On Friday, Oct. 27th, WDG hosted our AIGA DC Design Week Creative Lunch. The panel-style talk included a sold out audience from the local agency community. We discussed how to go “From Playboy to Partner: Acquiring and Maintaining Long Term Client Relations.” Our Strategy, Design, Project Management, and Web Development departments all collaborated for an incredible presentation.
With the room full of designers, developers, UX strategists, and CEO’s enjoying a delicious Nando’s lunch, we discussed how to position yourself as the partner of choice for clients. We used real-life relationship analogies (and some fantastic gifs) to show our audience how to add value at every turn of the client relationship.
Our panel looked at different types of client relationships, from brief partnerships to becoming an agency of record. At the end of the presentation, we conducted a Q&A session with the audience for the best tips and tricks to build partnerships that last.
Watch Out for Warning Signs
Client relationships are a two-way street. It’s important to find the right fit for both the client and the agency. Like any relationship, there are different ways a client and an agency can relate to one another. We talked about ideal qualities and lessons learned for establishing the perfect relationship fit.
Some of our best advice? Make sure to read your client right: do they have a bad past experience that makes them hesitant to commit? Have they ghosted you without a word? Did they bench you along with a dozen other agencies during the RFP process? Do they keep you coming back for more by breadcrumbing small projects? This doesn’t rule them out as potential partners. It just means these are warning signs you may want to keep in mind as you move forward in your relationship with this client.
Strategize Your Relationships
Any solid relationship requires effort. We talked about some of our top tips, strategies, and lessons learned in building relationships that last.
- Build trust at every touchpoint: Just like the start of any promising relationship, building trust between partners is key. “Be reliable, consistent, a great communicator, and transparent. Every time you talk with a client, there’s an opportunity to build trust,” explains Project Manager Curt Seiss. Equally important, every member of an agency team has a responsibility to not just maintain, but continually improve, the client relationship. Value adds like post launch support are a great way to ensure the communication stays strong, even at the end of a project.
- Fail forward: People in relationships make mistakes. Mistakes don’t have to end the relationship, though. The important thing, says Seiss, is to “create a smarter solution with less resources. You won’t get fired for making mistakes, but you will get fired for repeating that mistake.” It’s also important that you don’t simply let mistakes stand. You have to be reflexive in improving relationships when you fail. The key is to make sure you are thinking strategically from the start. Project Manager Vajaah Parker notes, “Teams can iterate their way out of failure. You buy yourself the luxury of failing forward only if you were smart about the previous steps.”
- Know when to say “no”: It’s one of the hardest things in any relationship. Saying “no” brings risks. Will it put the client off? Will they push back? Is there any other way around scope creep? As hard as it is, it’s important to stick to your guns here. “When you say no, it means ‘no!’ Diplomacy is your weapon against scope creep,” adds Project Manager Arista Ware. At WDG, we’ve also learned the value in saying, “No, but…”. Add a specific alternative or compromise in lieu an unfulfilled request. This way you not only reinforce the trust clients have in your expertise, but also create unexpected value add for the client.
- Listen, listen, listen: It’s vital that you listen to your client. Yes, some of the requests or concerns may be less urgent than others. By ensuring that you are listening at all times, explains Seiss, “you can understand a client’s strengths and weaknesses to align your offerings to counteract their problem.” The danger in not fully listening to the client is they may choose to rely on outsourced or internal teams to complete the task instead. “We want the client to come through us for their needs. We can’t be everything to everyone, but we can listen and pivot to fulfill their needs. Ask questions! Clarify, restate, and get answers. Engage the client to get the best outcome,” notes Parker.
- Make long-term plans: Different engagements have different end goals, but you should work with the long term in mind whenever possible. “Build your future with the client. Learn about their long-term plans so you can be their partner through all their business goals,” says Ab Emam, Managing Director of WDG. You should also look for key points where you can add value for the client throughout the project lifecycle. “Over deliver to the client and do so intentionally. Provide the best product, but also read between the lines regarding challenges the client faces and anticipate their needs,” explains Dario Tadic, Creative Director. “A little bit more care and finesse adds up over time.”
Don’t Just Give It Away!
There is a lot of strategy that goes into creating a lasting client relationship. Sometimes smaller projects are used to gain bigger contracts in the long run. Other times, engagements are used to get in the good graces of a much larger family of brands. Not every project will lead to a long term relationship, but you do want to make sure each engagement leads to a relationship that works both ways. “We always stay at a table that provides a mutually beneficial relationship,” adds Emam. “ If you advocate for your client, they will advocate for you. That’s how you build–and grow–client relationships that truly last.”