The Long Haul

In our agency’s 24 years, we’ve seen several client relationships reach and surpass the decade milestone. I would say we’ve been lucky, but luck is only a part of it. We’ve also been intentional about the way we work with our clients, investing time and effort to ensure that every client knows we’re in it for the long haul. Our client services approach has paid off, and at its core, it’s based on a few key philosophies that are applicable across industries.

Relationships exist between people, not companies

I make it my business to care deeply and genuinely about my individual client contacts—not just about their business goals and making sure they see ROI, but also about their growth and success in the company. I love nothing more than when my main contact gets promoted, or when I see an entire team move up the ladder, because I know I’ve had a hand in it.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to build relationships with a contact’s entire team, including the most junior team members. I think of it this way: If I’m doing my job right, that marketing coordinator will be a marketing manager or director—and one of my primary stakeholders—one day.

Put it into practice:

  • Ask yourself at least once a month, “What can I do to make my contact look really good at work this month?”
  • Proactively offer to take tactical work off your contact’s plate. Your strategy should be helping them focus on their strategy.
  • When a new hire joins your client’s team, send a welcome package to help form an immediate and close bond.
  • Submit the projects you work on for your client for awards. It’s something they won’t always have the time to do, but the recognition can really help them get ahead.

The only true expert is a dual expert

You’ve got to be an expert in your industry and theirs. Yes, it’s most important to intimately understand how your client’s business operates and who the key players in their organization are. But that knowledge will be much more useful if you’ve got the right context, and that means really getting to know your client’s industry by living and breathing it daily.

The goal is to help them to capitalize on opportunities they haven’t even thought of yet, and it’s often easier for you to see these big-picture strategic shifts because you’re not in the weeds of your client’s day-to-day tasks.

We were able to do this with an OEM client a few years back by helping them integrate augmented reality into their direct mail campaigns and event promotions. AR was still a brand new technology, but we saw its potential and knew it would make a significant impact on our client’s industry. By helping them to be an early adopter in their field, we were able to position them as a tech-forward innovator among more traditional OEMs.

Put it into practice:

  • Follow industry associations and publications on social media, subscribe to the main industry newsletters, and read third-party industry trend reports. Set aside time each week to review what’s happening in the industry at a high level.
  • Follow your client’s competitors on social media and subscribe to their newsletters, too. Review all the competitor communications at once to better identify what’s missing in the marketplace and how your client can stand out from the crowd.
  • Know what your capabilities are and when a project will require a specialist. Early in my career, we worked with a food ingredient manufacturer.
  • When it came time to do a food photography shoot, I knew we’d need to call in a partner because I had become familiar with the industry standards and recognized that we couldn’t meet them alone.


Kitchen table talks are necessary and good

In all long-term relationships, there will be friction at some point. These are natural ups and downs, and they’re healthy, if handled right.

I had a client years ago who would compare the client/agency relationship to a marriage. He said, “If something’s not going well and you ignore it, things are going to get worse. At some point, you have to sit down at the kitchen table and hash it out.” He’s right, and the sooner you have those kitchen table talks, the better.

What I’ve learned myself since then is that it’s even more important to address any issues with integrity. If you screwed up, own it. If you didn’t screw up, don’t allow yourself to be walked all over. It’s possible to stand your ground while still ensuring that your client feels heard and the issue is resolved, and it will be better for your relationship in the long run.

Put it into practice:

  • Scheduling quarterly reviews with your client can preempt so many issues. Set aside this regular time to discuss what’s going well, what could be better, and whether everyone is getting what they need from the relationship.
  • Show you still care. Put birthdays and anniversaries in your calendar so that you never miss an opportunity to celebrate, and call every once in awhile just to check in.
  • If something does go wrong, drop everything and fix it. We’ve personally flown and driven deliverables all the way across the country to keep them from being late, even if the delay wasn’t on us. Being willing to step in and do something in a crisis goes a long way.

So how will you know if you’re succeeding at building client relationships that will last? Some of the signs are obvious: They’ll continue to give you more and bigger projects, for one. You’ll get referrals from them, of course. But there’s something less tangible, too.

So how will you know if you’re succeeding at building client relationships that will last?
Some of the signs are obvious.

It’s the feeling that when you’re in town, you could call your client up for a last-minute lunch. The feeling that you can be honest with them, even if you have news they won’t want to hear. The lack of ego between you allows you to happily put your client’s needs before what you want. If you can do all that, you know you’re playing the long game.