Like all good relationships, a successful partnership takes effort and commitment from both sides. Yet getting along is critical because a successful client-agency relationship is probably the biggest single predictor of project success. So how do you build a great dynamic and turn a new client-agency collaboration into a long-term success story? To answer this question, we've outlined six steps below.
Step 1: Make sure it’s a match
Chemistry and compatibility are as important in a client-agency pairing as any other type of relationship. During the agency briefing and selection process, it’s important to be open and transparent about what you need and how you work. This includes the obvious things such as the capabilities and expertise you require from your agency. But it’s also important to make sure there’s a great connection in terms of culture, values and expectations between your business and your agency.
Agencies should also approach new client relationships with clarity and transparency about their systems, and communication and collaboration style. Agencies should ask lots of questions at the outset of a new client relationship to make sure that both explicit things like project scope and implicit things like cultural preferences are covered. It's in the interest of both parties to make sure there's a great alignment in thinking and expectations from the outset.
Step 2: Communication is key
Good communication is the lifeblood of great relationships. For a successful client-agency partnership, communication must be honest (yet respectful), clear and timely. Good communication means speaking out early if there is a problem and asking questions along the way. But it also means actively listening to other people and extending empathy and understanding to different perspectives.
Your digital agency should involve you in the development of ideas and solutions, rather than presenting a finished product at the end. This not only gives you an opportunity to be involved in developing the solution, provide ongoing feedback and direction, it also helps develop a feeling of camaraderie and partnership. Clients should feel comfortable and encouraged to speak up regularly if they have any concerns about how a task or project is unfolding. Daily stand up meetings are important to ensure client involvement and direction. You should feel part of the team and be involved in the decision-making process. This will help address problems early and regularly, making it much easier to find solutions together.
Step 3: Get on the same page
“A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other.” Simon Sinek
The process of developing a digital strategy and experience that delights your customers necessarily comes with some uncertainty. The traditional approach of writing long functional specifications and detailed contracts listing all requirements does not reduce that uncertainty. In fact, it can often create distance between you and the agency. Both parties seeking to ensure that things are created precisely as stipulated can stifle innovation and creativity.
To create a level of certainty we need to build trust and understanding with the people who are solving the problem. Engage an agency for a period of time (based upon a high-level estimate), instead of a fixed scope and long documents. Have the contract focus on the financials and high-level aims rather than the specific features. This is a different mindset of engaging a team to find and create solutions together with your team in an agile way.
We also recommend that you develop a social contract with your agency project team. A social contract is a written commitment between agency and client outlining expectations around behaviour, flexibility and respect. Think of it as an agreement at the start of your relationship, that makes it clear to both sides how to take care of each other. A social contract may include things like:
- A commitment to be on time for meetings
- No mobile phones in meetings
- Taking ownership of responsibilities
- Keeping documentation up to date
- Avoiding school drop off and pick up times for meetings
- Speaking calmly and respectfully to all people
There isn’t a strict set of rules around developing a social contract, it’s simply a process of giving everyone involved an opportunity to have a say about what’s important to them, then agreeing as a group which commitments they make to one another.
Step 4: Positivity power
Being positive is not about turning your back on reality. There will be times in every project, every relationship when things aren’t ideal. Mistakes will be made, deadlines missed and problems will come up. Positivity is not about denying these things but about taking an energised, proactive approach to solving problems, resolving disputes and getting things back on track.
One of the keys to any successful relationship is each partner being generous about how they interpret other people’s motivations and abilities. Framing a mistake or misunderstanding as simply an occasional outcome of being human goes a long way towards focusing on positive solutions, rather than getting frustrated about people’s limitations. Address the problem head-on, learn from it, then move on.
Step 5: Be realistic
Being realistic is the opposite of being idealistic (or fatalistic). It’s about taking a measured, reasonable approach to developing a relationship between a client or a supplier, rather than expecting miracles (or catastrophes) at every turn. Being realistic starts with setting reasonable budgets, expectations and timelines. Measuring actual performance against milestones and targets is also a great way to establish what is going on and gain insights about how projects are tracking and where improvements can be made.
Another aspect of realism is getting to know each other over time as the relationship evolves. Socialising is an important part of the agency-client relationship because it builds familiarity, rapport and trust. It’s a way to get insight into other people and the way their organisations work. Good relationships take effort, commitment and a certain level of vulnerability and openness. So making time to really get to know each other is vital to forming deeper and more lasting bonds. Likewise, when it's time to end the relationship and move on, being gracious, generous and polite, is an important way to acknowledge the humanity of the other team.
Step 6: Think long term
The client-agency relationship should be one of long-term partnership rather than one-off service provider. As a client, be prepared to trust your agency, but also to question them. Be open with them about your strengths, weaknesses and challenges. Share your immediate goals as well as your long-term vision, and discuss with them possible future phases of your projects. Openness and transparency allow your agency to understand your business, your motivations and your tolerance to risk. This information is critical to achieving the best long-term outcome.
An agency that’s in it for the long haul understands that trust is about accountability and responsibility. It can be hard-won but easily lost, so agencies should invest time in learning their client’s business, set clear KPIs, and hire and train experts with specialist skills. Agencies should offer ongoing support, maintenance and continuous improvement. Most importantly, agencies must develop a sense of alignment and compatibility between the client’s goals and their own.
Setting out for success
Both the client and the agency have an equal role to play in the establishment, development and maintenance of a successful client-agency relationship. And the best relationships share some common characteristics: trust, collaboration, chemistry, mutual respect, accountability and honesty. New client-agency relationships often start with optimism, enthusiasm and the best of intentions. However, the early magic and hope can quickly fizzle out if both partners don’t take a pragmatic, long-term approach to build a successful long-term relationship together.
Ultimately, a successful agency-client relationship is a result of having both the systems and processes and the right mindset to learn, grow and support each other to achieve and produce great work together.
Looking for more tips and insights about creating a successful relationship with your digital agency? Here’s some further reading:
Tips for choosing a digital agency
How to brief a digital agency
Creating a digital strategy roadmap
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