take the approach of teaming up together to come up with a solution. Use language like,
- "I see what you're talking about."
- “This is a valid concern.”
- "That really is frustrating, we’re glad you brought this up with us.”
- "Let's make a plan to review this and report back with some solutions to remedy this"
"And remember, if you dismiss or fight their concerns, there's an agency sales rep somewhere else who will be happy to listen to them vent about you all day. "
8. Establish structure around communication
Brett McHale, founder of Empiric Marketing, LLC, provides some great tips around communication:
Stay away from "always available"
Being always available, whether through Slack or other forms of direct communication, blurs the ever-important work-life balance. It can also distract you away from other clients.
Hold regular meetings with actionable takeaways
Instead, establish weekly or bi-weekly meetings to check in, review performance, and answer questions. "I always have some take away or action item from those meetings," says McHale. This keeps me accountable and when I deliver on things that I say I'm going to do, it helps build trust with the client.
Use email and instant messaging
"Email can be very robotic, and I try not to be too professional or polished all the time. Communicating with clients directly via a messenger helps to build rapport and have a more laid back 'human-to-human' relationship.
McHale suggests designating instant messaging for urgent matters and email otherwise. This cuts out the back-and-forth emailing, and also reassures your clients that while you may not be always available, you will also never leave them hanging.
9. Share your concerns early
This suggestion from Irvine is particularly relevant with the many changes happening in the advertising realm lately. The scenario here is that your client has big plans and aspirations, and you want to say yes to everything they want. But in the back of your mind, you're not sure if they can create that audience in Google, or build that campaign on Bing. You’re unsure of how the new iOS updates will impact their Facebook targeting.
“Don't nod, say yes, and then stress," says Irvine. You lose trust with your client if you say you can do something and then can't, even if that's not your fault.
Instead, show your expertise by sharing your concern. Practice saying:
- "That's a really good idea. I know that there are some ad policies that might come into play as we explore that, so let me just double-check those first before we move ahead."
- "This new change could pose some challenges to us. Over the coming days as this changes, I'll keep an eye on it.”
- "It's tough to say what this means for us yet, but I wanted to make sure we all knew about it in advance."
If you really have to put your foot down, try something like:
- "We agree that this is a great idea, but we can’t in good conscience move forward with it until we know that it won’t end up costing you in the long run.”
Be transparent and ask them for their trust. Most of the time, you'll come out as the person who helped them navigate through uncertainty and they won't forget that.
10. Embrace small talk
Small talk often gets a bad rap, but Susie Marino, WordStream Customer Success Specialist (turned Content Marketing Specialist), has found that it actually helps with building strong client relationships.
“I know it can feel cringey or uncomfortable at first, but just go for it. You'd be surprised at how receptive clients are. Next thing you know, you've got a great rapport going and the banter at the beginning of meetings becomes more meaningful.”
“People love to talk about themselves and clients are no different. When you ask them about how that home garden is coming along, they’ll be pleasantly surprised. These conversations reveal how much you truly care.“
Clients are people who like to work with real people who also have personalities and personal lives. If you don't show a touch of personality with small talk, it will be harder to stay connected and to demonstrate your genuine care, outside of campaigns and metrics.
11. Establish quarterly business reviews
Francine Rodriguez, Senior Manager of Customer Success at WordStream, believes that quarterly business reviews are essential for building client relationships.
"I think all agencies get into a cycle of monthly reporting and proving that deliverables were completed. It is important to take that step back once a quarter and have a focused conversation on high-level strategy.
The QBR allows the agency and the customer to reflect on new goals, the efficiency of strategies taken in the past, and what needs to pivot for the future.
It is also a time to allow your customer to provide insight on how their business goals are changing and perhaps what strategies outside of the agency’s scope they are also planning in the near future. Having that dedicated time to talk without existing action items on the table is a great way to strengthen the relationship, create trust, and become better partners.
It also may lead to surprising discoveries where an agency could find opportunities to upsell their customers into new services. If your agency is doing QBRs now and your conversations don’t look any different than your regular monthly check-ins, it is time to change the format!"
Start cultivating strong relationships with your clients today
Strong agency-client relationships are built on virtues like trust, reliability, transparency, and personability, and they result in greater outcomes for everyone involved. If you find that you're lacking in productivity, loyalty, or the overall feel of harmony with your clients, see if you can adopt or improve any of these strategies for your agency:
- Gather "hard" and "soft" information about your client
- Internalize that information
- Go above and beyond with your proposal
- Have an onboarding process
- Treat clients like partners
- Be proactive rather than reactive
- Be empathetic rather than defensive
- Establish structure around communication
- Share your concerns early
- Embrace the small talk
- Have quarterly business reviews