I am the CEO and co-founder of Plannable — the leading content review and collaboration platform for social media teams.
Before I founded Planable, I had a social media agency. I split my time between devising social media strategies, leading content teams, and presenting work to clients. With every new client we took on, building and managing relationships took more time and energy. We missed a collaboration channel where customers could easily weigh in on both large projects and small details.
My experience is that communication can make or break a customer relationship. Here are three ways you can manage your customer relationships more effectively.
1. Keep your customers engaged – productive.
Any professional can attest that keeping the customer engaged in a project goes a long way towards success. However, the same professionals can also say that this approach carries the risk of transferring the decision-making process too much to the client. Here are some ways to balance these two things:
• Involve the customer from the start. More specifically, involve them in the goal setting process. This way you can lay a solid foundation that can be reviewed if significant disagreements arise.
• Set common milestones. For example, you can determine that input from the client is requested in the early planning phase, when the first concept is ready and of course at the final approval. These project checkpoints are there to ensure the customer’s involvement in the key moments of the project.
• Adapt to the style of the customer. Find out how they want to go about it and how they prefer to work. For example, do they want to be 100% involved or do they prefer to be surprised with the end result?
• Ask the customer to input ideas. Emphasis on ideas, not input. If clients are kept at a distance from the project, they are less likely to understand the nature of the work or empathize with the problems you encounter.
2. Assign a clear reporting hierarchy.
When we talk about reporting, it can be a bit vague. In an ideal scenario, progress reports should be accessible to anyone who needs them. But the reality is that not everyone needs access to every data point and report. There is such a thing as information overload, and as important as transparency and clear communication are, your customer does not benefit from knowing every metric measured. Rather, they are looking for insights and lessons learned. So what to do?
The answer is simple: assign a clear reporting hierarchy. When it comes to progress reporting, three categories should suffice: project managers, customer leads, and then the rest of the team. Project managers run day-to-day operations, assign tasks and responsibilities, and ensure that everyone is aligned. Customer leads are the bridge between agency and customers. They give direction to the account and make sure it follows both the client’s business goals and the company’s creative vision. In other words, customer leads collect insights from customers, assess their applicability, and then pass those insights on to project managers. This hierarchy works because it ensures that everyone gets the information they need without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail.
Between those reporting layers can exist dozens of sub-layers – a literal web of responsibility and roles involved in a single project. What does a reporting hierarchy ultimately look like depends from organization to organization. There is no single correct way to structure reporting.
3. Learn when to say “No.”
There will be times when you have to stand your ground and Saying “No” to a Customereither because their expectations are unrealistic, or because your expertise says their suggestion is inadvisable. Saying “no” doesn’t have to be hostile or hostile. Rather, it should be a polite conversation in which you respectfully disagree and substantiate your reluctance with solid counter-arguments. For example, you could say:
• “I have my doubts whether this would work, given X and Y.”
• “I think this would derail us from the strategy we originally agreed on.”
• “I could work on X and Y, but unfortunately I don’t have enough bandwidth to focus on Z. Are you considering rearranging your priorities?”
Use this opportunity to launch a concerted effort and ensure that everyone’s expectations are aligned. Your client should feel heard, not rejected. Because periodic check-ins with your clients are essential to a healthy business relationship, these conversations are an opportunity to gauge their needs and be transparent about the scope of your work and what you can realistically deliver. You can then keep the ball rolling by asking questions like:
• “What would you like to achieve by experimenting with X?”
• “Can you give us some examples of brands whose strategies inspire you?”
• “What would you like to convey through X and Y?”
There is no magic recipe for the perfect client-agency relationship. But from my experience, the tips in this article can avoid the most common pitfalls. In the end, it all comes down to effective communication, respect and a shared commitment to the success of the project. If you can nurture these things, you’ll be well on your way to building long-lasting and fruitful relationships with your customers.