The secret to running a successful agency isn’t your great portfolio, newly redesigned web site, or the designer furniture in your office. It’s the relationships you forge with your clients. A bad relationship with a big name client will get you nowhere. But, a good relationship with a smaller client will result in more profitable, sustainable and quality work.
A year or two after starting our agency, we learned this lesson the hard way. When a big name client came knocking on our door, we went out of our way to work with them. The promise of including their name and logo on our client list made us overlook some obvious red flags. After a long and difficult project, rife with scope creep, the client refused to pay their last bill. We were dumbfounded.
That same year we started working with one particular smaller client. Until they contacted us, we had never heard of them. From the very first meeting, something about them was different. They would later become one of our long term customer relationships, working with us for several years.
Looking back on our history we realize that we owe much of our agency’s success to that client and others like them. What made our relationship different? A few things…
First and foremost, when building relationships with clients, trust is number one. Trust is difficult to earn because it requires honesty and transparency. But once you’ve earned it, your client will honor that trust through their actions. They will take your side when an outside consultant is giving them contrary advice. They will pay their bills on time without disputing the amount. And if they do have questions or concerns, they will approach you knowing you will respond honestly.
Without trust, you do not have a client. You have a project with a higher likelihood of failing and a decent chance at not getting paid.
A two-way road is often used as a metaphor to illustrate good communication skills. And for good reason. Communication needs to happen in both directions. That means the bad news, and the good news, are both shared in a timely manner. The more you communicate to your client, the more prepared they are to make important decisions.
When communication breaks down, so does the project. But often times we don’t communicate with our clients because we are afraid of how they’ll respond. Project failure is a much bigger consequence than disappointing your client.
The best clients are the ones that share a passion for the work you are doing. These are the clients that are dedicated to taking their projects from mediocre to compelling. They consistently come up with great ideas and are a bottomless well of knowledge and expertise. You finish each project smarter than before.
Learning something from your clients may seem counter-intuitive, especially if you see yourself as the “expert” in the relationship. Don’t let your ego prohibit you from learning something new.
We may have morphed from an agency to a SaaS company, but we still keep in touch with several of our past clients. Whether it’s over beers or just a phone call, we get together periodically to share stories. These are the everlasting relationships that really made a difference in our agency. These are the relationships you should be devoted to fostering.
Photo credit: Kai Schreiber