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Working with clients: The good, the bad and the indifferent

Managing client expectations while simultaneously being honest and open can be a tough balance for any professional.

The benefits of customer service are well known; According to business magazine Forbes, 97% of consumers say customer service interactions impact whether they stay loyal to a brand.

Yet the relationship between brands and clients is not so well documented. The trust, open communication and collaboration required are less tangible, but for return deals and successful campaigns, vital.

There are a number of stakeholders involved in client relationships, from the direct involvement of client partners and salespeople, to the more oblique contact list containing writers, success managers, designers and creative strategists.

Being client facing has become a specialist skill in itself. Businesses spend more time hiring these roles as the sheer breadth of client types require agility and innovative solutions to please all.

We spoke to representatives from a range of industry sectors, from marketing and PR, to sales and content production, and discovered the dos and don’ts of working with clients.

Victoria Moffatt, MD and founder of LexRex, a legal consultancy: ‘It is absolutely fine to say no’

“Effective client management begins way before signing a contract. Building strong relationships during the sales process allows you to see what kind of a client you are dealing with. To paraphrase a truism, when they show you their true colours, listen to them. At that early stage it is really easy, and necessary, to qualify out potential clients who are going to be hard work to manage.

“Once you kick-start the relationship, it’s important to actively manage your clients. Introduce them to your processes and tell them how you run things. It’s really important to be quite strict with your processes, to enable your team to deliver a consistent service. Again, it’s absolutely fine and really important to have the confidence to say no to clients when it’s the right thing to do for yourself, the team and the business.”

Justin Fox, Digital PR & Outreach Manager at educational firm CoursesOnline: ‘Honesty is the best policy’

“Something which is essential in a line of work such as SEO which can fluctuate month on month or every few months, is for client-facing team members not to hide bad news. Your clients aren’t stupid, and by virtue of being immersed in the day-to-day workings of their business, are likely to pick up on any issues.

“Therefore honesty is the best policy and the best approach is to be open about any setbacks, with an assessment of what has caused them and what your plans are to get things back on track. Clients love people who are proactive and who can take a larger view of things, rather than being preoccupied with their own standing.”

Michael Bush, Managing Director of digital marketing agency, Climb Online: ‘There is no one size fits all approach’

“The key to getting the most out of relationships with clients is to tailor your approach and style of project management to each individual client. A one size fits all approach doesn’t allow you to build rapport and really get to know what your clients are receptive to, both inside and outside of work. 

“Clients are people and appreciate the team they’re working with taking a genuine interest in both them and their business. As an example, I know the names of several of my clients’ pets, which football teams they support, and even what coffee they drink so when we meet in face to face meetings, I can start the meeting off on the right foot with their favourite drink. The little details make a big difference.”

Chris Bogin, Digital Client Services Director at PR experts Tank: ‘Clients look to you for expertise’

“Generally if you work with clients you need to bear two things in mind. Firstly, they pay your bills as an agency. This means you need to take care of them and their needs, both as a client business and as an individual – what are they trying to achieve, and how can you help them do that better?

“And secondly, they’re coming to you for your expertise, not just for the fun of it. Most clients don’t want a list of things they could do, they want a recommendation of what they should do.”

Jane Whitham, Director at PR company Altitude: ‘Remember to communicate regularly’

“The key to exceptional client management is outstanding communication, both ways. When conversations break down or there isn’t sufficient clarity, then mistakes happen and relationships suffer. Clarify every point, communicate regularly and if you’re unsure, pick up the phone. So many threads can be untangled in a five minute phone conversation and it builds relationships.”

Murray Grindon, Head of Growth and Partnerships at Social Bull Media, a sports and entertainment content agency: ‘You are dealing with people, not brands’

“When it comes to client relationships, we all need to remember that we aren’t talking to the brand. We are dealing with people, people who have deadlines, and worries and stresses. Too often, we see them as the brand or campaign they represent. And as their supplier, you are there to ease some of this burden in one way or another. So be empathic to this. 

“Allowing for that extra round of amends and fielding additional questions can be frustrating but having an empathetic reaction, putting yourself in their shoes and accommodating some of these requests, will go a long way in creating a relationship with your client on a human level. You go from supplier to teammate, and a teammate is indispensable.” 

Client relationship

Daisy Benn, Managing Director at branding agency WMH&I: ‘Make it easy, nice and don’t be boring’

“The fundamentals of working with clients are pretty basic and universal: Make their job easier, be nice to work with, and show you care. Become a master at editing. Tell clients what they need to know, when they need to know it. 

“Don’t be boring. Every meeting, email or call can make a client’s day more interesting, so strike the right balance between getting to the point and adding some personality to every interaction. Finally, show you care. If a client comes to you with a problem, it becomes your problem.”

Davinder Bansil, Lead Performance Manager at personal finance comparison site, ‘Always display a positive attitude’

“I’ve always approached clients with a positive attitude and with a genuine interest in their product or service. I also try to find common interests, whether it is work or personal topics, as these can help ease clients into a more open conversation. However, sometimes it does need to be straight down to business and in these situations, I focus on matching their energy and keeping to agenda points.

“On the flip side, do not assume things, in any situation. Doing this either leads to underselling or even offence, and you lose in both these situations. Communication is key in any relationship and most of the time, a lack of this is the cause of an issue within client partnerships.”

Sophie Campion, Head of Client Relationship Management at SEO agency Pearl Lemon: ‘Be solution-oriented and proactive’

“Having emotional intelligence and being a ‘people person’ really helps. Try to ensure that work gets done in a timely manner so be a project manager and customer relationship manager. Manage the client’s expectations while you manage deadlines with your internal team to avoid future issues. If a client is too demanding then you have to reset them and push back at times. 

“Be honest when things go wrong and let them know if there are steps being taken to improve things instead of acting like nothing is wrong. Be solution-oriented and proactive instead of reactive. Before the client knows that something is going wrong, get ahead of things and tell the client what is being done to improve the results or outcomes.”

Vicki Saunders, Deputy Managing Director at marketing agency, krow: ‘Without clients, there would be no agency’

“The worst service mistakes often stem from agency partners trying to impose ways of working that fulfil their own wants and ambitions without stopping to think whether they meet the needs of their clients. There is clearly a balance to strike between personal ambition and service requirements, but every member of an agency team must remember that without clients, there would be no agency.

“The personal development of those in client service is intrinsically linked to the happiness and success of the people they are there to serve. So, get to know those people. Take the time to understand them as individuals. Recognise their motivations, challenges, insecurities and personal goals, and design ways of working and communicating with them that respond to those needs.”

Adam Dunning, Digital Marketing Director at agency Sweet Digital: ‘A client relationship relies on human nature’

“As service providers, we’re all guilty of putting on a slightly posher telephone voice when we are speaking to someone in a professional work capacity, and using bigger words in emails when we are trying to communicate to people who we want to impress. This could be seen as us trying to portray the best version of ourselves or it could be seen as us building a facade. However, what we have to remember is that our clients are probably doing this back to us. It is human nature. The key to building a client relationship and maximising it for the long term is to battle through this over time and get to know the real person behind the professional front.”

Dan Goodrich, Account Director at PR agency KWT Global: ‘You are an extension of their team’

“It is all about building equitable and trusting relations. In the PR agency world, this means making your clients relentlessly relevant. I like to say to my teams, evidence is confidence and confidence is evidence. If you’ve left no stone unturned, you can walk into any meeting with the confidence of a job well done, and this shows to a client.

“Excellent communication is also key. Don’t leave room for any ambiguity in roles and responsibilities. This will also help you to anticipate questions and get ahead of the game.

“You want every interaction with your client to be the best bit of their week. Remember they may only interact with you in person (or via video) once a week and they should look forward to meeting with you, hearing updates on progress and solutions to issues – you want to feel like, and indeed are, an extension of their team.”