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VIEWPOINT: 4 Hallmarks of a Successful Agent-Client Relationship

By JoAnne Gritter


In their classic book “The Trusted Advisor,” authors David Maister, Robert Galford, and Charles Green outline the necessary ingredients for a successful advisor-client relationship. Their thesis could be boiled down to this maxim about the world’s wealthiest man: “The way to be as rich as Bill Gates is to care more about writing code than about being rich. And the way to be a great advisor is to care about your client.”

Gates’ fortune has been eclipsed in the last 22 years, but the lesson still applies — not just to business advisors, but to marketing agencies as well. To earn your clients’ trust, blend credibility, reliability, relatability, and divide by self-orientation. Sounds easy, right?

The difference between mastering and practicing some of these basics most days, and all of the basics every day, can mean the difference between losing or retaining an account. Here is a closer look at each of the components of a successful client-agent relationship.

1. Credibility

Credibility can be built quickly during the discovery process, simply by demonstrating a clear grasp of your clients’ goals and key performance indicators (or KPIs). Even doing something as simple as signing and honoring a non-disclosure agreement — an early step in a typical agency-client relationship — can go a long way toward establishing credibility in the long run.

A long-term relationship also presents more opportunities for your credibility to erode. Have you fallen into a habit of overpromising and under-delivering? Are you always capable of doing what you say you’re going to do? If not, this loss of credibility will inevitably weaken the client-agency relationship over time.

2. Reliability

Reliability and credibility go hand-in-hand. Promising a successful campaign and executing the strategy once can establish your credibility. After you’ve demonstrated your agency’s ability to deliver, clients will expect you to be reliable: delivering every assignment on time and on budget.

Clear communication is essential to establishing reliability. If your team is pressed against a deadline and in danger of delivering late, tell clients in advance. If you are able to deliver early, say that too. These kinds of “progress reports” demonstrate care for the clients’ time and money — a hallmark of a reliable agency.

3. Relatability

Mastering the transactional aspects of an agency-client relationship are essential to building trust, but so are the soft skills — being relatable, humorous when appropriate, and naturally inquisitive. Clients are more likely to trust an agency that strives to better understand their brand, product, industry, and the people behind it. Embody the idea that “we want to be a partner, not a vendor.” 

The work-from-home era presents a unique challenge. When grabbing a cup of coffee with your clients isn’t an option, how do you foster that intimacy over a video call? Before jumping into the agenda, think about something your clients mentioned on your last call. Do the same things over video that you would over coffee: ask where they’re calling from, how their weekend went, make eye contact, stay quiet when the other person is talking, and ask good questions.

4. Self-orientation

A client will be able to tell quickly where your motivation lies. Some agencies are motivated to win awards or collect portfolio pieces. Others are more interested in serving the clients’ needs. If clients say they want pay-per-click (PPC) ads, for example, a self-oriented agency might say, “OK, we can do that for you.” Instead, consider a more client-focused response: “What do you hope to achieve with PPC ads?”

The client-oriented posture requires an agency to know its clients’ objectives inside and out. Not only will this posture result in a longer, more mutually beneficial relationship, but it will also yield better results.       

JoAnne Gritter is the chief operations officer with ddm marketing + communications, a marketing agency for highly complex and highly regulated industries. She is responsible for overseeing and facilitating collaboration between all major functional areas at ddm, including finance, human resources, IT, operations, sales, and marketing.