A Strong Client-Agency Relationship Is Key to Digital Product Success
If you’re looking to redesign or create a new digital product, many factors come into play. You need a clear vision. You need believers on your team. You need a budget. You need to make a decision about whether to do it in-house or to partner with an agency. If working with an agency is in your plans, the client-agency relationship is a critical piece of the puzzle. When this relationship is working at its peak, your product (and therefore your business) is the beneficiary. Here’s some advice on how to get the most out of this vital component of success.
Speaking of peaks, we like to think of the relationship between client and agency like a mountaineering team trying to reach a glorious summit. In the ideal world, they would climb together on the same path. But clients and agencies need to switch ropes from time to time to tend to other needs. This is because clients and agencies are built quite differently, from how they are staffed to how they earn their margins to how they recruit and develop their people. With good understanding and planning, however, the team can make sure to meet up at the right places at the right times, and also – most critically – benefit from each others’ unique strengths. The key to a great client-agency relationship, we have found, is for both sides to understand this special dynamic. The partnership grows with mutual respect. And that acknowledgment alone can bridge the gap regarding the different roles each plays in achieving a common objective.
Indeed, there are strengths inherent in this difference. In “Creativity and the Role of the Leader”, Teresa M. Amabile and Mukti Khaire explain:
“Innovation is more likely when people of different disciplines, backgrounds, and areas of expertise share their thinking. Sometimes the complexity of a problem demands diversity…the application of one field’s methods or habits of mind to another field’s problem produces the breakthrough.”Harvard Business Review
Let’s look at a typical client-agency scenario
For the past twenty years ExpandTheRoom has helped solve our clients’ business problems by improving the design, user experience, and technical capabilities of their websites and applications. We often hear from clients needing to redesign their website for a variety of reasons. It could be to successfully articulate the company’s new or updated brand. They may also want to move to a faster and more secure CMS. These clients often find themselves challenged and wondering how to bring their new positioning to life across the complexity of their website. Or, how to evaluate and take advantage of all the new technical platforms on the market. This is the point where the client, who has been relying on in-house talent to do the work, decides that an outside point of view would be helpful. An agency is identified, they agree on goals and terms, and the client-agency relationship is set in motion.
And here is the rub
Both partners agree on their objectives, but that does not mean they fully understand or appreciate what is required to achieve those goals. For example, the agency is going to need sufficient background information and assets to commence the work. The client, perhaps thinking the agency’s expertise will allow them to “get going in parallel” makes an assumption that their inputs are not as necessary. Because the client is so close to their own business, they discount the value of the seemingly basic information exchange. The client may not fully understand that the UX researcher waiting for the late assets is scheduled to do other work for another client the following week and is now double-booked. On the agency side, the team may not realize that the client stakeholders are juggling 10 other high-priority marketing issues outside this particular project, including a malfunctioning CRM system and two new TV spots that just failed testing and need to be reworked in under a week to make air dates.
And so, from the client’s perspective, the agency (their service provider) is being inflexible by claiming they are stuck in place. From the agency’s perspective, the client is being unreasonable for not quickly rectifying the situation with the assets. No one is right, no one is wrong, and everyone is unhappy.
If the mountainous divide is to be bridged, then it’s vitally important for each side to put themselves into the shoes of the other. When the understanding is there, the communication and trust flow smoothly. In addition, here’s a punch list of ideas that can help create an atmosphere for success.
How to be a better agency partner:
- Be transparent. Even if the conversation is a difficult one, communicate any challenges you are up against and propose realistic solutions to them.
- Be realistic about your capabilities. While it’s important to explore new skill sets, be mindful about what you can achieve and be careful not to overpromise.
- Appreciate that your client knows more about the inner workings and history of their business than you do. That is the gift they bring to the relationship. Use that to the advantage of the work.
- Be thoughtful in your budgeting. Even if you’re fighting with ambiguity (and you will be), bring the right teams in at the right time to ensure success.
- Expect the unexpected when it comes to schedules. Understand that clients also face conflicting priorities that inevitably may throw a wrench in achieving your common objectives.
How to be a better client partner:
- Understand that an agency is a business just like yours. You’ll find agencies to be accommodating, but don’t expect the plane to wait at the gate for you (unless you are paying for a private charter).
- Build your schedule with padding to allow for happenstance.
- Understand that changes may necessitate additional fees and accommodations.
- Embrace the fresh perspective your agency brings. You’ve hired them for this very reason. Give them the latitude and trust to do their job well. It doesn’t mean they are always right, it means that they have experience that you don’t and that is valuable to you.
- Give proactive feedback. Be candid and direct but make sure it’s aimed at the success of the project and try to set aside biases from being “on the inside.”
- Consider the team as one project team and not client and vendor or client versus vendor.
- Pay your bills on time – or early. $20K for a big company may not be a big deal, but it’s huge for a small agency.
Don’t forget the culture fit
In addition to finding complementary skills, we are big believers in the chemistry of the partnership. Find people with whom you share common values, work ethic, and work styles. Be kind and respectful, appreciate what your partner brings to achieving your common objective, and then make the most of that. You’ll be spending a lot of time with these people, so make sure you like them.
Strive to understand each other’s company culture. We believe knowing what a company stands for is critical to client-agency success. Here are some examples of ETR’s operating principles:
- Take the time to identify and fill knowledge gaps.
- Set realistic expectations and embrace risk.
- Default to over-communication.
- Make sure the user’s voice is part of the conversation.
- Include clients in our process.
- Be intentional.
- Ask questions. Be curious. Care.
- Be strategic and have a bias towards action.
The client-agency relationship is one of the critical foundations of business success. We hope this piece has helped you take steps to make the most of it. While it is true that the path up the mountain may be arduous at times, amazing results await those who carefully and thoughtfully chart their way skyward.