On a recent conference call with a client I was asked, “Are we a good client?”
While the question took me a little by surprise at first, my reaction was that the very act of asking the question points squarely to the answer – “Yes, of course.” But why?
It’s become a bit of a cliché, but the agency business really is a people business. And good relationships with clients are essential to an optimal outcome. It takes an equal commitment from both teams to invest in the relationship to build a productive, successful relationship.
So, what’s the secret? Why do we like working with some clients more than others; why do some engagements tend to feel more beneficial and fulfilling for both parties; and why are some relationships more likely to build momentum over time?
Having managed client relationships of all types and sizes for more than 15 years, here are what I believe to be the key characteristics that make a good client:
- Good clients see more than a vendor.
They’re looking for partnership in the truest sense of the word.
In order to be effective, it’s important to see the complete picture. In our world of branding, the business and the brand must be strategically aligned. The best clients provide unhindered access behind the curtain, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of where the organization is going and what it hopes to achieve. This also includes access to the Executive Team, because if they can’t see how we support the future trajectory of the business, we’re destined to fail. Instead of a buyer and a vendor, the best clients see a partnership where we’re reliant on one another to be successful. Good agencies always seek to have their engagements represent ongoing case studies for success and positive change. Trust that this is the case, and don’t hesitate to lean on those here to provide support.
2. Good clients make themselves available.
They’re willing to invest the time.
In an agency relationship, regular communication (and often over-communication) is essential. One of the first questions we ask when assessing a possible engagement is “Who will be our direct point of contact?” Clients who are able to dedicate an individual or team with the appropriate level of influence to lead the charge are more likely to see progress happen more rapidly. Weekly project status meetings may sound daunting at first, but experienced agencies use the time effectively to maintain momentum and clarity. And no matter the level of up-front planning, the need for ad-hoc calls, reviews, etc. will arise. With direct points of contact established, both sides can rest assured these needs and requests will be addressed in a timely fashion.
To ensure decisions can be made at major milestones in the process, we often advise the creation of a Brand Council—a multi-disciplined group of leaders and influencers who can represent the organization as a whole. From there, it’s a delicate balance of dedicating enough time to allow for adequate consideration and respecting the busy schedules of those members of the Council. Again, it’s the clients who are willing to put in the time who benefit most.
3. Good clients believe in transparency.
They dislike surprises as much as we do.
It all begins with a well-documented and understood process, timeline, and list of agreed upon deliverables. Establishing expectations early mitigates the risk of either party feeling slighted along the journey. More than anything, good clients are realistic. They understand what it takes to do great work. And if they don’t, they ask questions and we’re more than happy to educate.
Furthermore, we expect our clients to not only hold us accountable, but to hold their own team accountable as well. Going back to the topic of the regular status call, it’s the critical time we dedicate each week to keep each other honest, set realistic goals, and plan ahead. Clarity around roles and responsibilities keeps projects on track in terms of time and budget. We often tell clients that we’re willing to move as fast as they’ll allow us. In other words, it’s typically delays on the client side that will hold up forward progress—whether they stem from elongated approval cycles, team availability, or just the inevitable volatility of business. And when delays occur, it comes back to the need for complete transparency: a shared understanding of impact and expectations. Once again, good clients are realistic.
4. Good clients pay on time.
They understand the importance of trust.
Clients who are good payers are elevated in the minds of agency folk. It may sound self-serving, but timely payment shows that the work being done on their behalf is respected. It demonstrates trust in the relationship. When invoicing and payment is a non-issue, there’s an effortless feeling of forward motion. Agencies know they are expected to deliver, and when they know they’ll be compensated in a timely fashion, there is a greater desire to exceed those expectations. Remember that people prefer to do business with people they like. And trust is a major factor.
5. Good clients trust the process.
They are willing to accept we know what we’re doing.
This is a big one. And it’s perhaps the most common point of conflict agencies are confronted with. When we work with experienced CEOs and CMOs who have been through significant branding engagements in the past, it shows. It shows because they understand the level of complexity and nuance that is involved. It shows because they have sought out a team of specialists to provide expert counsel. And it shows because they don’t pretend to be specialists themselves. Good clients trust the process and the decades of experience across the table from them. This is of course not to suggest that we’re above their input and opinions. There are, however, few scenarios we have not encountered over the more than 25 years we’ve been in this business. We love what we do because we know what great branding enables for our clients’ success. We’re always learning, but we didn’t get where we are today by chance.
There is one final piece of advice I would add – choose your agency well.
Not all agencies are equal. The “full-service” agencies who, for example, tout their ability to handle any and all aspects of brand development are, more often than. not generalists with little understanding of what it takes to be effective.
Seek out a specialist who understands your business needs and has experience providing effective solutions for those in similar circumstances. And, of course, invest in the relationship.