One year ago, tensions rose at creative development firms and marketing solutions agencies. A ubiquitous, uncertain feeling settled across the desktops, camera stands, and whiteboards that graced the office halls…the often unspoken, yet always known truth of being a marketing professional resounded: when client’s finances get tight, marketing is often the first line item that gets cut.
In response, leaders at marketing firms and agencies huddled their teams and gave the best pep talks they could muster in the midst of the uncertainty. From the rallying cry of these leaders came even more hustle from creatives who upped their content delivery and client delight efforts even higher than they already were. Specialists produced more, designed more, promoted more, and did it all faster than before. Agencies worldwide stepped up to the challenge of helping their clients navigate uncertain times while also working to navigate those same challenges themselves.
Now, a year later, expectations need to be reset.
By in large, agencies and creative firms succeeded in retaining and even expanding their managed revenue. But teams are worn and over-delivery cannot be sustained if you are to run a healthy agency. Account managers are struggling to realign client expectations and through the haze of it all it’s hard to recall what the original expectations even used to be. I propose the following to get your accounts back on track:
Just be straight with clients.
The truth sells a lot better than a sugar coated sales pitch. Don’t place upon yourself an unnecessary burden to find the “magic words” as you try to say it without saying it. JUST SAY IT. The next time you chat with a client simply lay your cards on the table.
“Hey, Bill, we’re so happy to see the ways your company has stood strong where able and pivoted smartly where needed over this past year. Thank you for allowing us to partner with you to remain a force in the market. We’re looking at the ways that we can continue partnering with you to achieve your growth goals through 2021 and the years to come. Before we dive into our ideas for your strategy, can we take a few minutes to make sure everyone is on the same page about how we can all best work together for years to come?”
Any client worth being a client will agree to reset expectations with you so you can redefine what your agency expectations are. Here are a few examples:
- Our office hours are from 8:00a – 4:30p. Any phone or email communications outside of those hours will be returned during the next regular business hours.
- Content requests have a minimum 3-14 day turnaround window depending on the nature of the request.
- We’ll need to refine your social media strategy a bit to realign the number of posts we are publishing to the standards set in your monthly retainer. We think the best way to this this is to focus on X, Y, Z posts and forgo A, B, C type posts.
Emphasize the value exchange.
When realigning client expectations, be sure to refocus your client’s attention on the VALUE of what your agency is providing. This comes in various forms:
- Achievement of the client’s stated goals
- Influenced revenue
- Payroll expenses saved
- Expertise being provided
- Costly mistakes being avoided
When you point back to your client goals and reinforce the value added by their relationship with you, you solidify your standing in their business book because no longer are you a monthly expense. You are an investment that yields value.
Hold your team accountable.
The habits from a year of over delivering have been engrained at both the client level and the account management level. Now you as an agency leader need to create accountability such that your delivery teams and account managers know that the client expectations have been verbally reset and it’s up to them to keep client expectations in line. Your account managers are the gate keepers to your delivery team and need to be coached on how to respond to unaligned client requests:
Here are three options:
- Ask for more information from the client first. Follow up with a homework item that the client must complete before your team moves forward on the request. This can be in the form of a clarifying question or documentation to be provided by the client before your team can start. This tactic is especially effective because 80% of the time you’ll never hear back from the client on this request (so you know it was not truly as urgent or important as they let on) and your team can focus their time an energy on aligned requests.
- Tell them you’ll prepare a proposal for them. Client requests that are outside of the scope of agreed upon work should be responded to as if they are inquiries for a contract expansion. Instruct your account managers to respond positively to the request and note that they can send a proposal for that. For example, “Yes, Bill, running a Google Ads campaign could definitely be another way to increase leads from your website. By Thursday I can send over a proposal for our team to configure a Google Ads campaign and then manage it monthly so you achieve maximum ROI on your ad spend.” With this kind of response, the client is still the decision maker, but not at your team’s expense. They may reply that they don’t want to move forward on that after all or that they do want to move forward and expand their scope of work with you.
- Substitute this request for other items already in their scope of work. Sometimes the best thing for the client and the agency is do do a simple swap. Determine the value of the client’s request and propose to the client what can be swapped out from their normal slate of activities in order to accommodate their request. Then, be sure to spell out clearly what is being substituted for and over what time period. This tactic works when you have an ongoing relationship with the client, but if your work is projects based, one of the other tactics will be more relevant.
Account managers can keep client expectations aligned almost all the time by approaching unaligned requests with one of those responses. As an agency leader, you need to set the expectation with your account managers that they can reign in clients and they can truly close their email inbox after business hours. Once your account managers know it’s okay to push back on unaligned client requests, make sure yourself and others on the team are holding them accountable to it.
Pave the Path Towards a Healthier Agency
Agency health hinges on retainer alignment. After a year of over delivering for your clients to ensure they made it through, it’s time to make sure your agency is healthy too.
Building a successful marketing agency takes grit, a focus on your value, and sometimes a *loving* kick in the pants.
Needing an ally as you achieve your long-term goals?
I’d be happy to help.