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.

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.

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.

Getting Creative With Contact Forms

Contact forms are the bread and butter of any business’ website. They’re how you gather new leads, convert prospects into real customers, and support your existing ones. They should be one of the places you focus on most when designing your website: A/B testing different solutions, getting creative with layouts, and optimizing conversion rate.

Unfortunately, most contact forms are the last priority when designing a website. They not only end up looking rushed or out of place within the context of the site’s design, but identical to every other site. The contact form is the end of the user’s journey through your website, and should be one of the key areas that differentiates you from your competition. It can be a real waste when your website uses beautiful fonts, colors and graphics like this:form-1And then your contact form looks like this:form-2

It can be difficult to come up with ways to get creative with your contact form. Most contact forms only need three pieces of information: the user’s name, a way to contact them, and a short message. The easiest way to do that is by simply using three text fields and a submit button. But getting creative with your contact form can improve the quality of your leads, increase your conversion rate, and bolster your brand’s reputation for good design.

Provide Options

The default contact form is great, but not always the most suitable. They’re not great for receiving immediate help, or for complicated requests. By providing different options at this point, users can pick what suits them best. Here, Chargebee offers not only the default contact form, but also a call back request. Placing links to the company’s social networks here would also be a good idea (Twitter and Facebook are great ways for getting in touch with a company).form-3

Fit the Design

A beautifully-designed website will impress visitors and sell your business. But since your website is essentially a path leading towards your contact form, having this final point in the journey be comparatively disappointing will tell visitors that you don’t pay attention to details. If you can’t get such an important aspect of your own site right, how can they entrust you with their site?

You don’t have to go to extreme lengths to create an entirely new contact experience – simply taking the time to design the form around the rest of your site is a great first step. Saus, a creative communications studio, has styled their contact form based on a physical postcard. At its base, it’s still just a couple of text input fields and a submit button, but it fits perfectly into the context of the website.form-4

Give Context

One way to improve Saus’ form would be to give the user some expectation of when they might receive an answer. If they call immediately, will there be someone to answer? If they email, will it be minutes, hours or days until they receive a response? Huge does this well by appending the current time to each of their offices. Now the user can tell whether or not it’s currently business hours, and can get a rough estimation of how long a response might take. If it’s currently 2 AM, you won’t be getting a response until later in the morning. But if it’s 2 PM, you can probably expect one within the hour.

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Give a Head Start

One big discouraging influence in many contact forms is the blank text field. Name and email address are no problem – the user already knows those, it’s just a matter of being willing to share the information. But a big blank text field saying “Message” is daunting. The user needs to figure out exactly what needs to be shared, and worry about what they might have forgotten to include. A great solution to this problem is a mad-libs style contact form, like the one below  from Andrew Haglund.form-6

Eliminate The Blank Page

Even if you don’t want to go full mad-libs style, there are still ways to avoid the blank page syndrome. Prime users with multiple choice questions, then use placeholder text to further guide their answers.

Break It Up

Some contact forms won’t fit into the simple name-email-message structure, and will need to request a bit more information from the user. Placing a lot of text fields on screen at once is a sure way to scare users off, especially those with limited time. By breaking up long contact forms into sections, the form appears smaller and gives the illusion of taking a shorter time to fill out. Creative Digital Agency Harbr breaks their contact form into three steps. The final step is still a freeform text input field, but by this point the main questions have been answered, and this field is more of a support, rather than the critical piece.form-7

Get Graphical

Most form elements are pretty boring by default. Typeform spices up their designs by using simple illustrations instead of radio buttons. The illustrations remove the reliance on detailed copy, and allow users to skim the form. The less reading involved in your form, the faster users can fill it out, and the higher your conversion rate will be.form-8

Be Analytical

Whenever you’re making changes to your contact forms, make sure you track and analyze how the form performs before and after. If the changes you make reduce interaction rates, that’s not necessarily a bad thing! You might be reducing the rate of users asking questions that your website already answers. Keep track of how many useful conversions you get, and use the data to guide your design decisions.

Bridging the Gap Between Tech and Non-Tech – A Marketer’s Perspective

It was 2011 and I had just started working for a web company in its IT sector. My role was one of the less “defined” ones, at the confluence of sales and tech, a bit the middle-man amongst departments that were in tacit conflict. There was always at least one project sold under a misunderstanding or misrepresentation.

When pointing out an impending disaster to the directors (such as a project being undersold, or us being unprepared and understaffed to complete it on time), they would take the sales rep’s side because “he is the one who brings the money in, certainly not the devs.” Yet it was the devs who were turning those projects into concrete realities. It was the devs who should have been consulted for an in depth requirements analysis and a correct time cost evaluation, for sales to evaluate the money cost from there on. The departments, however, avoided communicating with each other whenever they could, assuming the other’s affairs were secondary to their own. They both overestimated their grasp on the other team’s skills and endeavors.

Now try for the sake of discussion to put yourself into a CIO’s shoes. Picture your IT department. What will your first thoughts be? Will you lament the money the department has wasted, or linger on frustration due to poor results, delays and bitter compromises? What measures should you take?

Business First, Tech Later – Or Is It?

Corporations teach that IT must be run like a business, with CIOs as business leaders, not technology pundits. Investments into IT should be spurred by business strategy. Nevertheless, at the 360 IT infrastructure event in London in 2010, with the recession causing a shift in IT roles and responsibilities, the general sentiment was that IT is very much a “changing face of business.” Attendees seemed to acknowledge the necessity of developing oneself and one’s staff into well-rounded, “business-savvy and technically-skilled” workers.

The results of an ulterior CA Technologies study from 2012 on over 800 global businesses showed a clear disconnect between IT and their execs as the main reason for missed opportunities for revenue growth and reduced customer engagement and satisfaction. 34 percent of the Business respondents in the survey dubbed their relationship with IT as “combative, distrustful or siloed”, and almost just as many on the IT side agreed.

Perhaps the best solution is for both sales and marketing departments to better their technical knowledge, and for tech teams to improve their administrative and marketing knowledge?

The Middle Ground: An Insight on How To

Belinda Yung-Rubke, director of Field Marketing at Visual Network Systems, is sure the answer sits in finding a common language and setting up common objectives, while Jimmy Augustine of Hewlett Packard urges a forceful bridging of the IT and Business gap. “The two should be one, like peanut butter and jelly. The right hand should know what the left hand is thinking and vice versa.”

Jeff Tash, CEO of Flashmap Systems, Inc and author of the free Architecture Resource Repository Site, recommends a three-step approach to bridging this gap: Consolidate, Standardize, Communicate. Initially, this involves eliminating redundancies, reducing resources, and aiming for reusable products and services instead of one-offs.

Most important is the final step, communication. Marketers and techies can often speak completely different languages. One group talks about B2B, B2C, CPCs, CPMs, DMOs, PPAs, PPCs, ROI, and UGC, and the other talks about HTML, CSS, JS, SQL, XML, JSON, IDEs, and APIs. It’s important to define a common vocabulary, so that no one is nodding along in meetings without any idea of what the discussion is about. Tash recommends to “make certain that both technical and non-technical audiences share a unified knowledge base” to ensure a dialogue of ideas, rather than a monologue.

We often see an expectation for techies to speak the marketer’s language, but not the other way around. In Vish Mulchand’s opinion, “the bosses you have to get the budget from don’t care about the technical side of why you’re pitching for a certain investment; they want to know how it will improve the business and grow revenue, so the tech guys need to know how to communicate this.”

It can be difficult for marketers to find motivation to learn tech language, but it can lead to more independent and self-sufficient behavior. In larger organizations, a simple typo fix can take weeks to make its way through bureaucracy. In smaller agencies and startups, you can usually just tap a developer on the shoulder and ask him to fix it. But consider the fact that even a one-minute interruption can require 10–15 minutes of ramp-up to resume working. With a little effort, marketers can learn just enough to be able to make small changes like these, avoiding bureaucracy and keeping developers focused and efficient.

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It might be wise to take a leaf from the startup world in this regard, where the lines between marketing, product and development become blurred. Instead of treating different aspects of a project as silos, marking territory, and making sure no-one crosses borders, all of these different aspects are treated as offensive weapons to win in the market.