7 Tips to Build Successful Agency Client Relationships in Marketing

Let’s not beat around the bush: relationships are hard. There’s no set formula telling you how to have the perfect relationship.

Working relationships can be even more challenging. You don’t get to choose your coworkers, boss, or clients in the same way you get to choose your friends or significant other.

Not having a choice in work relationships sometimes makes matters trickier, but not impossible. Think of client communications in the same way as learning how to ride a (mental) bicycle. It may not be as physically demanding, but it still takes practice to learn the ins and outs of emotions, expressions, and communication methods.

GIF of riding a bike

An important note: once you think you’ve mastered communications that doesn’t mean the work is done! Interactions are constantly changing as we learn and grow as human beings and cultures shift. It’s up to us to keep putting in work when it comes to understanding ourselves and others.

Building Client Relationships: Where to Start

Here at Digital Third Coast, we are told one of the most important aspects of the job is client communications. Yes, the daily work we do is important, but if you can’t successfully communicate with your clients or accurately convey what you’re working on, you won’t succeed.

We’re encouraged to listen and learn from our colleagues and are reminded that understanding and learning the particulars of digital marketing client communication can take months!

So, where do you find information regarding client-agency relationships? Here are seven tips to help you in your marketing journey! 

Tip #1: Impressions Matter, Especially Virtually

First impressions are a huge initial step in building client relationships. Don’t forget, some studies have found it takes less than a tenth of a second for people to make up their minds about what they think of you!

With that in mind, it’s important to put effort and energy into your first impression and impressions beyond it. If you work remotely, it’s even more vital to put effort into how you present yourself to clients.

For all meetings, especially first-time meetings, be early. You don’t want your client waiting on you or wondering where you are ahead of your first conversation.

If for some reason you are running a few minutes late, it’s much better to alert your client as soon as possible. I am a huge advocate of setting expectations.

Clear communication is key, especially in the virtual working world.

GIF of watch

I’ll be the first to admit: since working virtually, I’ve allowed my wardrobe to get a lot more casual. Pre-2020, I only wore a t-shirt to work if there was a big Chicago Cubs or Bears game that day, or if it was a Friday and I had a t-shirt with the company logo. Now, t-shirts and comfy pants are part of the rotating remote wardrobe… at least in meetings with my coworkers.

When it comes to client calls, however, I try to wear a nice-looking top and save the t-shirts and sweatshirts for once I’m off those calls. 

To each their own when it comes to fashion preferences, but I try to make sure I look put together with a clean background and good lighting for client calls. Before ever saying a word, I want my setting and appearance to exude to clients that I value them and their work… and that I recognize how important it is that they’re putting their trust in me to get it done.

I might still put a sweatshirt on after I log off, but I like to think that the additional focus on appearance will make a positive impact on my clients and will on yours too! 

Another important aspect of initial client meet-and-greets is the conversation. It’s always a little awkward when you first meet someone; a virtual meeting makes it even harder.

You might accidentally talk over each other, or, even more anxiety-inducing, both not talk at all for what feels like minutes (even though it’s frequently just a second or two). You can prep for meetings by having some simple icebreaker questions beyond, “how are you?”

Examples of icebreaker questions.

Customer relationship management in digital marketing means both preparing for interpersonal communications, as well as the actual work you’ll be doing.

In a new client meeting, I often like to ask people where they’re joining from. Sometimes that will allow you to find something you have in common with the client, and if nothing else, you can ask them how they like the area. This is also a good time to take note of their time zone (for future meeting planning) and you can use this information to check on them if there’s a big news or weather event in their area.

If you ask, “how are you?” to kickstart a meeting and just get a response of, “good,” you can also always ask if there’s anything new going on at their company or what they’re doing or have done over the weekend.

These aren’t questions meant to take over your entire client call, but instead establish a comfortable camaraderie. Yes, the main goal of a client call is to discuss work, but often building on that relationship includes touching base with the person on the other end of the call. It’s not only polite, but also a way to show that you care about your client as a human and see them as more than just a paycheck.

Tip #2 Be on the Same Page as Your Client: Prioritize Goals and Expectations

I can’t state this enough: discussing short-term goals, long-term goals, and expectations is absolutely crucial when it comes to the start of an agency-client relationship. Don’t let this slip through the cracks.

This is a must-do at the beginning and honestly throughout your relationship with your client because it sets the tone for the work that you are doing and the results you are promising to provide. I’ve quickly learned in the marketing world that there are a lot of things that constitute “marketing,” which can make it hard to set expectations. However, it’s important to make sure the client knows what you plan to do, are doing, and the outcome you expect.

Use your first meeting with your client to establish what they’re looking for from you. Do this even after they’ve gone through the sales process and signed up to work with you. We always touch base with our sales manager before meeting with a new client for the first time about what they’re looking for and expectations, but it’s important to ask the client once again what they anticipate for the work they’re getting.

Some clients aren’t sure what they want or need, while others may be balancing shifting expectations from their bosses or other higher-ups in the company. 

For example, in the digital PR world, campaigns can widely vary depending on the client that they are being made for. Some clients are drawn to more of the tangential link building work, while others prefer more relevant content. If you aren’t aligned before beginning your content work, it could lead to a whole round of edits and changes at the end delaying everything.

After establishing these goals check in with your client. For a first-time client, I’d recommend checking in after the first six months, after the first year, and yearly thereafter, or if you ever feel like there’s some sort of shift happening at their company internally or with your relationship.

Relationship timeline

Since we don’t often touch base with our clients daily, it can be hard to see what’s happening on their side. Routine calls and simple check-ins at the start of calls here and there will help pull back the curtain a little bit, but it’s up to you to keep a pulse on what’s happening when it comes to your clients. 

Prioritizing goals makes it easier for you to highlight the work your client values the most. While we as marketers know what’s most important when it comes to the work we’re doing, not everyone sees it the same way. Your job is to do work to the best of your ability, but also be sure to show the client how you’re achieving their goals.

That’s not to say you should skip good marketing practices or acquiesce to bad marketing habits because of client preferences (that will be up to you to educate your client about the importance of what you do). But don’t forget that they’re paying you for your time and expertise. If they want to know about their website’s domain authority every time you meet, update them about how it’s doing, while also sharing positive changes your work is doing outside of that.

Make sure you prioritize what they see as most important, so that way you’re on the same page.

Tip #3 Don’t Ghost Your Client

This tip may make you laugh– you’ve never ghosted a client… have you?

I recently dove headfirst into the world of ghosting for a digital PR campaign and realized there’s a lot more to ghosting than just ceasing all communication while dating. It’s crept into the workforce, and there are now many different ghosts a person can be.

There’s “breadcrumbing,” or responding to someone a little bit, but not enough to make a real connection. Or you could “soft ghost” someone by slowly fading out your communications. Some people even do “submarining,” also known as reappearing and talking to someone as if they hadn’t just stopped talking to them for months.

You’re probably reading through these thinking you’ve never done this before, but while you may not be intentionally ghosting a client, your client may feel that way! 

Ghosting GIF

Lack of communication is a common frustration many new clients share with us when onboarding. It’s something client after client says has led to bad experiences and a breakdown of relationships. When starting out with a client I tend to overcommunicate. While there’s no need to start sending your client hourly or daily email updates, I do normally give an update every week to every couple of weeks as to what I’m doing for them. 

Even if there isn’t much to update them on, it’s important to touch base and let them know where you are in the process of the work you’re completing for them.

It’s easy to forget that while you’re busy doing work for your new client, they often don’t have a concrete idea about what you’re doing.

As marketers know, results in the marketing field aren’t always instantaneous. It’s therefore up to you to keep your client in the loop and to let them know that you are keeping them in mind and putting their money to good use.

Something to consider: if a client sends you a question or comment that you know will take some time to answer, acknowledge that you got their email and tell them that you’re working on it. Never feel pressure to send an answer right away, but definitely let the client know you are aware of their request or comment rather than waiting a long time to acknowledge their request.  

What about when you don’t have good news to report to a client? 

That’s a hard question, but once again it’s up to you to be transparent with your client.

As hard as it is, when you have tougher news, this is time for you to address it. Be clear, explain to them the work you’ve been doing, and give your best explanation as to why it hasn’t worked as planned. Most importantly though…provide a solution. This is your opportunity to be the expert and guide your client to what you think is the next best step for them.

Whatever you do, don’t resort to ghosting! That will lead to more distrust and frustration and that is a lot harder to clear up.

Communication is key. Sharing less than good news is never easy, but avoiding an issue will only make things worse.  

Breaking Up With a Client

This section is a tough one, but needs to be included. Not every client is a perfect fit for a marketing agency and vice versa.

"I hate this part" GIF

There are a number of different reasons for this. It could be that there is a personality conflict that just can’t be resolved, or there is an insurmountable miscommunication or misalignment in goals. Things are often out of your control. I’ve had clients abruptly leave because of budgeting issues or a change of leadership.

But at the end of the day, a client breakup is something that every marketer has experienced, no matter how successful! Everyone tries their best to make work relationships work, but at the end of the day, that’s just not always feasible. 

Tip #4 Not Every Relationship Works Out and That’s Okay

At the end of the day, not every client relationship works out, and that’s okay.

No matter how a work relationship ends, whether mutually or not, this is the business world. It happens. When it does, don’t let it get you down. Go over all the positives from the experience, and if those are tough to find, figure out what you’ve learned from it.

It’s easy to feel like you’re the only one who has lost a client when looking through the social media world of digital PR experts. There’s often a focus on top tier links and major successes. But when you pull back the curtain, you’ll find others are dealing with the same situations you are, even if they’re not actively talking about it on social media. 

So, a client leaves your agency: what do you do?

I highly recommend doing what we call a “post-mortem” with fellow coworkers or even with your boss. A post-mortem is when you go over why the client left, if things could have been differently, what went well during the relationship, and what could have been improved upon.

Don’t think of it as a time to go over failures or make you take the blame for the loss of a client. Instead, think of this as a time to recognize the spaces you can improve and potentially make internal changes for better client communication and work in the future.  

Here at our agency, before we even start working together we have every employee and client take a personality test and share those results with each other.

While I don’t recommend living and dying by one personality test, I like to think of it as another stepping stone towards building your relationship with a client. Before you even connect with a client it can help a lot to know what type of personality they have. If anything, it will give insight into their preferred methods of communication and how they handle stress or conflict.

It’s up to you to do your best at the start of a professional relationship to try and make it the best it can be. But don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t work out. Instead, learn from the situation.

Remind yourself that sometimes things are out of your control. Admit your mistakes. Remember, that we’re all human! 

Taking Your Agency Client Relationship to the Next Level

Now that that’s over with… let’s get back to some more of the fun stuff.

Once you establish a rapport and foundation with your client, then you can start building on your relationship.

Think of this like the onion theory in psychology. The theory uses an onion as a metaphor for a relationship. As you know, onions have several layers surrounding the core. The theory discusses how building a relationship takes time.

Instead of jumping straight into the core, relationships blossom by peeling back a layer bit by bit. 

GIF showing layers of an onion

This is the same when it comes to client relationships. Trust grows as you show them time and time again the benefits to the work that you’re doing! While it would be nice to have inherent trust, that’s not the way the world works. It’s up to you to prove your importance and really show them the work you’re doing is benefiting their business.

Tip #5 Brag About Yourself

This may make you cringe, but this is not the time to be humble.

I’ll obviously note right off the bat that there is a balance to boasting. You should not be bragging so much about the work that you’re doing that you start to get eye rolls. But it’s hard for a client to know what they’re getting from you if you don’t remind them.

Sprinkle stats into your regular reporting calls, an email here or there, or at the start of a call.

I always try to note anniversaries. Every anniversary I like to take a little trip down memory lane. I’ll let the clients know how many campaigns we’ve done for them and the overall success.

When you’re in the daily grind of digital PR, paid media, or SEO it can be easy to lose sight of the long game. Your weekly or monthly projects may be taking precedence, which makes sense. But give yourself the ability to carve out some time to brag.

Part of retaining a client is showing them that you’re doing what they hired you to do in the first place. Even if you have the best relationship in the world, if you’re not able to show a client what you’re doing, it will be hard to keep them around. 

Here at Digital Third Coast, part of our agency’s mission is to make a measurable difference. It’s a huge part of what we strive to do for each and every client, and honestly I can’t imagine working with a client without showing them some form of numerical success.

So, use this as your excuse to brag. Even if you aim to be humble in other aspects of life, don’t do it in the marketing world! It’s up to you to remind your client of everything you’re doing for them.

Clients have a lot on their plate, and their key focus isn’t always you. Think of yourself as a slice of a big pie. You’re just a small part of everything they do in a day, so be sure to remind them what you’re doing and why it’s important. 

Tip #6 Don’t Get Complacent

To me, complacency can easily be a client relationship killer. What is it? I’ve unfortunately witnessed it before when someone I knew was burning out.

This person did the work they were hired to do for their client, met with the client, and reported on the results. Sounds like they were doing everything right… right? Eh, not really. 

This person was just doing their job. They weren’t underperforming, but they definitely weren’t overperforming.

They’d gotten stuck in a bad habit. Since they had done consistent work for this client for a longer period of time, they had gotten more lax with them and become more inconsistent with communications leaving the client in the dark. That is where you can find yourself in trouble. 

While some clients are easier to manage than others, it’s important to not get too complacent with your work and communications.

This goes especially for the clients that don’t require as much effort. While we all love a low maintenance client they need care and consideration just as much as the high maintenance client.

Even if you’re up to your neck handling a tougher client, don’t let your others slide through the cracks. It can be easy to assume they’ll be fine. But we all know what happens when you assume! 

Jumping to conclusions gif

So, how do you avoid complacency? Remember when we talked about setting goals earlier? A huge way to avoid this is to keep an eye on those goals.

Touch base with your client to make sure you’re still on the same page, and while you’re at it… listen to your client. While you are the marketing expert, your client still has a big say in what they’re looking for and need.

Yes, you may know how or why you’re doing something for them, but you also need to listen to their questions and concerns. Even if your client asks a question out of left field, listening to that question and responding, shows the client you truly care about what they have to say. Yes, it’s up to you to keep the conversation relevant and on point, but there’s no need to brush off a client request.

At the end of the day, like in so many relationships, people just want to be heard, and giving them that opportunity is a matter of respect.

Tip #7 Be Willing to Go the Extra Mile

One of the biggest keys to a successful client relationship is this one: go the extra mile.

Nothing grows a relationship more than showing it is valued. In a work setting this can be shown a few different ways.

One is initiative. Touch base with your client to pitch new, innovative ideas to them. Don’t wait for them to ask you for something extra, be on the lookout for ways you can help their brand and grow their business. Go beyond the bare minimum of what you’ve promised!

As relationships strengthen, it’s up to you to keep growing it. This is the time to show your client you really have their best interests at heart. Once you earn trust, it’s up to you to keep building on it, and show them that you truly value their relationship.

At the end of the day, business is business, but I like to think that if you’ve shown your client you’re willing to do more for them than promised it not only creates a happy client, but one that will stay by you through thick and thin. 

To Client Relationships and Beyond!

To client relationships and beyond! (I hope you said that in a Buzz Lightyear voice because I did). Just like any relationship, it’s not always easy to make client relationships take flight. It’s something you have to work toward.

Most importantly, if you find yourself burning out or struggling with client relationships, give yourself time to recharge.

Use your paid time off so you can come back to work excited and ready to work on relationships. You have to be in the right headspace to build on client relationships. If you’re burnt out, you won’t be able to do the things you want to and managing client relationships could quickly become exhausting.

If relationships are becoming especially hard to manage, reach out to a coworker. Don’t work as if you’re on an island. Working at an agency is different than working as a freelancer- this is what your team is here to help with. Collaborate with your coworkers or boss because they understand you and the situation you’re in best! 

Give yourself patience and grace as you work on this. Recognize that every relationship is its own, and they can’t be navigated the exact same way.

Relationship building is not something that can easily be done in one day, a week, or even in months! It’s up to you to work the intricacies of relationship building. The more you do this, the more you will flourish. 

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