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3 Hidden Opportunities to Improve Client Agency Relationships

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by Mike Puterbaugh

7 July 2021

 

For creative, marketing, and design agencies, the single most important barometer of your business's health is your client satisfaction. In the brand world, client satisfaction applies to both brand customers as well as your internal colleagues involved with creating and reviewing brand content. 

In this guide, we’ll cover new opportunities to increase your customer satisfaction and how to use technology and automation to implement those tactics for the best results.  

Don’t want to read on? You can also watch our webinar with Adweek on the same content below. 

How to Measure Satisfaction in Client-Agency Relationships

When it comes to client satisfaction, things like billings growth, referral business, and awards all contribute to your clients’ perception of your agency or brand. However, as important as these factors are, we see that these are typically lagging indicators of the health of your client service.

To get ahead of measuring customer satisfaction, tools like NPS or customer surveys can be a great barometer for evaluating how your customers experience your services. If those scores aren't budging after projects or after your quarterly reviews, it's probably time to try out some new tactics to improve your clients’ happiness.

The three main areas that we most impact client satisfaction are:

  • Communication Standards: This covers not just what information you’re sharing with your clients, but also the processes and methods you use to convey that information to them. 
  • Client and Project Visibility: The right level of project visibility can be a can of worms when it comes to client feedback, but it definitely is something that is useful for client satisfaction.
  • Response and Resolution: This covers not only how your team can accelerate client response times, but also how to create more comfort around the idea of action on both sides of the agency-client or brand-customer relationship.

Opportunity #1: Improving Communication Standards By Getting Out of Email

The first area to look for opportunities in improving the client agency relationship is your agency or brand’s communication standards and methods. This often comes down to not only the cadence of your client communication, but also the context of that communication. 

Earlier this year, we ran a survey evaluating how creative teams at both agencies at brands were spending their time. What we found among a whole myriad of amazing stats. Among them, we discovered that:

  • Teams are spending over 9 hours per week (almost a full work day) just on clarifying next steps in projects. That involves confirming things such as feedback, handoffs, where something was to be routed, when something was to be routed but wasn’t, and so on.
  • Teams spend 2 hours per project or version chasing approvals.Two hours per project may not seem like a lot, but when multiplied across all projects, that’s a lot of time wasted on follow-up. 

 

 

This back and forth and waiting and project ambiguity is frustrating on both sides of the agency-client relationship. It can also create an image of disorganization from the outside, whether or not that's true. 

So why does this happen?

The primary problem is really due to how creative teams are communicating: using email.

There's a huge over-reliance on email in client communications. When we talk to creative teams about their project issues, we probably talk the most about email and how there's still a  huge over-reliance on email for project updates, new version updates, clarifications, questions back and forth, and sharing of files. This causes two problems: 

  • By using email to communicate with clients on projects, it’s really hard to parse information out. These emails are just going into a folder that’s not visible to everyone or it creates an email thread that just seems like it's never-ending.
  • It also creates information overload and desensitization on the client side. Clients are either not getting enough information and they don't know what to do with what they get in the small trickle of information. Or, they are receiving way too much information like an hourly digest, which is overkill for certain situations. Clients are getting too many content updates and not able to focus on the actual context around the content that matters for making decisions and approvals. 

So how can you get out of the email cycle and create more value for your clients as you communicate project updates? Here are three tactics to implement:

Get an agreement with your clients early on on the cadence and context of your work-in progress updates..

When initiating a new project, it’s critical to get an agreement on what your client or partner wants to see throughout the project, what you suggest they see, and the formats in which that information will arrive.

The context portion of your updates to your customers or to your clients is a big value add too. If it's predictable, they will know where to look for the information that's most important to them. That information will differ across your different stakeholders that are receiving these updates.

 

Automate Reminders Where Possible 

Next, it’s important to automate reminders. It sounds simple, but it is important. 

Adding a reminder to a status update email will almost certainly get overlooked. As your client is looking at the email, they're going to look for what they're most interested in as far as the status update and they're probably going to gloss over the actual reminders.For instance, reminders made on a Zoom call have low accountability, right? Even if you do an email follow-up afterwards, we're still on the email problem. 

What we suggest is to get a robot to do that work and make it programmatic as opposed to a manual task that a project manager needs to do. Project managers do not want to continually call up or email  a client and remind them that you’re waiting on them for an approval, for feedback on V1, V3, and other follow-ups. It’s not a good use of their or the client’s time.

Automating reminders and making those reminders very simple, contextual, and predictable as far as what information you need to pull out of that reminder quickly is a really big value add. 

Over time, clients will appreciate the predictability of knowing exactly what's being asked of them. They understand exactly what information they will be receiving and when things will get done.

Create transparency in activities

Lastly, when it comes to communication standards, I would suggest creating transparency in activities that don't overwhelm the client. Pick the activities where a lot of transparency would be welcome and not be considered to be too noisy. 

Again, you want to just agree on what those things are and their differences. For example, sending an update on proof comments versus decisions. Perhaps your client does not want to see or be notified of every comment made on a piece of creative, but they do want to receive notifications about any decisions made by their own colleagues.

Transparency comes down to project milestones versus project iterations. 

Ultimately, clients want transparency into project context rather than project updates: “Did we get past a certain or are we done with a certain version?: “Did we get a completion or are we simply completing a stage within a workflow?”

Whatever you and your client agree together that is the most interesting and relevant information is what should be most transparent and available in your client communication methods. This becomes critical when you think about how to bring clients into your systems and automate information sharing and notifications across your marketing systems. Ultimately, transparency is best delivered via some sort of access to whatever type of system you're using internally to track progress.

 

Opportunity #2: Automate Client and Project Visibility in the Client-Agency Relationship

When it comes to project visibility, there is a balance that needs to be struck where you provide information to your clients or stakeholders that demonstrates value but doesn't distract them with how the value is being created or expose them to everything in your creative and internal processes. 

Client satisfaction comes down to providing visibility that is both useful and informative, but doesn’t create more questions for the client.

There is a difference here. Not all information is informative. Creating visibility shouldn’t create a host of new questions and ambiguity that could slow down the client review process. 

For example, when your agency shares a new version of an asset with a client, they might ask, "Hey This says V3, where are versions one and two? Did we pay for those too?" 

On the brand side, sharing new versions might create a whole host of questions from an internal stakeholder, such as,"Do have enough time to get this through legal approvals? When is the second round of creative due? When I’ve given you my feedback, when do I get the next version?" This comes down to a visibility issue: the stakeholder may not be familiar with the entire review workflow and not be aware that the legal team is doing a parallel review of the same content or what the next steps are.

Each of these common scenarios arises due to a lack of consistent information and not setting expectations with what information is expected of Mr. Client or Mr. Stakeholder within the organization. 

There are several methods your team can use to improve visibility without adding additional follow-up or work for your creative team or your clients. 

Provide clients with non-managed updates via dashboard (i.e. let the technology do the work)s

Non-managed updates are information that can be given via a dashboard or some type of status page in certain applications. Implementing project updates that are automated and require no management for you or your client can seem daunting, but  It's something that your clients and stakeholders will really appreciate. 

These updates are something that they can check on their own at their own convenience and doesn't require additional action from the creative project team. Non-managed updates can cover whatever is most relevant to your client--everything from due dates or which projects are late, to where a project is in the review workflow.. 

Non-managed updates create a level of transparency and comfort that whomever your customer is--whether internal or external--can go find the level of information on their own when they want to.

 

Integrate with client systems 

The next tactic is a huge improvement in facilitating the client-agency relationship. We could probably do an entire presentation on just this one simple strategy: the idea of integrating project information with your clients’ systems. There are a growing number of agencies and brands that we work with on a daily basis that want to send certain project, product or status data outside of their agency walls to their clients’ project management apps and other systems. 

We first saw this with agencies just sending simple updates into another organizations' Slack or Microsoft teams environment. Now, we can use actions taken in an agency’s internal proofing systems to directly drive activity within a client’s project management apps. 

 

 

This is a more direct way to send non-managed updates and milestones in a more relevant way to the client. By integrating these updates directly into your clients’ project management suite into another project management suite, you’re reducing delays or errors in project communication and enabling them to access your agency’s project information in a system they’re already working in day-to-day.

With modern SAAS applications and open APIs, this strategy is much more readily available to even custom creative agencies and brands and rather easy. It's something that we're seeing a larger growing constituency of brands and agencies say is a major competitive differentiator for their customer service offerings. 

Standardize but adapt to new information requirements 

Lastly, visibility isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it approach. It’s important to provide consistent methods of communication but also regularly discuss modifications to the data and information being reported to your client. 

Think about what you can standardize, but then also adapt and make those standards modular over time. Consistency makes it easy for people to consume information and it makes them feel like they are getting a level of visibility that will contribute to their overall customer satisfaction and happiness.

 

Opportunity #3: Client Response and Resolution

When it comes to client response time and project resolution, there’s always a delicate balance. From the agency or brand side, creative teams say “We strive for customer excellence.” For clients, there is often a 'I want it now' urgency. These approaches are closely intertwined and require agencies to juggle being available while also setting expectations for project resolution.

Response time and resolution is so important to client satisfaction that if you have to prioritize one change, we recommend starting with this area because it'll have compounding benefits down the line. 

When we evaluated client response times from over 1,000 creative agencies, we found a few averages in response time ranges:

If your response time skews toward the right side of the graph, there are several strategies you can implement to get the most bang for your buck when it comes down to cutting down response time and issue resolution over time. 

Automate New Project Kickoff

The first tactic to reducing response times is to automate new project kickoffs with your clients. 

There are several technologies out there you can leverage for this: You could accept a new client brief via a web form, kick off a workflow so that the team for that client gets notified, and set up your new project file tree automatically. You could even automate the submission of a new client file into Dropbox, and use that action in Dropbox to kick off several other steps. 

Think about the last app you tried out or a mailing list you joined. You probably got a transactional email right away, right that welcomed you, that thanked you for signing up, that told you what was coming next, or told what was to be expected next. It's a high-leverage way to really just make a connection with the client and get the project going.

Kicking off the project with automation lets the client know, "Hey, we're starting our process internally. Thank you, we've accepted and acknowledged that you sent something in and we're going to start something. We're going to start working on it on our side." 

The most beneficial thing about using intake forms is that you can require certain information from the client. If you go a step beyond just putting the file in a client Dropbox folder and put maybe a web form on top of that folder, you can require certain information into the form and gather any relevant context around the files being shared. 

Here’s an example of a client intake form for a new project that both gathers files and project context, and adds all of this information into a project workflow and folder: 

Audit project activity and learn from it and share with the client

The second way to increase response and resolution is to implement auditing across projects. This is really about bi-drectional accountability. Being able to provide an audit of the creative review and approval involves tracking who opened what, when, who was delivered what file when, who made which comments when and which decisions and so on.

From an agency side, auditing is a great way to understand the sequence and communication methods that were most effective. The team can look at a project audit and say, "It was delivered ahead of schedule on budget and there was a high degree of satisfaction. Let's go back and look at how it was executed. We got the brief on this day. Everyone got V1 two days later. We got the first round of feedback within 24 hours. We had a decision made within 48 hours. We made one V2 and then we got a decision made 24 hours after that. Everyone did their part, everyone did their role."

On the client side, you can demonstrate the project visibility and the response time with auditing. It also allows you to demonstrate where the client may be slowing down your processes. You can show, for example, that a piece of creative was delivered or sent on a Monday but never even got opened by the client until a Thursday.

All of this information ultimately provides you with leverage to move project timelines and create a more healthy and informative relationship with the client.

Provide access to the systems they influence and affect

Lastly, another way to improve client response times is to provide access to systems your clients influence and affect. Like the above point about integrating with your client systems, this is the idea of giving them access via a dashboard to see exactly where things are in the process. When you tie this information to an audit trail, it's a great way to show how timelines are shifting because of either inaction on the client-side or something that drove out of scope.

 

If you have shared resources, you can show how response times have downstream impacts. This is a big one that many agencies and brand teams have embraced to try and drive greater client satisfaction and it definitely kind of spans the things that we talked about today. Spans visibility, it spans communication and it's definitely about response time as well. It just demonstrates a greater response time. 

Conclusion: Automation and Technology Are Cornerstones  Client-Agency Relationships

When it comes to the factors that can move the needle for your client satisfaction, there are several strategies that agencies and brand teams can implement today that won’t burden your creative team with more work or manual oversight. 

Raising and standardizing communication methods, increasing client and project information visibility, and finding ways to shorten response times are the top three areas to focus on when looking for new ways to improve the client-agency relationship.

The top ways to do this are: 

  • Agree on expectations for cadence and the context of your regular updates. Get the client involved, get your stakeholders involved, and agree with you on what communication cadence is going to be and the context for those updates.
  • Embrace automation for day-to-day updates and information. Figure out how to deliver your information cadence and context in a way that creates visibility and reduces any manual information management.
  • Differentiate between status updates and milestones within updates. Bubble the real, true information and the important information up to the top of your client communication.
  • Provide non-managed updates where possible. Let a robot or dashboards to the critical communication work for you and reduce back-and-forth.
  • Integrate with client systems. You always want to try and make it easy and make your clients and colleagues, be it internal or external, comfortable to work in the systems that they are familiar with. Modern SAAS applications and open APIs make sending this information easy.
  • Standardize but adapt to new information requirements. Continually evaluate if the client is getting not what they need from a creative perspective but also an update and a predictability standpoint.
  • Automate new project kickoffs. This sets the expectation for fast communication and response and issue resolution from the beginning.
  • Audit project activity. Put a structure in place to understand exactly which processes, steps, or stakeholders are impacting the project the most.
  • Provide access to the systems that indicate project momentum. Get comfortable with providing clients access to your internal systems, within reason, to increase information visibility.

In summary, getting away from using email to accomplish these tasks and implementing new automation technology in its place can create lasting impacts for your agency’s client management and long-term benefits for your business. 

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