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The Key to Client Retention During Covid-19

By Tricia Harte

The Covid-19 pandemic has proven difficult to navigate for small and large businesses alike.

Nationwide, companies have experienced difficulties with client retention and maintaining consistent revenue. We analyzed the US Census Bureau’s weekly Small Business Pulse Survey (SBPS) to see how small business revenue fluctuated throughout the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Between April and October 2020, we looked at the percentage of small businesses that reported decreased, increased, or consistent revenue week over week. Not shockingly, we found that more than half of small businesses reported “decreased” revenue from the spring until early summer.

Average business revenue during Covid-19 pandemic amongst small businesses.

A small percentage of small businesses actually saw an increase in revenue during this stretch, with a brief peak in June. But by fall, the number of small businesses reporting improvements was back to early-pandemic levels.

On a positive note, as weeks progressed, many small businesses were able to gain their footing and stabilize their revenue. By August, the average percentage of businesses reporting consistent revenue exceeded 50%.

Client Retention During Covid-19

For marketing and ad agencies, revenue comes almost exclusively from clients. So, with uncertain times and difficulties forecasting revenue throughout the pandemic, what are agencies doing to retain the clients (and client revenue) in the Covid-19 era? 

We spoke to more than 25 executives about their experiences managing and retaining clients throughout 2020. While most said they’ve lost clients due to the pandemic, many have found ways to enhance their relationships and keep clients on board.

pie chart 66% of respondents lost clients in 2020

To get a better sense of the innovative ways business owners retained clients, we asked our peers two important questions:

  1. How did client communication change during Covid-19?
  2. What was the key to business success in 2020? And how will that carry over into 2021?

Here’s what they had to say…

Question: How did client communication change during Covid-19?

Maintaining client relationships throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has heavily relied on improved customer service. In order to sustain business, and subsequently revenues, marketing and ad agencies have gotten creative in order to (try) and keep the number of customers on-deck, consistent.

One key client retention strategy: increased client communications. Many agencies say they’ve become more transparent to bolster customer loyalty, better listen to customer feedback, and improve their overall customer experiences.

Trish Thomas, CEO TEEM

“We are having more video meetings and calls, staying in frequent contact between calls, and sending clients a little more gratitude and care.”

Trish Thomas, CEO, TEEM

Lynne Robertson, CEO/Owner of Fame

“Definitely more frequent check ins and actually more ‘face-face’ with our non-local clients via Zoom which has strengthened some of our relationships.”

Lynne Robertson, CEO/Owner, Fame

Pia Celestino, Chief Creative Officer and Founder, Crea7ive.com

“Definitely we’re spending a lot more time doing video calls than before, whereas before we would have been doing just regular calls. I believe this has helped bring transparency to remote workers, which makes for a healthier work-life balance and increased productivity.”

Pia Celestino, Chief Creative Officer and Founder, Crea7ive.com

Kelly Stark, Principal, Forward Vision Marketing

“We primarily had remote meetings with our clients and communicated mostly through emails and phone. However, I do miss the lunches and personal talk.”

Kelly Stark, Principal, Forward Vision Marketing

Emily Yarbrough, Head of Engagement, Milk Agency

“We have set up weekly status calls to review anything and everything. Timelines have become more flexible week over week versus a planned, concrete 3 month timeline. Chat, Instagram DMs, and quick emails have also picked up.”

Emily Yarbrough, Head of Engagement, Milk Agency 

Richard Shanks, President, UpShift

“We’re using Zoom more (and sometimes client’s preferred platforms). Most of our clients prefer us to turn cameras on—and we’ve extended this request to our internal teams. We think this fosters quality interaction. Most in-person and on-site visits have ceased—and clients are understanding of this.”

Richard Shanks, President, UpShift

Miljan Vukvoic, Sr. Project Manager & Chief of Staff, Idea Booth

“Our check-ins with clients have stayed the same, and that is a testament to the communication style we already had. We did not see our clients in-person regularly anyway, so whether we were working from home or from the office, our communication style has stayed the same.”

Miljan Vukvoic, Sr. Project Manager & Chief of Staff, Idea Booth

Marie Powell, CEO, Brew Agency

“So many Zoom meetings! The amount of our meetings has not changed, we’ve just had to figure out how to host strategy sessions virtually, which was probably the biggest challenge.”

Marie Powell, CEO, Brew Agency

Kyla Astley, Marketing Director, Neoscape, Inc.

“Communication with our clients became almost entirely online during the pandemic. Neoscape works with companies all over the country, so while communications have likely increased due to our efforts to assure clients that we are still able to service them, we’re used to remote meetings, emails, phone calls, and file shares being standard operating procedure.”

Kyla Astley, Marketing Director, Neoscape, Inc.

Nick Francis, Chief Visionary Officer, The Franchise Group, LLC

“If anything, communication with clients has increased. Certainly the addition of the Zoom meeting has allowed for more (virtual) face-to-face where we otherwise just had a conference call. We are our best version of ourselves when we can read a room and see folks react to conversation and strategy.

Adding video meetings to our business this year has strengthened relationships. It’s also allowed our more authentic selves to come through.”

Nick Francis, Chief Visionary Officer, The Franchise Group, LLC

Jon Borg-Breen, Co-founder, Symbiont Group

“No significant changes in client communication for 2020, except the quarterly reviews that were in person have moved to Zoom calls. We’ve asked our clients for feedback on communication and so far have received positive responses from the amount of communication/ engagement we’ve had this year. We don’t anticipate communication changes in 2021, but are still exploring options.”

Jon Borg-Breen, Co-founder, Symbiont Group

Arianne White, Director of Social Media Strategy, PETERMAYER

“We work with a lot of clients outside of our region, and so we are already accustomed  to touching base virtually on a regular basis. I think working remotely is going to open up more doors for us in 2021. When travel was required for presentations, it was only possible for a few members of our agency to present to clients. Now that virtual presentations are the new normal, we’re able to introduce more of our incredible teammates to our clients to share their ideas.”

Arianne White, Director of Social Media Strategy, PETERMAYER

Matt Bitzer, Managing Partner, Blue Magnet Interactive

“We’ve been very transparent about our situation when we connect with our clients and I think that has gone a long way in creating a mutual understanding and a mutual network of support. When our clients recover, we recover too. So we do our best to offer our support and often work with our clients to modify their contracts in ways that better accommodate their needs during this pandemic.

While we’ve always done our best to provide help and guidance for our clients, that has never been more true than it has been today. While we would certainly love to continue to sell more of our services, we understand that it’s more important to be a strong and supportive partner at this moment. Sales will come later.”

Matt Bitzer, Managing Partner, Blue Magnet Interactive

John Zoppi, Founder & Managing Partner, Method Engine

“Our communication with clients has not changed as we were operating in a virtual/hybrid mode before the pandemic. The one significant change is the complete absence of in person meetings with clients and the internal team.”

John Zoppi, Founder & Managing Partner, Method Engine

Chris O'Neill, CEO, Logical Media Group

“We are a services-based business so we have client calls almost every week. I would argue the remote environment has allowed us to ‘see’ our clients on Zoom vs. a phone on the conference room desk. It is unfortunate to not be able to go and visit clients or prospects (or have them in our office) but it will be a great thing when we can do that again.”

Chris O’Neill, CEO, Logical Media Group

Josh Krakauer, CEO, Sculpt

“Of course, there are no more in-person meetings. We are inviting more clients to shared Slack channels to keep a tighter bond. We’ve also invested in team-wide Loom accounts to explain situations and solve problems that don’t require full meetings. (Meetings can be draining.)”

Josh Krakauer, CEO, Sculpt

Question: What do you think was the key to successful client retention in 2020, and what will it be moving into 2021?

How can agencies and small businesses alike continue to navigate the tricky waters of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic? Many aim to improve customer retention by increasing their flexibility.

Peer after peer said they’ve become more innovative to keep their customer base happy. It’s not surprising that client retention is heavily grounded in maintaining strong customer relationships.

Trish Thomas, CEO, TEEM

“Flexibility in our terms and pricing alongside extra-attentive client service have helped us maintain positive, productive client relationships. Moving into 2021, we all look forward to loosening spending constraints, resuming events, and hopefully getting back to normal.”

Trish Thomas, CEO, TEEM

Jolene Delisle, Founder, The Working Assembly

“I think successful client retention during a situation like this and honestly before as well is flexibility, empathy and transparency. Flexibility with payments, contract terms and timelines knowing there are a lot of additional factors. Empathy for clients especially the smaller ones who are navigating a very difficult time. Lastly, transparency, being honest about what is possible, what you can deliver and when.”

Jolene Delisle, Founder, The Working Assembly

Pia Celestino, Chief Creative Officer and Founder, Crea7ive.com

“Flexibility is important, but I believe that speed and personalization have been the key for us. Having a live chat, answering emails quickly, answering the phone, even adding clients to WhatsApp (which is something we’d never done before) makes clients feel assured, which I guess makes up for the lack of physical presence at an office space.”

Pia Celestino, Chief Creative Officer and Founder, Crea7ive.com

Sharon Ainsberg, co-Founder, SHO+COMPANY

“We are considering adding some services but mostly we are finding that what we do seems to be a really important piece of our clients’ overall marketing+comms models–we have definitely been patient with payments and we have beefed up our influencer engagement strategies.”

Sharon Ainsberg, co-Founder, SHO+COMPANY

Kelly Stark, Principal, Forward Vision Marketing

“We want to treat our clients the same way we’d like to be treated.  So, if there is some reason why we need to freeze our arrangement, lower rates and extend the payment terms than we will do it.”

Kelly Stark, Principal, Forward Vision Marketing

Emily Yarbrough, Head of Engagement, Milk Agency

“Building a communicative, trustful relationship with your client is crucial. Their business is most likely going through various business challenges as well, so being a good listener, strategic problem solver, and open to unique solutions will be greatly appreciated by them.”

Emily Yarbrough, Head of Engagement, Milk Agency

PJ Haarsma, CEO, Valid Resource

“Transparency is key. Things are moving fast and we share everything we learn with our clients as quickly as possible.”

PJ Haarsma, CEO, Valid Resource

Chris Belli, VP Marketing, Studio Science

“Being client centric remains one of the pillars of our organization, and now more than ever it is important to over deliver in every aspect of the client relationship. Being client-centric means being empathic to client challenges, so naturally we are flexible in our management of the accounts.”

Chris Belli, VP Marketing, Studio Science

Laura Cain, Director of Business Operations, Perfect Search Media

“We were flexible both with payment (dropping some retainers for a certain number of months, for example) and contract terms … in order to ensure our clients knew that we ultimately want what’s best for them. I think continued open communication and a very clear pricing plan (making sure you’re really pricing for services rendered and not over or under pricing) will continue to be key for retention.”

Laura Cain, Director of Business Operations, Perfect Search Media

Jordan Weiner, President, Internet Consulting, Inc.

“Our clients love us and are all long-term.  It is in our contract that any client can cancel anytime without reason with a 30 days notice because it isn’t a piece of paper that keeps them with us long-term… it is the work we do and the results achieved that keeps them with us. 

We only have 5-star Google reviews (at least at the time I am writing this and hopefully it will continue till the end of time because of our client first mentality in everything we do).  During the pandemic we have helped so many new and old clients… in so many ways… financially when needed and with our work…. lots of extra work when needed.”

Jordan Weiner, President, Internet Consulting, Inc.

Kevin Pike, President, Rank Fuse Digital Marketing

“We have always been flexible with our contracts and never locked anyone into something long-term. I think more agencies are being forced to work this way, but for us it’s always been part of our culture and how we like to earn business.”

Kevin Pike, President, Rank Fuse Digital Marketing

Miljan Vukvoic, Sr. Project Manager & Chief of Staff, Idea Booth

“When Covid first hit, it was scary for everyone not knowing how their clients would react based on how their sales were and it truly showed how connected we all are and how money is always moving.

But ultimately, we are sticking through this with our clients who are running on a reduced retainer right now, because they need us and one day when Covid is over, we will all still be here and we want to look back and say that we stuck together and made sacrifices for each other.”

Miljan Vukvoic, Sr. Project Manager & Chief of Staff, Idea Booth

Nick Francis, Chief Visionary Officer, The Franchise Group, LLC

“For us, client retention has been based on two-fold. First, we pivoted (and hard) into virtual / remote shoots, virtual events and an increased interest in forcing some of our clients hands as it relates to digital transformation. Through that pivot we showed that we weren’t afraid to innovate and were comfortable with being uncomfortable. Secondly, we became (as many others did) more vulnerable.

I think part of our success is always being authentic, asking the tough questions and not being afraid to push back – seeing CEOs and C-suite executives in their homes, working through meetings with kids in the background or unexpected distractions has humanized business (for the better, IMO) this year.”

Nick Francis, Chief Visionary Officer, The Franchise Group, LLC

Jon Borg-Breen, Co-founder, Symbiont Group

“Personal relationships and showing the value that we provide have always been critical for client retention. It’s easy for people (and therefore companies) to disengage when things turn upside down. Fear for personal safety, company viability and the whole existential dread is pretty powerful.

Only when you establish real relationships and can prove real, tangible value do you have a shot at retaining a client. Even then, you can’t control the macro economics or the collapse of an entire industry. 

We have provided some flexible payment terms for some clients, but the clients we have lost were in industries that have had significant revenue loss due to the pandemic. Part of the 2020 story for us has been the fact that many of our former clients have come back during this time of crisis and that’s really what has strengthened our business back to what it was in January.”

Jon Borg-Breen, Co-founder, Symbiont Group

Arianne White, Director of Social Media Strategy, PETERMAYER

“Across the board, people will be looking to work as efficiently as possible well into the future. Being able to create a tailored approach is going to be key to successful client retention in 2021. It’s up to the agencies to evaluate what clients truly need, and then look inward to their own strengths to decide the best ways to help clients meet their goals in this moment.”

Arianne White, Director of Social Media Strategy, PETERMAYER

Matt Bitzer, Managing Partner, Blue Magnet Interactive

“While we’ve always done our best to be flexible with our policies, I believe this will be even more important in 2021. While we will continue to have core policies for things like payment terms, contract terms, and service offerings, those should merely serve as our foundation. And while those policies are a starting point, we will always work with our clients to consider their unique situations and challenges and be flexible in how we partner with each one.”

Matt Bitzer, Managing Partner, Blue Magnet Interactive

Tammy Coleman, President, Element212

“Being flexible with their changing needs as the economy changes. We continued advertising for some clients with no charge during the total shutdown and switched promotional ads to branding to keep their name out there even when they couldn’t sell.”

Tammy Coleman, President, Element212

Josh Krakauer, CEO, Sculpt

“The keys to successful client retention is the same as it always is: results, communication, responsiveness, and empathy.”

Josh Krakauer, CEO, Sculpt

Chris O'Neill, CEO, Logical Media Group

“We took an approach of being as accommodating as we could with any of our clients who were hit more adversely with the pandemic. This year has felt like a war, and we could not hold our clients to contracts if their businesses were hindered by a global virus and economic shutdown. We paused contracts, pushed out renewal dates, and lowered our fees for any one of our clients (partners) who needed that support.”

Chris O’Neill, CEO, Logical Media Group

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