How to keep clients in an industry known for turnover

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Every client, every project is a jump ball, and the fact that we worked together yesterday and today is no indication that we will work together tomorrow.

A client dies and St. Peter lets them visit heaven and hell to decide where to spend eternity. Their visit to hell was a party, with all kinds of fun and celebration. Their visit to heaven was pleasant, complete with harps and the like, but not as fun. After visiting both places, they tell St. Peter that they’d prefer hell. But when they go back, they are treated terribly. Fire, brimstone and oppression surround them. They ask the devil, "What happened since my visit yesterday?" He responds, "Yesterday, you were a prospect. Today, you are a client."

With the ever-shrinking life expectancy of clients and the significant swing toward project work, we now live in a world where there is less loyalty to agencies. Every client, every project is a jump ball, and the fact that we worked together yesterday and today is no indication that we will work together tomorrow.

This is the accepted landscape we find ourselves in. Our clients are not loyal and we mirror back that attitude, treating clients like fleeting acquaintances. Even though this scenario may be true, there are ways to make sure we get the most out of our client relationships, and there are many methods to keep a client (and the agency) happy:

Know why you have a client.
Document it and share it throughout the organization. We create a plan for all our clients that looks at the relationship through seven different lenses, including financial, work and relationship attributes. These plans—never seen by our clients—are our evaluation of what we get out of the relationship with the client. Several clients score very high on all the criteria, but there are some that score high only on a couple of attributes. It also provides the documentation on where we are focusing our client investment, and more importantly, when we decide to walk away from clients.

Pick the right clients.
Completing a new business prospect checklist for each RFP provides the discipline to walk from those opportunities that are not a fit. It also provides the transparency to the rest of the agency that we are selective of those with whom we will expend our precious energies. Saying no to a bad client is just as important as taking care of a good client.

Onboard completely.
Too many times we jump into new client work without a complete understanding of the client, the category or the landscape. A clear client onboarding strategy starts the relationship in a strong way. Our 10-page checklist covers everything from business training and plant visits to client mapping, mystery shopping and cookouts.

Blue sky often.
Rather than just setting a business development budget to chase new clients, set a budget to keep/grow existing clients. We set budgets to provide blue-sky thinking to clients. Clients are thrilled with an agency that treats them like a new client throughout the life of the relationship. 

Be aggressive on training.
Training keeps staff fluent on emerging trends. Clients need us more than ever to have a point of view on how these trends apply to their business. For instance, we have 30+ account people trained on Google AdWords—not because they will use the tool, but because they need to have the knowledge of how this tool works and what effect the cost-per-click advertising will have on the client’s bottom line.

Don't blame the client.
The worst interactions with my comrades are when they are complaining about a client. The agency associates need to stop bashing the client. They are what covers the rent and car payment, and they are the ones that allow us to do inspiring work. If you don’t like a client, pick the right one. 

Hire empathic people.
I still think the account management role is the toughest in the organization. Syncing the needs of the client with the needs of the agency is always an impossible task. The key is to make sure all are getting what they want. In the end, we both want the same thing…kind of. It works best when we are constantly living in each other’s shoes—knowing the reason why a client wants a bigger logo helps us graciously comply or gently push back.

Focus on the business and not the request.
Clients come to us regularly with specific requests: make a TV spot, build a Snapchat strategy, develop a consumer promotion, build a new website. It is up to us to draw out why they need those things—what business challenge is being solved by the request. Too many times agencies get excited about creating the thing and don’t spend enough time talking about why the thing is to be created. 

Invest in industry knowledge.
Every client complaint about their agency always includes a lament that "the agency doesn’t understand my business." We combat that by only focusing on five categories, and invest the people and resources to go deep in those categories.

Mark Bachmann is Partner and Chief Client Officer at Cleveland-based indie agency Marcus Thomas.