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The Client’s Not Your Enemy: How to Build a Culture of Partnership & Prosperity

The Client’s Not Your Enemy: How to Build a Culture of Partnership & Prosperity
Clients are the lifeblood of any business. But in the day-to-day process of working with them it can be all too easy to let resentment creep in and start viewing them as the enemy. Here’s how to foster a more positive team attitude towards clients to improve your bottom line.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with this scenario:

You’re courting an awesome new client for a big project. There’s a golden glow around them, you feel like landing this client will be the best thing EVER for your agency.

You imagine a long term, lucrative relationship that will spin off into other long term, lucrative relationships. You pull out all the stops to convince them to sign on the dotted line and finally they do. Fireworks! Beer in the design room! Hurray!

But then the project work starts.

It might be time to disarm your team.

The client starts giving feedback or questioning ideas. Their timelines are tight, their internal process slow. Your team’s enthusiasm for this project starts to nosedive and now everyone in your office groans and dreads every email, every meeting, every call with that once-awesome, golden glow client.

The thrill is gone. The client you thought was going to be your biggest ally to success is now seen as your biggest impediment. What happened?

It can be easy to blame it all on an unreasonable client, but the reality is, not every client is unreasonable. They’re allowed to give feedback or to question ideas, they can’t necessarily change their own internal processes, and it’s a deadline driven world. This is the business you’re in. This is the reality of being a service provider.

It’s time to change the culture of treating a client like the enemy and embrace them like the partners, and providers, they are.

It is not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money… it is the customer who pays the wages.

– Henry Ford, Founder of Ford Motors

Here are some suggestions on how to make sure you and your team maintain enthusiasm, appreciation, and respect during the entire lifecycle of your client. The result can mean more engaged team members who do better work, happier clients who become longstanding partners, and great referrals that convert into hot new leads.

1. Get the whole team involved in sales

Whether you’re in charge of business development or you have someone else dedicated to sales, everyone in your agency should understand the BD process, and contribute to it. And not just account managers - designers, copywriters, developers - everyone in the agency should know about your sales funnel, the status of leads within the funnel, and what the potential opportunities are.

Rather than just delivering projects to your team like Santa Claus, make sure they understand the work that goes into landing each opportunity, and what the stakes are.

Take members of the creative team with you when meeting with your leads. It will help them be more engaged with the client when it comes time for project work plus they might have creative ideas to help you land them.

It’s like when you were a kid and your dad said to you, “Money doesn’t grow on trees” but you really didn’t understand the reality of that statement until you were responsible for managing your own income and expenses. It made you appreciate the whole process, and your parents, in a new way.

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Right?

2. Price it right

I used to work for an agency owner who panicked over the budget at the last minute before submitting almost every proposal. He always wanted to discount the price, afraid that we were going to lose the whole project due to sticker shock.

So we would cut the price to placate him but usually that came back to haunt us once we were in the thick of the project because inevitably we’d go over budget.

As the project progressed he would become more and more agitated with how much time was being spent on managing the client or doing the actual deliverables. He would start to resent the client and didn’t spend as much time nurturing the relationship or valuing the work that was being done.

Usually the client didn’t even know we had discounted the price so it wasn’t really fair to blame them. Regardless, if you say you’re going to do a job for $X and the scope doesn’t change, don’t get mad because you have to do that job for $X.

The lesson here is not a new one. Don’t discount your services. Price out the project properly to make a profit. Otherwise you might end up in a situation where you’re treating your client like the enemy for a situation you created.

3. Set clear roles & responsibilities

Just because a client may have worked with an agency before doesn’t mean they know how to work with your agency. You may do things a little differently. And in the same vein, how this client works may be different from your other clients.

When onboarding a new client, explain to them how to work with you and what they can expect from that process.

  • Who is the main point of contact on the client’s end?
  • Does everything go through your agency account manager, or can they phone up one of your designers or developers directly?
  • When can they expect deliverables?
  • What will be presented in person/web conference and what will be delivered via email?
  • Are they trained on how to properly use your project management software?
  • Does their internal process require an extra three days for signoff from upper management? If so, you’ll want to build that into your timelines so you don’t get impatient when they’re late providing feedback.
  • What’s the process for providing revisions?

The clearer the ground rules for working together, the smoother things will be. Most people don’t set out to be disruptive, they just don’t realize there’s another way.

By explaining the best way for both client and agency to work together successfully from the get-go, everyone will know what’s expected of them and there will be fewer situations for you to get annoyed with them.

4. Encourage and accept feedback

I totally get that everyone wishes that every idea or copy or strategy they put out there is going to be approved on the spot, perfect, no changes. It’s easier that way - less work, more ego. But that’s an unrealistic expectation and it can hold you back from producing better work.

We need to change our mind frame about client feedback from one of “They’re destroying my art!” to “They’re helping make this better.”

Just because a client is providing feedback or even an objection to your work does not necessarily mean they’re being difficult. There’s a gap in their understanding and they’re trying to fill it. And that feedback may be the missing piece that could make your headline, tactic, or app, a masterpiece.

Feedback means the client is interested and engaged. If you think of your relationship with the client as a partnership, then their feedback is a natural part of the process. In the same way the designer contributes imagery and the copywriter contributes the message, the client contributes their expertise in the actual subject matter.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the reason for the feedback might be because you didn’t explain your concept well enough or present it properly. I’ve seen good ideas get rejected because it was emailed instead of presented, so the client had little insight into the thinking behind the idea.

Use your professional powers of persuasion to really sell your client on your idea, don’t just plop it in front of them and expect them to get it. Walk them through your process. Tell a story. Explain why you chose this direction over others.

Spending the extra time to persuade your client and get them behind the idea now will ensure they don’t get cold feet and change direction at the eleventh hour.

5. Drop the us vs. them mentality

So often in proposals we use language like “partnership” and “collaboration”, and internally we talk about how we don’t want to be viewed as just a supplier, but as a valued partner. That kind of talk abounds during the sales process and it is the right attitude, but somehow it fades away once the deal is closed and the project starts.

All of a sudden we start using language like “managing the clients” as if they’re a problem child. What about saying something like “working with clients” instead? See what I did there?

Instead of assuming that every interaction is going to be adversarial, remember you each depend on the other for your success in business. By creating an environment where that is the foundational attitude, everyone from your team to your client will interact in a more positive, productive, and effective way.

Then, if you do run into a troubling situation, you’re in a much better place to deal with it because you’ve already established a relationship of trust and respect.

And, as tempting as it might be, avoid making rude, disparaging names or remarks privately to your team about clients (and NEVER by email). You can’t expect your staff to respect clients if the boss doesn’t. Negativity breeds negativity.

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A little ‘Mean Girls’ wisdom goes a long way.

6. Pick the right clients

Maybe part of the reason you’re feeling like you’re always on the wrong side of your clients is because they’re not a good fit for your agency. Whether you’re doing work that isn’t your area of expertise or there is a difference in values, if you and your client aren’t on common ground, it can create a lot of conflict.

If you have the attitude that every business who can pay their bills is a good fit for your agency, you’re going to run into trouble. And if you’re OK with that trouble, fine. But I can guarantee you that building lasting, lucrative partnerships will be that much more difficult, the ability to please those clients will be challenging, and the culture of your office will be affected.

I worked at an agency where the owner said yes to every project request even if we had never done that type of work before.

On one hand you could admire his can-do attitude but in reality, it set the entire team, and the client up for failure. To start with, we had to spend extra time on the project to learn how to do it. Time which, to be fair, couldn’t really be billed back to the client, so we would lose money.

It inevitably took us longer to complete a project we had never done before so it threw timelines off and left the client frustrated. And often, because we didn’t know what we were doing, promises were made in the sales process that were impossible to deliver on.

The result left both sides feeling bad about everything.

I’m not saying your agency shouldn’t learn anything new, but having a niche and doing what you do well will make things go smoother and more successfully for everyone.

David Ogilvy’s Rules for Selecting New Clients

Advertising god, David Ogilvy had some ground rules for getting the right client fit. Not every rule might apply to your specific agency or situation, and you could swap the words “advertise” with whatever your speciality is, but I think there are some universal truths in here that are helpful to any business.

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From Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy

  1. Only advertise products which you are proud to be associated with, never advertise a product that you don’t respect and don’t like.
  2. Never advertise for a company that you feel has better advertising than you can offer.
  3. Never advertise for a company that has had failing sales for a long period of time. This normally means that the advertising will not help the sales.
  4. Make sure that the client understands that the advertising agency has to make money as well; don’t make the client money while losing money from your own company.
  5. Question any account that would not be very profitable. If it gives you a chance to show off your skills to other potential clients, then take the account.
  6. Always find the motive for the client switching agencies, if he was let go from the previous agency, find out why.
  7. Do not take clients that put little importance in advertising.
  8. Never advertise for a product that is not yet on the market.
  9. Never take associations as clients.
  10. Only give in to the demand that a person be hired if you get the account if you feel that the person is capable of doing good work for your company
  11. And lastly, if a company publicly announces the companies which it is considering to do their advertising, do not try to get the account. If you do not get it, you will publicly be known for being inferior to the successful company in some way.

7. Communicate (no, really)

I feel like people’s eyes glaze over when you remind them that good communication can solve a myriad of problems. They hear it so much I’m not sure if they take it seriously.

But SERIOUSLY, communicating well and often can keep client relationships warm, you can eliminate molehills before they transform into mountains, and you establish an attitude of authentic trust and care.

Don’t leave it to the account manager to be the only person communicating with the client. As the agency owner or head of business development, you should touch base with your clients from time to time to see how things are going, and not just when you’re trying to close a new deal. It should make up a part of your scheduled, weekly activities.

Follow them online. Favorite and share their posts. Email them new articles you come across. Pick up the phone every month to ask how things are going with the project. Find out what’s happening in their business, their industry. The more you know about their situation, the easier it will be to understand their behaviour, and what they need from you.

Conclusion

To be clear, sometimes you get a client who really is your enemy. Their behaviour can threaten to bring you, and your agency, to your knees. But if you change your attitude and how you service your clients, the ‘enemy’ can be the exception rather than the rule. And when it comes to running a profitable, lasting company, you want all the allies you can get.

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