How agencies can manage client expectations

The modern marketing agency faces plenty of challenges when it comes to dealing with clients, building a positive reputation, and maintaining success. With some agencies, the challenges are winning. Consider these findings from HubSpot’s 2018 Marketing Agency Growth Report:

  • 15 percent of responding agencies don’t customize their service offerings and don’t deliver services on time.
  • 60 percent of respondents have difficulty finding new clients.
  • 16 percent of respondents struggle with client retention.

Part of the challenge in the agency-client relationship is expectations: Agencies are bound by realities that don’t live up to the lofty goals the client assumes are achievable. Although there’s nothing wrong with aiming high, expectations must be rooted in practicality — and when they aren’t, the working relationship between both parties can become strained.

Understanding the client’s expectations and requirements, setting and meeting powerful goals, and delivering on time is imperative for agencies that want to grow. Here are some practical tips for managing client expectations and building a collaboration that benefits all:
Start off on the right foot when setting client expectations
First impressions matter. After the contract is signed, the initial interactions between your team and the client’s team can make all the difference in the tone and, ultimately, the success of the project or retainer.

If onboarding is organized, professional, and congenial, everything thereafter has a better chance of being the same. If onboarding becomes a struggle or contentious, the client could become suspicious of every decision and action you make.

A successful agency-client relationship starts with both parties being on the same page on day one. Effective onboarding assures the client that they are a priority and can have confidence in your team’s skills, decisions, experience, and passion. Great onboarding benefits the agency as well, because expectations about deadlines, processes, and communication are set for both sides of the relationship.

During onboarding, include these three best practices to impress clients and prepare yourself for the project ahead:

  • Introductions: Communicate with the client on how your team operates. Introduce each person who will be working on the account so the client’s people can put a face to the rock star who designed their latest landing page or wrote that web copy.
  • Gather information: Knowledge is power, so learning everything about the client in relation to the project or retainer provides the means for a more accurate, impactful onboarding. This information should be broad, such as the company’s mission statement and goals, and specific, such as contact lists, social media logins, and brand guidelines, and so on.
  • Brief your team: Give relevant team members at your agency everything they should know about the client and the project, and then hold an internal orientation meeting to ensure they clearly understand what will be expected of them from the start. This is critical to aligning your team with your client’s team and setting reasonable expectations on both sides.

Onboarding may seem like an afterthought amid everything else a retainer entails, such as content marketing, digital advertising, lead nurturing, and more, but it’s vital to the success of the project and the potential of the client to continue working with you. Don’t drop your greener employees into the process without more experienced team members guiding the way.

Identify client expectations and make promises you can keep

A new relationship with a client is exciting, but it also comes with many unknowns. Agencies want to demonstrate they can deliver excellence, but there are some things unique to each project that might be simply impossible to deliver.

Our tip: Always ask. Having a candid discussion with your clients about their vision opens up your agency for building a more trusting relationship.

Therefore, be realistic about what you can and can’t accomplish, and be transparent on what the limitations of the process are. There’s nothing worse than a project being buried by the unrealistic expectations of a client, and trying to dig yourself out of that hole can sometimes be impossible.

Grand expectations must be tempered so you aren’t making promises you can’t keep. Instead of dwelling on what you can’t do, share case studies and examples of previous work to show what you can do. Reveal how you achieved a previous client’s ambitious goals even though adjustments were necessary along the way.

That said, be sure to give your team some cushion for the unexpected. Also, always try to reach milestones and deliver work ahead of time. That way, surprise problems can be solved before a deadline is missed — and make no mistake, one missed deadline can erode the trust you’ve worked so hard to build with a client.

How do you decide if an expectation is reasonable? Set and talk about goals.

This is a no-brainer: Your goals for executing the project and managing expectations must align with the client’s goals and what they deem as success. Yet, goals often are put on the back burner while you and the client iron out the finer details throughout the project. In focusing on today, you might forget to also include next week, next month, or next year.

Therefore, you should be not only working with the client to set goals, but also discussing and updating those goals often — perhaps during every meeting your team has with the customer’s team. This strategy emphasizes that both parties are on the same page and working toward a common, successful result.

Moreover, when clients make a last-minute and possibly far-out request (say, restarting the campaign from scratch), you can point to the goals you’ve established and ask if their request is moving them toward their objectives or is simply a distraction.

Make a detailed plan to track success in meeting client expectations

Even if your client prioritizes results over how a project is completed, the details of the project are still vital to achieving success (and, often, clients do want to know those details). Therefore, a detailed plan of action, complete with timelines and parameters of success, should be available to the client at all times.

Besides additional transparency, such a plan helps manage client expectations by defining when a deliverable or deadline isn’t in scope. Of course, you never want to show up a client, but sometimes, you need to push back when the customer’s demands aren’t within agreed-upon terms or goals — and a good plan can serve as a gentle reminder of that.

Deliver with data to keep clients on the same page

Not every client you encounter has worked with a marketing agency in the past — or even understands the intricacies of your tactics or the difference between a marketing qualified lead and a sales qualified lead. Some of these neophytes are just happy to have anyone handling their marketing efforts without questioning what you’re doing, when you’re doing it, and why.

On the flip side, some clients who don’t understand all of your marketing tactics might require additional justification of your decisions and strategy to make sure you are heading down the right path.

The strategies behind your marketing often become clearer for the client when you back them up with data. For example, if your plan requires a few months for lead generation to pick up steam, an impatient client may feel more at ease knowing that the numbers support your approach. Collect data for everything you do, and use it to explain your work at every stage of your relationship with the client.

Start with the pitch, well before a contract is signed — you can show data on what your agency has accomplished for clients in the past. Preview the results a potential client can expect and at what speed they will see those results. In the event of a misunderstanding later on, you can point to that data as evidence of your successful track record.

For example, using attribution data can help you better communicate the “how” and the “why” of your marketing strategy. However, attribution reporting can be difficult for some marketers to explain and even harder for some clients to understand. When using data, make sure you are giving the right details without inundating them with numbers they don’t understand.

Pro tip: Use data from day one. Using data such as attribution reporting during your discovery process, planning phases, and campaign execution will help establish trust and set the expectation from day one that you will be data-driven throughout your engagement.

The other side of the analytics spectrum involves savvier organizations that embrace today’s data-driven business philosophies. These clients expect agencies to provide deep metrics and reporting to show how marketing efforts are performing. Create regularly scheduled reports that include metrics matching specific provisions of the contract so clients can confirm they’re getting exactly what was promised — and maybe even more.

Provide guidance on the client’s place in the market

A solid marketing strategy executed by a successful agency holds great potential, but clients must realize that their small or midsize business won’t instantly transform into Apple or Microsoft because they’re investing in marketing. A new PR plan won’t lead to every journalist on the planet calling for more information, nor will a blogging strategy produce 10,000 leads and 1,000 shares per article from the outset.

Quelling boundless optimism is difficult — you want the client to be excited about what’s possible — but necessary to ensure unreasonable expectations don’t cause friction with your team. Help clients see where they stand in terms of marketing sophistication and maturity, both on their own and in comparison to the competition.

Whether the client is new to a modern marketing strategy or has dabbled in today’s tactics, show the steps — which may include content marketing, e-commerce, SEO, and social media — necessary to yield results common to their respective industry. Realistic benchmarks move clients closer to their goals. Meeting those benchmarks creates excitement and inspires all parties to work toward the next one.

Be clear about a shift in direction

The client may want to change strategy mid-course, or approvals on the client’s end may be slow. Either way, actions out of your control are holding up work and delaying milestones, which becomes more frustrating when the client starts asking why things aren’t getting done.

When managing expectations, be clear about how the client’s decisions and responsibilities impact the project. Take a proactive approach by explaining the measures and backup plans you’ll institute to handle the unexpected — after all, it’s your job to deliver results — but also stress that the client’s cooperation is vital to their success. Something as simple as a line in the scope of work saying that timelines will be pushed back if approvals are missed defines the responsibilities the client brings to the relationship.

Communicate, communicate, communicate!

People are human — they make communication mistakes. We think we hear one thing when it was really something else. We misremember a conversation. We key in on one sentence in an email and gloss over the rest of the message. We make assumptions that might be false.

These mistakes are compounded when a lack of communication already exists between agency and client. Something is misunderstood, and because no one is talking to each other much, it’s never cleared up.

Agencies must excel at communication to effectively manage client expectations. Clear and actionable information keeps clients updated on project progress, campaign wins, and the details that build trust and keep them coming back to your agency.

That said, great communication can’t stop with the point of contact on the client side. Emphasize with that person that they must relay important project details — emails, documents, strategy, goals, accomplishments, challenges, next steps, and so on — to their bosses. Your contact may know you’re doing a good job, but if the decision-makers don’t, securing repeat business or an extended retainer with the client becomes more difficult.

Great expectations

Clients have marketing goals, and agencies have the expertise and tactics to meet those goals. Managing client expectations becomes more than being on the same page with your customers — it’s showing the potential of the relationship and what can be achieved when both parties work together toward success. In a business landscape so dependent on client acquisition and retention, reputation is everything. Delivering a smooth, collaborative experience that always meets a client’s expectations is essential for your agency to thrive.

Of course, converting leads — gathered in person, online, or by phone — goes a long way toward impressing clients and exceeding their expectations. CallRail can help you and your customers transform phone inquiries into viable prospects. Check out our guide, “How to use CallRail to build profitable services at your agency,” to learn more.