As you build your agency business and deliver successfully on projects, you'll find that existing clients are the most reliable source of new work. There's also the added benefit of a fairly easy sales process where, as the incumbent, you often won't have to compete with anyone and don't need to go through any lengthy vetting process.
However, long-term relationships will not necessarily flower without the right amount of attention and an organized effort on your part to show that you care about the client's success.
At Barrel, we've made the mistake on many occasions of chasing the next big new piece of business and not paying enough attention to existing clients. Such negligence has been costly at times and a blow especially to our bottom line because, in our experience, repeat engagements with existing clients often tend to be more profitable than first-time projects with new clients.
Below are some hard-learned lessons on ways to deepen client relationships. The more effectively an agency can systematize these behaviors and bring consistency to giving clients the attention they deserve, the more fruitful the relationships will become.
Do a Stellar Job on the Active Engagement
At its core, the client relationship hinges on the ability of the agency to deliver on the agreed-upon statement of work to the satisfaction of the client. Falling short here makes any auxiliary effort meaningless because in the mind of the client, you didn't do what you were paid to do.
Delivering work to the "satisfaction of the client" isn't always obvious. It's important to be aligned on what a successful outcome means for the client. This means having some upfront discussions and statements in writing that clearly define what successful completion of the project looks like.
Even with this, you'll sometimes find that the "satisfaction of the client" isn't fully captured. You have to continue to have a pulse on the engagement, ensure that the flow of communication feels smooth, that you're attuned to the feelings of the client, and that you're addressing any issues or concerns as they come up. In challenging cases, the client may introduce different stakeholders, may have a change in priorities, or be faced with new constraints that were not there at the start of the engagement. Doing a stellar job on the engagement is not only about doing exactly what you said you would do but also navigating these dynamic factors and giving the client the feeling that you're looking out for them.
We can go much deeper into this topic of running a successful client engagement, but for the purposes of this post, let's sum it up this way: deliver on what you've promised and provide attentive service along the way.
Schedule a Post-Mortem / Debrief
A post-mortem or project debrief is an effective way to close out a project while signaling to the client that the agency is serious about continuing the relationship and being a better partner.
A simple way to structure a debrief is to engage in a whiteboarding session (you can use a tool like Mural to do it virtually) and have the client stakeholders and the agency project team take turns providing sticky notes to each of these questions:
- What went well during the project?
- What didn't go so well?
- What would we do differently next time?
Send a follow-up email of the takeaways from the debrief as well as a bulleted list of clear "next steps" that the agency will implement to improve for the next engagement. A well-run debrief can buy goodwill with the client and may even help quicken the next opportunity.
If you are debriefing after a pain-free and very successful project, the debrief will feel like a celebration and a chance to relive the good times. But if the debrief comes on the tail of a dragged-out, difficult project, be ready to provide a space for the client to vent and do some blaming. The best the agency team can do in this situation is to be attentive listeners and to avoid taking a defensive stance.
Have Periodic Check-Ins
It's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind of project work and assume you know what's going on and how the client is feeling. Making time to periodically check in and have a brief call with your primary client contact can be a way to get additional insights on the health of the relationship and to open the door for more opportunities. At the least, it's one more interaction that can help the client feel cared for.
These check-ins don’t need to be anything formal, but a good practice would be to give your client contact a sense of the agenda. For example, a message asking for a brief check-in call could be something like:
- You thoughts on how our agency is doing on current engagements and if there’s anything we can be doing better.
- A couple of new things we recently launched for other clients that may be of interest to you.
- Your priorities and initiatives in the next 6 months and how we may be able to support your team.
Get to Know Your Client Contact Personally
Deepening a professional relationship doesn't mean it's strictly formal and impersonal. It's important to get to know your client contacts personally as much as they're comfortable with it. These interactions typically happen before meetings (or the waiting time on Zoom calls) or in back-and-forth emails. The information may be basic things like what town they live in, if they have kids and/or pets, or what kinds of things they typically do on weekends.
Over time, it's possible to know more, like learning about their work experience, their career trajectory, and what they hope to to do in the future. Let these findings come about naturally and don't force it. Share information about yourself in reasonable doses to learn more as well. Reciprocity in human interactions is often a powerful force.
The upside of getting to know a client personally is that the relationship then goes beyond the paid engagement. In the best of situations, a real relationship can blossom, leading to long-term friendships and mutually beneficial opportunities. The worst case is that you've made the effort but the client just isn't interested or open to anything more than the transaction, and that's fine, too.
Look for Opportunities to Add Value Through Intros
If you're able to learn more about your client contacts and also become more knowledgeable about their businesses, you'll soon find that you can be a valuable relationship broker. That is, you may be able to introduce your clients to different parties who may be helpful in one way or another.
It's very useful to keep an eye on potential introductions. Having a good personal CRM can aid in making these intros happen more frequently. Here are a few examples of intro types that myself and members of our team have been able to make to our clients over the years:
- Intros to specialized agencies/vendors that can do a good job on a particular need (e.g. PR, 3D renderings, printing, IT, product design, etc.)
- Intros to potential job candidates that may be a fit for an open role with the client (likewise, some client contacts may be appropriate candidates who can be referred to another client!)
- Intros to investors (VCs, PEs, angels) who may be interested in learning more about the client's business and be potential investors
- Intros to other clients who are experiencing similar challenges and may find value in talking shop and exchanging knowledge
It's very possible to be making multiple intros every single week and helping to broaden the network of clients and various partners in your ecosystem. Think of these activities as long-term investments in goodwill and expect nothing in return. What matters is that the intros are helpful and valuable to both parties involved. Do this consistently and a lot of good will eventually come.
Share Relevant Content & Resources
One easy way to stay top of mind and be valuable for clients is to forward them content or links to tools that they might find relevant. These one-off emails could be done ad hoc, or better yet, be a 30-minute biweekly session where you send a handful of emails while referencing a list of links and tools you've collected in the past two weeks.
At Barrel, we aim to publish a piece of relevant thought leadership content each month which we then email out to our clients both via newsletter list and also individually to those who may especially benefit from that month's piece.
We also have a newsletter mailing each month called The Growth Edition where we collect 3-4 articles, provide short summaries, and send out to our clients. The open rate has been higher than we initially expected, and some clients have told us that they find it helpful.
Sending links to clients is a fairly low-touch effort that in most cases won't have any immediate payoff. Like making intros to clients, this too, is best thought of as long-term investments in the relationship with a focus on consistently doing the activity vs. hoping for some kind of immediate return.
Send Gifts on Special Occasions and Important Project Launches
Different people have different feelings when it comes to receiving gifts. Some are ecstatic and grateful while others may shrug and quickly forget. In any case, we've found it generally a good practice to send occasional gifts out to clients at the right moments. They don't have to break the bank or be elaborate–what counts is the thoughtfulness.
We typically send out gifts to clients when there is a major milestone that we've achieved together. This is typically around project launches, and we try to send a small treat like cupcakes or cookies to celebrate the occasion. We also send gifts when our client contacts experience a major personal milestone such as the birth of a child or a wedding. These gifts are only possible if you've made the effort to know the client personally.
Lastly, while not a gift, we try to send flowers and condolence notes whenever there is a death in the family of the client contact. In times of difficulty for the client, it's important to be as supportive as possible.
Ask for Input and Advice Where They're the Experts
This is one area that I've been hesitant to act on with regularity but any time that I have, the outcome has been very positive. The hesitation mainly came from my fear of "bothering" the client with questions and taking up their time. However, I've come to see that in general, people like playing the role of expert, and as long as you come prepared with good questions, the client may find the conversation engaging and enlightening as well.
There are a number of ways to set up a conversation to get input or advice from clients. What matters here is that you have a clear topic in mind that will allow you to do some preliminary research and come prepared with questions. Here are a few examples of topics that I was able to bring up with our client contacts and have them play the role of experts:
- A conversation to learn about the KPIs and unit economics of a beverage business from a VP of Marketing at a beverage brand.
- A conversation to understand the ins-and-outs of logistics and supply chain of a beauty brand from their COO.
- A conversation to understand the product design and manufacturing process from the company's founder.
One of the hardest things to do in conversations like this is to interrupt and ask for a more basic understanding whenever the client contact veers off into jargon-laden technical speak. This often happens naturally to people who breathe or live in their expert domains daily, so they can get carried away and not realize you don't know what certain terms mean. Rather than pretend to know or furiously Google on your end to keep up, just interrupt and ask, "Sorry, but what does X mean? What does XYZ stand for?" You'll be glad you asked because the very process of defining it may spur the sharing of additional context and information.
Be sure to follow up these conversations with a thank you note and even a bulleted recap of what you've learned. It's likely that the client contact will be left feeling pretty good about the conversation and the impression you'll make is of a trusted partner who's taken a genuine interest in their business and operations.
One last bit here: if you're writing thought leadership content and there are opportunities for clients to be quoted for their perspective, that is another opportunity to let them be an expert. Be sure to be specific in what you need and be mindful of their time.
Always Much To Do
Deepening client relationships works not unlike most other relationships in life: you need to keep tending and putting in the work to make them successful. They require attention, empathy, and anticipation.
As you can see from above, there are multiple ways to engage with clients meaningfully. However, never lose focus on the core activity: delivering on the things they've paid you to do and making them feel good about the process. With this foundation in place, developing the discipline to layer on the other activities can be powerful in deepening your client relationships.