Why Agency-Client Communication is a Bigger Problem Than You Think

Agency-client relationships are all about partnership. The relationship between an agency and client needs to be strong and healthy to survive the constant onslaught of project deadlines, meetings, and creative differences that arise throughout the working relationship. The stronger the relationship, the better the results.

According to a 2015 study by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), seventy-four percent of clients who work with creative agencies believe agencies play an important role in driving their own success, and rely on long-term agency relationships to further their business goals.

For many agencies, these long-term client relationships are equally as important to success. Agencies often spend thousands of dollars each year developing and maintaining client relationships. Yet with all the effort spent on hiring experts, developing marketing strategies, hiring the right teams, and providing excellence service, developing a plan for good agency-client communication is often overlooked.

A good communication plan is essential to maintaining any successful business relationship. Cycles of poor communication can lead to dissatisfaction, failed projects, financial losses, and worse yet, loss of reputation in the industry. But because many agency-client interactions are more collaborative than other business – especially in the creative fields – effective communication is even more important, since communication often goes through multiple channels to multiple sources before projects are completed.

Many agencies run into issues of over or under-communicating with their clients – either communicating too little, leaving clients confused or worried about project deadlines, or communicating too much (or about the wrong things), overwhelming clients with too many details.

Reversely, clients often have a difficult time expressing their needs to agencies through the proper channels, leaving many agencies struggling to meet the demands placed on them.

While these breakdowns in communication can come across as merely annoying or “just part of the job,” they can be detrimental to the bottom line if not properly addressed.

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The most common types of communication breakdowns


One of the biggest communication failures between agencies and clients is a lack of communication. This problem can also include a lack of useful information being processed between parties. If the agency forgets to respond to emails, leaves out critical information, or is too vague about project demands, for example, it can cause clients to feel they’re being ignored.

Clients will sometimes overcompensate for this perceived lack of communication by providing massive quantities of (often useless) information, which is not always helpful for the agency, as much of it will not be necessary to the task at hand. Agencies may respond to this information overload by ignoring pieces of information, which may cause clients to feel misheard or misrepresented. This vicious cycle leaves agencies feeling overwhelmed and clients feeling devalued.

On the reverse side, if agencies over-communicate, clients may feel overwhelmed and overworked and assume the agency is too incompetent to manage the project on their own. One example of communication overload is agencies placing a heavy reliance on email communication over more personal styles such as meetings or phone calls.

Phil Simon, author of Message Not Received, says that the average person receives 120 to 150 emails per day, making it extremely common for clients to misplace, delete, or forget to read their emails. When too much information comes across a digital platform, overload is more likely to happen, which can cause clients to disengage.

In worst cases, this disengagement can lead to entire projects being stalled. While constant communication is important for any development project, over-communication or communication about issues that aren’t essential to the needs of the moment can leave many clients feeling confused or overworked.

Having a strong communication plan in place is important to combatting these communication issues. Knowing when, where, how often, and to whom communications should be sent can alleviate the burden on clients and allow agencies to manage projects more competently.

Of course, communication plans only work when the relationship between an agency and client is already established. If there are breakdowns within the relationship, poor communication will only cause further problems. Some experts warn that poor communication within an agency-client relationship is actually a symptom of something far worse.

Poor communication is often a sign of deeper problems

In 2014, RPA and USA Today conducted an anonymous online survey of more than 140 agencies to better understand what makes successful agency-client relationships. In their report, The Naked Truth, they discovered that ninety-eight percent of agencies and clients agreed that trust was a major factor in maintaining relationships, but that poor communication was a major factor when there was a lack of trust.

Poor communication can be a sign of underlying trust issues between agencies and clients, and can play a major role in the dissolution of otherwise successful business relationships. If an agency struggles to connect with clients on a consistent basis, for example, it can create uncomfortable distance in the working relationship, resulting in unnecessary overreactions when smaller issues arise. agency-clientcommunication03

If the client feels like the agency isn’t listening to their needs or has trouble getting those needs met on a consistent basis, they may either react with a desire for more communication (which the agency may not be able to fulfill) or they will slowly withdraw and look for alternative solutions.agency-clientcommunication02

Without first establishing the kind of trust that leads to healthy agency-client communication, tensions can build over time until one or both parties walk away from the relationship all together, resulting in financial and networking losses for both.

The good news is that trust can be built and protected by intentionally stewarding good communication patterns.

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Three ways to promote trust through great communication

Since communication is a skill, it can be learned and improved through intentional practice. Strong communication skills may need to be relearned during the course of a relationship, especially if there have been patterns of poor communication in the past or a history of mistrust. Here are a few ways agencies can ensure they are maintaining healthy communication with their clients (and vice-versa).

Be consistent and reply quickly

If an agency has issues with slow or inconsistent communication, it can hinder workflow and create communication barriers. Replying to emails and phone calls as quickly as possible – or sending additional emails notifying clients when they can expect a reply – can go a long way in boosting confidence. Setting a 24-hour rule to responses (or faster if it’s an emergency) and sticking to it will help foster trust.

Adapt your communication styles

Misunderstandings are one of the most common communication problems for both agencies and clients. When a client has trouble interpreting the intentions of an agency, it can cause confusion and slow down the workflow, since additional messages are required for clarification. Making sure communications are well written, clear, and concise before sending will help eliminate that confusion. It can also be helpful to restate the main concerns at the end of an email, phone call, or meeting to ensure everything was properly communicated.

Be open and honest (but don’t overreact)

Being open and honest (but respectful) with clients can help build strong relationships and promote good communication. Being courteous and sincere but honest about perceived complications will create a safe environment for both parties when problems arise. When complications do occur, address them quickly and confidently without assigning blame. If the relationship is already shaky, overreaction can cause non-issues to escalate into impossibilities. Asking “Why,” “Why not,” and “What” questions will help clarify and refocus the discussion while calming fears that clients aren’t being heard.

How to Gain New Clients as an Agency

For budding agencies, finding new clients is a constant effort. Larger, established agencies often have enough word-of-mouth marketing to bring in more clients than they can handle. But smaller or early-stage agencies can’t rely solely on word-of-mouth promotion, simply because they don’t have the clients to do it for them. Although a marketing plan might seem like something for a more rooted agency, it’s in fact most important for younger agencies.

Design business expert David Baker looked at several hundred design firms over two decades, and his conclusion was that: yes, ok, you do need a graphic design marketing plan, but it’s not what will bring you most clients.

Understand Your Clients

Finding new clients as an agency is not like project management, accounting or IT. You must get intimately involved in the process. If you truly are after getting new – and worthwhile – clients, immerse yourself in your clients’ world rather than your peers’.

Understanding your clients’ needs will go a long way towards generating trust. Agency Scout Debra Giampoli says she won’t work with any agency who hasn’t done their homework. Agencies should know the roles of their potential clients and what they value in an agency. By finding out these things, you can more accurately target specific clients, with a higher success rate.

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Build up Confidence and Expertise

Successful people radiate self-assurance. Get out there and profess credible claims, with the certainty that you’ll be able to deliver with ease. Price your work accordingly – underpricing yourself puts you in a lower-tier market, and gives the impression of a less-capable agency. Higher rates may scare away some clients, but they’re generally clients you can afford to lose. In reverse, lower rates may place doubt into bigger clients – the ones your agency needs.

Finally, deliver with solid design solutions. Your reputation is built around what you repeatedly do, so if you’re over-promising and under-delivering on a regular basis, it won’t make for good word-of-mouth advertising. Not to mention the stress this adds, having to deal with upset and disappointed clients.

You may be able to burst into any room (or email inbox), but if you don’t have compelling things to say when communicating with clients, you’ll quickly lose their attention. Craft a statement that people won’t easily forget. Again, understanding your clients and their needs goes a long way to creating a truly compelling pitch.

Sharing is Caring

The ultimate lead generation tool is content marketing: keep an awesome blog that targets and attracts the kind of people you’d like to work with. In time you can establish your agency as an authority and thought leader. Social media is an obvious supplemental tool, but always back up your tweets and Instagram pics with long-form, educational content.

Whether you’re writing case studies, blog posts or short and sweet punchy tweets,  always keep in mind the entire user experience. Will your users reach your blog through social media, newsletters, or Google? How might this affect how they interact with your blog, and the rest of your website?

Don’t use your blog or social platforms for sales pitches. People will follow you if you’re providing useful and interesting content. If all you post is blatant advertising, followers will drop off as quickly as they sign up. Focus on posting up your best work, and let them speak for you.

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Keeping it Organized

Make a name for yourself by getting organized and delivering on time. Don’t be in a rush to accept more projects when your hands are already full. With an outstanding portfolio, good clients will be more likely to contact you ahead of time, without the expectation that you’ll start the project yesterday. “Reputation is the foundation to generating new job leads and keeping a steady stream of orders lined up in your email”, says Kevin Harter of Hongkiat and owner of Crystalint Media.

Follow up on any leads as soon as possible. Every hour you delay responding to leads reduces your chances of converting them to a client. If you’re not already, set up an automated email response to any contact form submission. Zapier is a great tool to integrate to whichever form solution you’re using. Use this initial email response to give your client a next step that isn’t just “wait for us to reply”. The more targeted you can make this email, the better. If you’re not able to set up a next step based off the limited information gathered in a contact form submission, maybe ask for a little more information from them. They’re already invested enough to submit a contact form, so asking for some more information about their project won’t raise much resistance.

Some agencies disregard databases when tracking their client interactions. This is a big mistake: databases are priceless. Maintain an up-to-date lead database, and keep track of any prospective clients. Record the name, address, email and phone number of any potential clients you’ve contacted, regardless of how you communicated with them. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t convert a lead to a client on the first, second, third or even fourth contact. 80% of sales require 5 follow-up calls after the initial meeting. 92% of salespeople give up before this 5th follow-up call, meaning 8% of sales people get 80% of the sales.

Find Your Niche

Set your agency apart from your competition by delivering what others can’t. Whether it’s punctuality, beautiful user-focused design, or the ability to creatively solve problems, let your prospects know about it. “Clients will buy from a place where they are likely to get something extra. Find the ‘extra’ for your business,” says Kevin Harter.

A Cohesive Marketing Plan

In spite of what you might plan or dream will happen, most great clients will come from indirect efforts such as client connection, a vendor, employee or supporter connection. But while it could be any of these things that cinches the deal, all of your efforts play a part. An agency with a good reputation, educational content marketing, a strong customer understanding and a little something extra will always beat out a rival agency with a weak spot in any of these aspects. If you can’t promote yourself well, how can a client expect you to promote them well?