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Running an online Agency

How To Manage Client Relationships By Thinking Like An Employee

11 June 2018

Strong client relationships are vital if you want to grow your agency into a sustainable business. As you earn trust through delivering on results, a healthy relationship can naturally migrate from project work to repeatable retainers. Over time the value of the engagement can grow through adding additional services, while delighting your clients also leads to long term retention and new referrals for your agency.

Common challenges arise between agency and your client, particularly in discovering, setting and managing expectations. You cannot exceed expectations if you have not established what they are in the first place, which puts you at risk of falling short and parting ways.

Expectations also change over time, so as a growing agency you need an approach to client relationships which allows for frank communications and positive realignment for long term client retention.

How Come Managing Client Expectations Can Sometimes Be So Hard?

You cannot set expectations in the past, so it is a difficult conversation to have several months into an engagement, where the pressure of expectations are shifting as results, timelines and budgets are under scrutiny.

Even if there is good initial rapport between client and your agency, this doesn’t automatically create an environment where all parties are clear on their roles and responsibilities. Nor does rapport specifically enable the robust conversations which create clear alignment in the beginning and along the way.

Consider some common examples of challenging client relationships:

  • The agency who is struggling to deliver campaigns on time because the client must approve everything but is often away or slow to respond.
  • The agency unable to generate leads because the ebook which is core to the campaign is two months late, due to the startup owner who keeps changing her mind around fonts.
  • The agency facing overwhelming scope creep because of the complexity of execution at every turn, yet the client assumes the agency should have anticipated it all.
  • The client who is dissatisfied because the momentum that the Agency should have produced or generated in results within weeks, is taking months.

Are Contract Terms The Answer To Setting Client Expectations?

As an experienced agency consultant you discover common hindrances to success which arise between your agency and clients, which might be minimized through terms expressed in your Statement Of Work (SOW).

For example, clauses which set maximum reasonable time to resolve password access to important accounts like their Google Analytics or social media; deadlines for delivery of client-provided content for your team to act on; and realistic turnaround time that you need for feedback or approvals can bring clarity to common challenges faced in the client/agency relationship.

Clauses help with quantitative measures like maximum number of hours or days for response times, but are less effective in dealing with the qualitative aspects of the relationship. Clauses can fail in setting expectations, such as clarity of instructions for example when the client responds “that sounds ok” – have they given you explicit approval to proceed with the campaign? Another example is micromanagement, where the client has engaged your agency to manage their Google AdWords yet is more focused on why each keyword has been chosen than the steadily improving results of the campaign you are sharing in monthly reports.

The danger here is in developing a multi-page contract which the client may be daunted by, which anticipates difficulties you have experienced with other clients. If a client feels that your contract is too defensive, they may conclude that you are documenting your “get out of jail free” clauses if you cannot deliver.

Trust is vital in securing new retainers so you may prefer to rely on great rapport with the client to close the deal and to get started on the positive new engagement ahead. This approach can lead to later difficulties if rapport is strained.

Reframing Your Relationship By Thinking As An Employee

Consider for a moment the relationship formed when the client signs the contract and your service begins. Some may call this a partnership, yet the nature of your relationship is much more of a manager/employee in a classic work context:

  • You have been hired to do a job.
  • You are being paid to deliver on the key outcomes of the role.
  • The client may decide over time that you are not meeting their needs.
  • You may decide this is not a role where you can succeed, so you decide to leave.
  • You have to deal with others who are key to your success yet you do not have authority over their responsibilities.
  • You need clarity from your manager in order to succeed.
  • You need sufficient resources to do your job well.
  • You need the ability to discuss with your manager the obstacles to your success.

All these factors apply to being employed by the client, just as readily as it does for your being engaged by the client as the representative for your agency.

There are of course additional aspects that employment carries such as employment legislation and career development which does not apply in the client/agency relationship. However, as we are talking client relationships and the number one reason people quit their jobs is due to “relationship with their boss” it is helpful to consider the manager/employee scenario in setting and managing expectations.

How Does Reframing Your Context As An Employee Help With Managing Client Relationships?

Consider the lifecycle stages of taking on employment in a role and how similar they are to being engaged as an agency.

A – Winning The Job Offer

A hiring manager has a job to be done. Provided they have sufficient headcount and budget to attract and resource the right person for the role, they will be interviewing candidates and likely make an emotional decision at some level based on relationship, backed by information presented in a CV/resume and interviews.Through the interview stage, the manager wants to know about you and your background in determining whether you are the right person for the job and a good fit for the company. The manager expects you to bring experience and expertise to the role along with additional context to give them confidence that you are the best choice.

You would present a strong CV/resume with descriptions of:

  • Your prior success (as an agency presenting case studies)
  • Your credentials (your personal certifications and agency accreditations)
  • Your references (your agency client testimonials and reviews)

In turn, you are looking to discover aspects which allow you to decide if this is the right fit for you:

  • What is the job to be done? (Does the client have compelling need to solve a problem?)
  • Is there truly a job vacancy on offer? (Will the client go ahead?)
  • Are they looking at other candidates? (What other solutions are they considering?)
  • What is the salary package and does it suit you? (Does the client have sufficient budget for their goals?)
  • Could you work for this manager? (Can you work with this client?)
  • What are their expectations of you in the role?

B – Establishing The Terms Of Accepting The Job

A job offer will normally include a job description which makes clear from the company what is expected of the new employee in this role. Through the interview process the hiring manager is assessing the candidate for suitability to the role and uncovering the needs and expectations of the candidate to ensure there is a fit.

John Baldoni, internationally recognized leadership educator, writes that managers have the prime responsibilities to provide resources and remove obstacles, so where required, the manager will provide the clarity and support to help the employee be successful.

In a good manager/employee relationship there will be the opportunity for each one to raise concern over expectations and work together toward reaching common goals.

There is a burden on the hiring manager to uncover the expectations of the employee, while the candidate is also making their expectations known so both parties can build rapport while also ensuring there is alignment on these expectations. It is helpful for the candidate to understand ahead of accepting the role how their performance will be evaluated, by whom and whether they will have the support of their manager to help solve obstacles to success.

Interestingly, while the manager ensures alignment on expectations when recruiting, during client/agency discussions the responsibility falls to you the agency to uncover client expectations and check for alignment. The dynamic of the end result however is similar if expectations are not aligned.

When you are establishing the terms of an engagement with your client, you may not have clarity in your contract over expectations or how to escalate when help is needed to overcome obstacles, yet agreeing to this is vital for long term success. Without agreed terms it places a heavy burden on strength of relationship to overcome challenges when they arise.

Use this situation of the interviews and the accepting of a job offer to reframe how you approach the client during the sales process. Consider what elements you could include in the discussions and the contract SOW itself. Set expectations over how you and the client will agree goals, review progress, and provide clarity when needed to work through challenges as they arise including support to remove obstacles to success.

Although there are always unknowns at the beginning of any working relationship, this reframing helps you establish a frank open way of working with your client. This foundation empowers both to communicate clearly and to work together for joint success.

C – Onboarding

An employee starting a new job normally follows a defined onboarding process, including an introduction to colleagues and gaining access to the right tools and systems. For the wider team it’s about understanding who is now on board, their role and responsibilities and any impact on other individuals and their roles. The manager may also assign a buddy to help alleviate the manager being the sole support.

In the beginning of a project or retainer with your client, the kickoff meeting is the opportunity to get everyone onto the same page. The difference here is that in an employment situation, the company and manager lead the new hire process whereas you the consultant leads client onboarding.

Either way the end result should be similar. Both parties have had the opportunity to communicate with stakeholders on what to expect, so unless these two key individuals are aligned on expectations and next steps, the ability to clearly communicate it to the wider team is unlikely.

Where there are guidelines your agency must follow, such as a corporate style guide, these can be surfaced when aligning with the client to prepare for the kickoff meeting.

HubSpot for example, recommends the client-agency kickoff meeting takes place within the first 24-48 hours and should cover 7 key elements:

  1. Team Introductions
  2. SMART Goals
  3. Plans for Reaching Goals
  4. Client Challenges
  5. Project Timeline
  6. Marketing Overview
  7. Roles & Responsibilities

Consider as a consultant, how your approach to onboarding could be changed to jointly running the kickoff meeting to ensure the right people are there, communicating in clear alignment and setting up the situation and objectives for success.

Also consider the urgent tools and resources needed to get up and running quickly. HubDo sees that often this is where delays can hamper your ability as the consultant to execute, yet the client may not appreciate the importance of speedy completion for this first step.

HubDo recommends positioning the importance of rapid access to key tools and resources including:

  1. Access to internal software systems such as the client’s website CMS and marketing systems. If the company uses HubSpot for example, the importance of having a login with sufficient rights to undertake your responsibilities of the engagement.
  2. Access to third party systems critical for the role, including Google Analytics, Facebook Business Manager and other online presence accounts such as review sites if relevant.
  3. An introduction to third parties who will play a key role, such as IT and hosting providers responsible for websites, Domain Name Services (DNS) and email systems. Ideally these people would be in the kickoff meeting but it is not always appropriate or practical.

D – Success In Role

The first 3-6 months for an employee in any role is a critical period where both manager and employee are in closer communication to smooth any onboarding, checking short term progress, validating the ‘fit’ for the person in role and addressing any hindrances to their success. Support from the manager to help provide clarity and overcome obstacles is key.

Similarly, in client/agency relationships the client is looking for early signs they have made the right choice. Without signs of positive progress within the first few weeks it can cast doubt over your long term chances of success. During this phase a new employee would be judging what it is like to work for and with this manager, is the work environment one which helps or hinders their ability to succeed and is their manager open, clear and supportive when required.

This is where the dynamic can be very different for the agency consultant, as you execute on the strategies and plans you have in mind for this engagement. This is the period where you find how clear, how open and how supportive the client is to work with. Some level of managing “up” applies here in order to get what you require from the client and also from other stakeholders. Agencies can often find themselves feeling unsupported by the client when challenges arise, in fact it is often the client themselves creating these challenges:

  • The client providing unclear or incomplete directions.
  • The client changing their mind.
  • Multiple people at the client company giving conflicting directions the consultant, effectively making you answerable to multiple managers who are not aligned.
  • As new challenges come to light, the client may expect that you as consultant should have anticipated, allowed for it and managed it.
  • The client may be slow to respond to your requests for information or for approvals
  • Colleagues at the client company, or their third party provider such as IT/hosting companies may feel threatened at your appointment. It is important the client recognizes and helps manage this situation with you, as they would in an employment context.
  • The client may have promised to create materials and content which the consultant will need, yet the content is not completed or provide on time which often causes lengthy delays. Delegated authority with budget to resolve these issues allows you to plan ahead to mitigate delays.

These are just a sample of the unforeseen issues that often arise between client and agency consultant.

As such issues arise, an employee would normally escalate to the manager that certain obstacles have come up which the employee/consultant cannot directly resolve. If the manager is the cause of these issues through simply being too busy, the strength of the rapport of the relationship will be important in resolving it. As consultant you face the same challenge so it helps to agree in advance a level of delegated authority and being empowered to have your concerns heard for speedy resolution without it being a difficult conversation.

At HubDo we often see this challenge between agency consultant and the client, yet the consultant is nervous about how firmly they can press their concerns and in turn the client can often be dismissive about their need to fulfill their responsibilities, perhaps as they are ‘paying the bill’. Yet considering the manager/employee relationship, such things can normally be dealt with in a productive manner because it reflects on the manager that their employee should succeed, to be open to feedback and to be supportive where needed.

Finally, in regard to managing expectations for the ongoing engagement, just as a manager would conduct ad hoc and/or periodic reviews with the employee, such reviews are also common in the consultant/client relationship. Consider though, how these reviews normally take place today and how you can rebalance the approach to progress reviews so it can highlight the importance of the roles of both client and your agency for joint success.

Action For You As Consultant For A Small Agency

Setting and managing client expectations is a top priority challenge for delivering client success. Every client/agency engagement will vary, just as every manager/employee dynamic is different yet is the primary reason an employee stays in or leaves their job. So set your agency up for greater client satisfaction and retention by considering how to adapt your processes. Build great relationships with your clients which enable you to create value, communicate jointly and clearly to succeed in your role.

Review your agency processes regarding:

  • The sales process: consider the employment recruiting model for establishing joint responsibilities and expectations before the deal is done.
  • During client onboarding, bear in mind a manager’s responsibilities for new hire success, to review your agency onboarding processes and the kickoff meeting. Take a shared approach to ensure both client and yourself are well aligned.
  • For ongoing client reviews for joint success, consider the employment review cycle in healthy work environments where it is a shared responsibility. The manager focuses on outcomes, operates with clarity, provides the necessary resources and helps to remove obstacles for the employee to fulfill their role. HubDo recommends that consultants establish early on the ability to flag obstacles to success including those created by the client and have the ground rules and relationship for this to be well received.

Overall, the manager/employee context isn’t identical to the client/agency model, yet consider the key aspects of what makes a great manager/employee relationship. As a consultant you can amend your sales process, onboarding and ongoing delivery to establish a way of working with your clients which empowers you to bring up important issues and keep expectations aligned for your joint success.


Pete Nicholls, HubdoBio:

Pete Nicholls is HubSpot Certified Trainer and Founding Director of HubDo, the wholesale-only HubSpot Platinum Partner and #1 HubSpot Partner in Asia Pacific (Q1 2018).  HubDo provides training, mentoring and services for marketing agencies in Europe, North America and Asia Pacific who want to grow but are frustrated or daunted by what it takes to build an Inbound Agency. You can reach Pete via LinkedIn or through the HubDo website.