Retaining agency clients means building a good relationship with them from the get-go. And while building a good agency-client relationship often means going above and beyond, it’s also crucial to protect your time, resources, and margins.
Running your agency effectively may require you to be a little selfish with your clients—especially if you’re a small business owner already wearing many hats. But how do you balance this give-and-take relationship without alienating current and potential new clients?
To learn more about this issue, we asked two seasoned agency pros for their client management best practices. They offered their recommendations to successfully develop positive working relationships with clients while building their businesses:
- John Doherty, CEO and Founder of Credo, a platform that matches customers to agencies that best meet their needs. Previously, he’s worked as a solo SEO consultant and at several agencies. He estimates he’s directly managed 50-75 clients over the course of his career.
- Viljo Vabrit, Managing Director of CXL Agency, an agency that specializes in conversion rate optimization (CRO) services. He is one of the co-founders of CXL and has worked on the agency side for eight years. Viljo estimates he’s managed around 100 clients during his career at CXL Agency.
These seasoned experts have decades of experience navigating common client management issues, including:
- Preventing scope creep without nickel-and-diming clients (when to budge and when to push back).
- How often you should communicate with clients to keep them apprised of project details without spending all your time on client calls.
- Span of control: The magic number of clients you and your team can manage to maintain good relationships and still actually do the work.
- Remote agencies: Should you regularly meet clients face-to-face? How often, when, and in what circumstances?
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How These Experts Maintain Good Agency-Client Relationships While Scaling Their Businesses
Scope Creep: How to Manage the Push-Pull on Agency-Client Relationships
Scope creep is a common (and frustrating) problem that can jeopardize your client management. So, how can agencies protect their time and curb scope creep while also keeping clients satisfied?
Clients often make requests outside of the work you outlined in your contract. Constantly giving into these requests is overwhelming for agencies and can quickly sour the relationship. Doherty and Vabrit have learned firsthand to be intentional about managing scope creep and setting expectations.
“We’re responsible for keeping the scope in place,” Vabrit emphasized.
The key, according to Doherty and Vabrit, is to set healthy boundaries early in the relationship. When you’re still courting potential clients, have “the talk.” This can help curtail any scope creep before it even happens.
“I would say that the best way to start onboarding a client is in that sales process, setting their expectations for: ‘these are the things we’re doing, this is how the process is going to look’,” Doherty says.
To further outline your agency-client relationship, both Vabrit and Doherty emphasized the importance of scheduling a kickoff call. During this discussion, you’ll bring together the entire team (yours and theirs) working on the project to create a project roadmap and align on details like:
- The scope of the project: You’ll review the typical details, such as what work the agency will do, a list of deliverables, your timelines, and the project’s success metrics.
- The ins and outs of your process: This is also a chance to educate clients about your work, including the processes or framework you use to achieve results. In Vabrit’s case, he provides an overview of CRO on kickoff calls. “Because our CRO services are pretty complicated, and there are many stakeholders, we want to make sure that when we start to gather data, analyze data, and run tests, that they know what will happen and what it is that we do,” Vabrit says. “Because not everyone knows what we’re doing.”
- Communication boundaries: This is when you’ll set some clear expectations around communicating. How often will you contact clients? When and where? Is that a weekly status call and a monthly report? You can also explain any rules that are unique to you or the agency. For example, Doherty won’t take any unscheduled phone calls from clients.
Our experts suggest that agencies follow up every kickoff call with a recap of everything discussed during the call. Doherty said he emails his notes to clients after every phone call, not just the kickoff call. In his experience, this keeps everyone aligned (and satisfied) as you complete the project.
These recaps also stop any frustrating scope creep. If a client makes any unreasonable requests, you can gently remind them about your last call and refer back to your notes.
Of course, projects sometimes change and shift over time. This can lead clients to make additional requests as their project progresses. In this scenario, when do you simply do what they ask and when do you push back?
It’s walking a fine line that requires delicacy and consistency. Completing some minor requests here and there is fine, but if you accept them too frequently, Vabrit emphasized that clients will start expecting more work for free.
“Then you can’t really roll that back because they are used to your free resources,” he said.
Both experts recommend that agencies diplomatically push back when clients make requests that are way outside of scope. In their minds, you should give the client two options—change the agreed-upon project scope and cost to include the additional work or let you focus on finishing the original project.
“I don’t nickel and dime clients, but I will tell them, ‘Hey, this is outside the scope of what we talked about. You basically need to make a choice. Are we going to keep doing these phone calls and me consulting with you on this level or do you want to get these audits done?’” Doherty explained. “We can do either one, you just tell me what you need and then I put it into writing and so we agree on it.”
Span of Control: Finding the Right Number of Clients
Part of successful relationship management with clients means being able to give each one the attention they need. Some projects—and high-maintenance clients—take up more of your time than others. So, how do you balance growing your business with maintaining high-quality work for each client?
The key is to figure out your “span of control,” or the magic number of clients your team can realistically manage at once. For CXL Agency, Vabrit assigns two people to work with each client.
“We have a dedicated project manager and an analyst for all projects,” he explained. “So, there’s not just one person who knows all the details about the client and their business. Because, for example, if the project manager goes on vacation or leaves the company, it’s hard for someone to take over the relationship.”
To ensure each team member won’t be stretched thin, each CXL analyst is only allowed to manage three customers at once.
“We have to give [our analysts] enough resources to deliver the results and customer experience that we’re after,” Vabrit said.
When Doherty worked as an SEO consultant, he only took on three clients at a time as well.
“Quite honestly, the way to manage multiple clients well is to restrict the number of clients that you work with. And only bring on the ones that are going to pay you what you’re worth.”
Communication: How to Balance Transparency with Scaling Your Agency
When it comes to client communications, it’s tough to know how often you should touch base to maintain transparency without spending all your time on the phone. How often should you set up a status call—is biweekly or weekly effective? And when and how often should you send reports on your results?
Vabrit prefers to have weekly calls with each client to “report on results, introduce new test ideas, and allow clients to ask questions.”
On the other hand, Doherty typically chats with clients every couple of weeks. At minimum, he catches up with them at least monthly.
For reporting, both experts recommended monthly status updates to highlight successes and update clients on the project’s progress.
These reports are also an opportunity to go above and beyond basic services for clients. According to Vabrit, CXL Agency’s monthly reports contain far more than the typical success metrics—he and his team include summaries of all the CRO tests they ran that month; discuss wins and other learnings; and outline plans for optimization tests the team will run the following month.
As an additional tactic to answer quick questions, Vabrit and his team setup a dedicated Slack channel for each client. The agency team can address client concerns and centralize their communications.
“We use Slack to keep everything in one place,” Vabrit said. “It’s usually faster than just having a project management system or tool in place.”
Remote Agencies: Facetime Can Equal Better Retention
Both Vabrit and Doherty have worked remotely with clients and agree that long-distance relationships require a little extra care.
For remote agencies, both suggested you make time to visit clients face-to-face. Regular facetime directly equates with better client retention, Doherty said.
“I had one client that was based in Atlanta, I was based in New York,” Doherty explained. “They were paying us $25,000 a month, something like that for SEO consulting and constant production. That was a big engagement. I was there every six to eight weeks for about a year.”
Remote agencies don’t always need to visit clients on-site at their offices either—you can invite them to agency events or to share their expertise at sponsored conferences.
“Whenever we have conferences and events that we organize, we normally invite clients to have some good, traditional facetime,” Vabrit said.
Client management is a challenge, even with many years of experience. As Doherty says, this is the side of the agency business where he sees most people fail.
But a few best practices could make maintaining a positive agency-client relationship easier, including:
- Set clear boundaries: Set realistic expectations of the results you can achieve, establish all your timelines, and be clear when communicating the scope of work included in the project. Then refer back that mutually agreed-upon document if the client makes unreasonable requests.
- Don’t take on too many clients: Find your “magic number,” whether that’s clients you manage directly or assign to an analyst or PMs. You can give clients the attention they deserve while also getting things done.
- Get some facetime: For remote agencies, make an effort to spend some face-to-face time with clients. Whether that means meeting them at a conference or visiting them at their offices—show up for them.
Want to chat more client management? Learn how ReportGarden can help you better serve your clients.