This article is the third in what is becoming an ongoing series about how to achieve healthy client-agency relationships. Previously, I've talked about the broken promises agencies make to brands. From the opposite perspective, I more recently discussed the signs it's time to fire your client. Following up on that theme, if you find yourself facing no reasonable alternative than to break up with your client, then you'll need to replace that lost revenue stream with a new client. Take some time to think about what went wrong with the last relationship, and learn from your mistakes.
Let's face it: No one wants to fire a client. For one, who needs the stress? And secondly, any time an agency/client relationship gets to that point, countless resources have been wasted.
So how can you avoid these uncomfortable and unproductive situations? Well, a little clarity up front can go a long way. So before you race to get that contract signed, sit down and discuss the following with your (hopefully) new client.
What creative elements already exist for the brand?
Inefficiency is often the root of many different problems in a troubled client/agency engagement. So before getting in bed with a new client, step back for a moment and consider some of the "ouchiest" pain points that you had with your ex.
There's a good chance that the production and delivery of creative assets always lagged behind. It's a common problem because creative assets are time consuming and difficult to produce. This applies to virtually any type of content created on behalf of a brand. So we're talking blog posts, photos, graphics, audio, video -- anything that requires creative people to sit in a room and invent something.
So instead of reinventing everything, take a detailed look at what has already been created. Consolidate everything possible. Getting it all into one place will require locating all existing creative assets and then gauging how quickly they can be found and delivered. Implement an asset management system to make these digital assets accessible to everyone who needs them when they need them.
Even if you end up changing everything about what you find, it's easier to start a campaign idea or a design aesthetic with something than it is to start with nothing. Think about unused comp. designs, rejected pitches, best practices documentation, company graphics files, etc.
Who handles billing and what should the agency expect?
Get this one cleared up immediately. I can't figure out why billing is so often an afterthought because everyone's jobs depend upon getting paid by the client. The sales process is designed to negotiate middle ground that will please both parties. But the details of payment are rarely discussed until the engagement begins.
If you have a company accountant that is able to talk to other human beings without frightening them, great! Have that person clear up the details. If not, make sure that the account or project manager has a thorough discussion about payment terms, penalties, termination policy, and other accounting considerations. Establish a direct contact, and make sure that person returns phone calls or emails. And for God's sake, make friends with that person. They control your money.
Sales people (including myself) will sometimes make unconventional promises in order to close the business. Don't complain too much. That unconventional promise is going to pay my rent and yours next month. But special circumstances, exceptions, extras, and discounts should all be made very clear to both sides of the engagement before work begins.
What metrics are most important to the client?
Let's suppose, for example, that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's management team wants to hire you as a community manager for The Rock's Instagram and Twitter accounts. Congrats! You are about to help a lot of people smell what's cooking. But before you begin wrestling with your various new responsibilities, ask your client this question: "What specific progress would you like me to make on Instagram and Twitter?" Even better, ask which metrics are the most important to improve. And if you're ballsy, ask what you can bring back to the table in three months that will compel your client to give you a raise.
It's easy to fall into a routine, especially if you have a lot of clients. So as a community manager you might assume that increasing followership will be part of your job description. But at the moment, The Rock has about 4 million Twitter followers. So it's possible that other metrics like getting more people to click on links in tweets is a lot more important than gaining new followers. And if your client doesn't speak industry lingo, simply have a plain language conversation about what it is that they want to see happen. Occasionally, you'll meet a client who has never been asked this question, and your thoroughness will blow them away.
Who are your other partners and where do we fit in?
Have you ever headed out on a date only to realize that it's not really a date once you arrive? She just thought that you might like to go bowling with her friends and maybe make out with her ugly friend Janice. Well, guess what? I will make out with Janice. Hypothetically, of course, because nothing like that has ever happened to me.
The same thing happens in the agency world. You'll be a week into a project with a new client, and your client will say something like, "We should really get the other team on the phone. You guys need to meet each other." And you're like, "Uh, what…other…team?"
Before starting any project, ask for an organizational chart. If your client has one, great! But since nobody ever seems to actually have a current org chart, schedule a conversation with the client about roles and responsibilities. It's nice to know the role of everyone at your client's company -- but if they're skittish about sharing that kind of information, at least try to find crossover. Are there other agencies working on the same campaigns or projects that you are? What other departments will you be working with? Will you have more than one direct contact?
For example, if you are in charge of SEO, then you'll need to know about all of the people who make changes to your client's website. Because if you implement a change (like fixing a navigation menu) and then somebody reverts that change, you're working in a circle. If your new client's organization is set up in a way that will prevent you from doing your job correctly, then it's time to go back to the drawing board together with your client.
How do you like to communicate?
Some clients need to see your face in order to believe you're doing anything for them. This can be especially true about clients who like to hire local businesses. But if your idea of office attire is gym shorts and broken flip flops, then maybe you should consider whether or not you're the "in person" type. On the other hand, if you roll everywhere in office-casual mode, then face to face might be ideal.
Other clients hire you because they hope they'll barely need to recognize that you exist because you are that on top of things and self-sufficient. They'll never even care that you refuse to wear pants on Thursdays because to them, the campaign is successful as long as the weekly metrics perform favorably.
The telecommuters think that the office people are crazy and vice versa. So lay it all out on the table early. If you and your client don't see eye to eye about the amount of office time that is expected, consider a blend of limited office hours combined with online collaboration tools. And be honest with yourself. If the client's expectation is way too different from your own, then the engagement is already off to a bad start.
"Young handsome confused businessman" image via Shutterstock.