Four Tips to a Better Client/Agency Relationship

By: Guest | November 1, 2011 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Ken Mueller.

It’s always sad when a relationship ends. But sometimes it has to happen.

Recently I was in a year-long relationship that was doomed from the start. And this past month it ended by mutual agreement.

Now it’s time to learn and share some lessons.

The Backstory

There were three parties in this relationship (and it was a business relationship, so stop thinking what you’re thinking!). Here are the players:

  1. The Client: A coalition of about a dozen businesses involved in a geographic re-branding of a local shopping destination.
  2. Marketing Firm: The company handling the re-branding.
  3. Me: Brought on by the Marketing Firm and The Client to handle the social media aspect, which was the central element in the campaign.

What Went Wrong

Despite bringing me on board to handle the day to day social media management (which is something I hate doing, and of which I’m not a big fan), I had no cooperation or input from most of the partners.

If you have a business and are considering working with any sort of communication agency, you have a responsibility. For some reason many businesses still treat social media as the redheaded step-sister of marketing. It’s that “free” thing our kids do. It’s not seen as important as advertising, or other forms of marketing, when in fact, it might actually be more important!

Four tips for a beautiful client/agency relationship:

  1. Communicate. Communicate with each other, and with your agency throughout the entire process. In this case I felt like I was being handed the keys to the car to drive across the country, patted on the head, and told, “Give us a call when you get there.” No parent would do that. There would be frequent check-ins (and yes, they CAN become TOO frequent!).
  2. You get what you pay for. In this case, The Client wanted the bare minimum; about an hour of work per week. You can’t do much in an hour, but that’s all they wanted.
  3. Don’t do it if you don’t believe in it. Clearly, with only about three exceptions, these businesses didn’t get it. I’ve become more and more convinced over time that if a business doesn’t get it, you should walk away. If you can’t help them understand and “get” what it’s all about, they won’t be able to get on board and give you what you need.
  4. Understand that it’s not magic. This isn’t auto-pilot. You don’t create a Facebook page and BOOM, have a million fans. Give us information. The key to starting a successful social media presence is to start by building a community around your existing customers. Despite repeated requests I was never given access to their email databases. And very rarely were we given talking points about their businesses, despite weekly or bi-weekly emails, as well as frequent meetings (to which very few of them showed up).

The Moral of the Story

Be involved.

If your agency asks for information, provide it. If you have things you want discussed online, tell them. We’re not inside your head. We can’t guess.

This is a collaborative effort. If you hired someone to create a print ad, would you let them create it and submit it to a magazine without your initial input and final approval? How about a TV commercial? Don’t you meet with the writers and producers to make sure they have the correct information? While social media isn’t really a campaign, you should be involved on a day to day basis. If you don’t communicate with your agency and provide them with proper information, they can only do so much.

As I told these business owners in our very first meeting,

“You’ll get out of this only what you put into it.”

Communication, folks. It’s a wonderful thing.

Ken Mueller is the proprietor of Inkling Media, with 30 years of experience in the media industry.

  • I can’t decide which point is my favorite. I was nodding my head and saying “yep” in agreement to all of them. Good thing I work by myself…

    • @Erin F. Just wait until you start disagreeing with yourself.

      • @KenMueller Oh, I already do that.

  • kmueller62

    @chillygal thanks for the RT, Jeri!

  • MarcSnyder

    Respectfully, Ken, I’ve got to ask: don’t you share at least *part* of the responsability of this projetct not going too well? Seems to me that any time you accept to do “something (you) hate doing, and of which (you’re) not a big fan, you’re also dooming the projetc from Day 1. No?

  • MarcSnyder

    Respectfully, Ken, I’ve got to ask: don’t you share at least *part* of the responsability of this project not going too well? It seems to me that any time you accept to do “something (you) hate doing, and of which (you’re) not a big fan”, you’re also dooming the projetc from Day 1. No?

    • @MarcSnyder I would agree to that, however I have done this in the past and have shown I can do it well. But when they agree to it, and then don’t follow through on their end, they bear the burden. it is their money. i can only hold their hand so long.

    • @MarcSnyder I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I may not like a particular job, but the principles I hold will ensure that I do the job to the best of my abilities. If the higher-ups or co-workers aren’t contributing anything, though, any efforts I make are wasted.

  • I remember having this conversation with you over on your blog in the post you linked, @KenMueller – and it absolutely comes down to communication between all interested parties. I’ve seen first-hand just how effective properly executed managed services can be – and it ultimately hinges on clearly communicating the expectations and scope of the relationship.

    Of course, internally managed social strategy is ideal for all the reasons that you indicated- but that just isn’t always possible. Ghostwriting carries its inherent risks – but those risks can be mitigated if there’s a strategy to deal with contingencies.

    • @jasonkonopinski Agreed. In this case, they signed on the dotted line and agreed to certain things. ONe year later, they never followed through on what was agreed to, and then wondered why it didn’t work.

    • @jasonkonopinski And I’ll add, that is why I refuse, on principal, to accept any ghostwriting jobs. It may be an “accepted” practice, but it is disingenuous.

      • @KenMueller@jasonkonopinski Ghostwriting is hard, too. I’ve had people who want me to ghostwrite for them but have had to decline. The disconnect between my writing and their communication would be glaring. I only can compromise the writing so much before I have to say, “Sorry, but I don’t think so.” I prefer taking the editor role.

        • @Erin F. @KenMueller I don’t have any ethical objections to ghostwriting by others, but it’s not something that I’ll accept offers to do for the very reasons that you’ve pointed out, Erin.

  • kmueller62

    @SarahSkerik thanks for the RT, Sarah!

  • Hi Ken, Ending any client relationship is hard, even when it’s not going very well, so I feel for you. I am feeling ‘stuck’ with a client right now that I’ve worked with for a number of years. I know it will probably end soon, but I just can’t bring myself to cut the cord myself. Of course, it would be much easier if I landed a new 6-figure, multi-year contract right now. Sometimes I guess I stay stuck for the dough…sad, but true.

    • @Shelley Pringle Money can be a huge motivating factor, and was a big one for me in this case, not just the actual figures, but the possibility of developing some good contacts for down the line. Sadly, that didn’t really happen either. It’s interesting, because someone else took over the account, particularly a local agency that specializes in the day to day management. I have no idea what they are getting paid, but they are clearly doing more than I was able to do on my limited budget. But since they turned down a variety of pretty meaty packages for the bare minimum, I was loathe to give them more. Interestingly enough, this client is focusing on FB, and in more than a month with the new company, they have a net gain of 2 Facebook fans, even with a lot more content. The other thing that’s interesting is that engagement has gone up, but 99% of it is from other clients that this particular agency is managing. So they are basically cross promoting all of their clients. It’s not “real” engagement.

      I refuse to do that.

      • @KenMueller@Shelley Pringle I once had a conversation with one of the community managers for Xbox Live (at last year’s PAX East in Boston). During one of the panels, he spoke about the early days of creating the Xbox Live community – and it was a lot of ‘dog-fooding’ to combat the graveyard effect. They had multiple dummy accounts with individual personalities to create the appearance of conversation. I’d say it worked for them – the numbers of people on the XBox Live service is pretty staggering.

        Early on, you might have to do this. No one wants to participate in a digital community if they feel like they’re the only ones there. Now, I’m not defending the tactics employed by the agency you’re talking about, Ken, just offering some perspective.

        • @jasonkonopinski@Shelley Pringle Now see, that’s a practice, known as “astro-turfing”, that I think is incredibly wrong. If you have to fake it to create the appearance of conversation, no matter how good your product is, that’s wrong. Completely unethical, and that is why Social Media gets a bad name, by companies that get hired out to do just that, and I’ve seen the ugly side of that as it has been foisted on some of my clients by other agencies with whom they have worked.

        • @KenMueller@Shelley Pringle Astroturfing and dogfooding are two entirely different things. Only one of them is unethical.

        • @jasonkonopinski@Shelley Pringle What you described here is astroturfing – creating fake accounts and personas.

        • @KenMueller@Shelley Pringle In the case of Xbox Live, it wasn’t about conversation- it was about creating a culture of competition. Can’t have competition without a few polarizing upstarts to draw people in. Controversy breeds attention.

          Trust me, I’m no apologist for those early days of Xbox Live (’02?) – but it paid off for them. Risky? Absolutely. It could have killed the product before it ever got off the ground. Unscrupulous? No question. Effective? In the case of Xbox Live, you can’t argue to the contrary.

        • @jasonkonopinski@Shelley Pringle And that’s where the problem lies, when unscrupulous is effective. It should never happen. What they were doing was far from dogfooding, which is transparent. And you yourself said it was about creating the appearance of conversation.

        • @KenMueller@Shelley Pringle I’m not disputing that. And I can admit when I’m wrong: I misspoke on the conversation point.

  • Solid tips Ken! I think 80% of all problems can be solved through better communication.

    One thing I will say coming from the client side is that it is important for agencies to be frank up front about what is realistic given the client’s budget level. Deep down most people expect to get more than what they pay for, and if they are only willing to pay for an hour a week, setting the expectations about what can be achieved with that level of focus (with a follow up in writing) is probably key to the happiness of both parties.

    • @adamtoporek exactly. I sat with this group and gave them a three hour seminar on what social media is and how it works. Two of the businesses involved were already clients of mine (one current, and a dream clients who gets it, and another a former client who expected magic over night…hence a former client). Expectations from our end were very clear, and my once good client even admitted that. He was frustrated thru the whole process and kept trying to get the other businesses on board, to no avail.

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  • ginidietrich

    You could totally replace “social media” with “PR” and have the same story and the same tips. Too many times clients hire outside counsel and then expect to just wash their hands of it. We often have the conversation with clients…and we require weekly meetings so we can better do our jobs. If they skip meetings or don’t show, we don’t do the work. Plain and simple.

    • @ginidietrich That’s exactly what happened here. We couldn’t get them to monthly meetings. Incredibly painful.

    • @ginidietrich I enjoy firing the occasional unruly client. Rawr.

  • kmueller62

    @cpawebster thanks for the RT, Rachel!

    • cpawebster

      @kmueller62 You bet! Good stuff! I’m sure you can understand the headache for me in ‘managing the day-to-day,’ at times!

      • kmueller62

        @cpawebster most definitely

        • cpawebster

          @kmueller62 Good post and one I plan to use next time I’m in your position again!

  • Some self professed ‘busy’ clients do show this attitude. I generally don’t work with them and excuse myself after the first project is over. It gives an impression that they think we are not a priority and I would rather concentrate on the nicer souls who think otherwise. I guess its important to reject these clients as much as finding the right ones.

    • @Raj-PB I like your thinking. And I think that is really an overall problem with how people perceive Social media. They like it, but in their minds the tools are “free” so it should be cheap and easy and they don’t give it, or us, priority.

  • One of the things I was taught early on to do was to document everything – from start to finish. And in starting, it was particularly important to lay out expectations… not just from the agency side, but what the agency needed from the client in return to do their job properly. Who’s going to manage what? What’s the approval process (and timeframe)? Etc. etc. Of course, it still doesn’t mean that the client “gets” it…. but it can help, I think. And when it doesn’t, I do think that’s when one has to decide whether or not one’s going to stay or walk away.

    The other thing that I have personally experienced in similar situations is that there’s absolutely no point hiring me for my “social media expertise” (because that’s the reason they come to me) if they’re not going to bring me in on the strategy, etc., from the start. I can’t execute what I don’t help plan, because I do actually have a decent-ish mind (!), and it’s so much easier to course correct when you have a decent plan to begin with. So I’ve learned, the hard way, to try and stay away from this kind of arrangement where I’m essentially a sub-contractor. I too ended a business agreement that was very similar to what you describe a while back – because it just wasn’t working, and I didn’t want either of us to feel resentful – or, frankly, to *keep* feeling resentful but not actually doing anything about it.

    • @Shonali Great points, Shonali. We need to be a part of the process and we need to lay out the expectations. In this case, we got the latter, but not the former. And it didn’t work.

    • Neicolec

      @Shonali What an awful experience this sounds like, Ken! I guess one take-away that I see from your post and that Shonali touches on is that you could use this as a lesson for what to include in your contract with clients. What the client must provide. I’ll be thinking about that, based on your experience.

      • @Neicolec@Shonali Oh, it was in the contract, but there were a dozen different parties, and no one wanted to take the lead, so nothing ever happened.

        • @KenMueller@Neicolec@Shonali If it was doomed from the start, I would have separated from that contract within 30 days. Sounds like it limped along far longer than it should have.

        • @jasonkonopinski@Neicolec@Shonali It did, but I was committed to working with them on a year long contract, and as mentioned before, it was a 3 party deal, and one of the parties included some good clients. He worked with me to try to get things moving, to no avail. Live and learn!

        • @KenMueller You’re right about live and learn. And I’m not going to presume to know everything that was going on with you, but for my part, obviously the $$ comes into play as well. So even when I’ve severed relationships, I’ve made sure that I wouldn’t hurt financially, which means getting other clients set up, converting what’s at the top of the pipeline, etc. That’s not selling out, IMHO, it’s just being a good business person, right? @jasonkonopinski @Neicolec

        • @Shonali@jasonkonopinski@Neicolec Yeah, sadly money is usually a factor. But I know a lot more now that I did 2 years or even a year ago, and I’ve become much pickier in the clients that I work with.

  • I would also think the question of content might be necessary for any element of marketing, including social media. How were you expected to engage with customers and prospects without an understanding and access to ideas, themes, information (i.e. content)? Thanks for sharing.

    • @Collectual One of the interesting things in this scenario is that we tried to collect our own information using websites and the individual Facebook pages of the various businesses. Several of them had neither. No place to gather information. Only one of them had an effective and active Facebook presence. The others who were on Facebook basically had dead pages. (And we offered them workshops on how to use social media, but no one was interested). Additionally, for those who had websites, they were abysmal. None were blogging. None were even changing content on them. If I could show you some of the websites, you’d get a good chuckle. One even looked like an old geocities site. You can only go back to a static, non-updated website so many times looking for content. And I’ll point out that these are rather high end businesses, most of which I could never afford.

  • kmueller62

    @BeckyLoya thanks for the RT, Becky!

  • Yes. This is another area we have to keep talking about. I wonder sometimes why we have these conventions where we usually end up talking to each other about these things and not customers. What is the best way to tell these things to them rather than discussing them among ourselves?Of course I’ll share this article with the 8 people listening to me who aren’t colleagues. But there has to be a more effective, consistent way. (I know, like we all don’t have enough to do right?)

    • @Tinu Well, I think we will always be having these conversations internally because it is cathartic, and can be instructive. With clients now, I use THIS particular story. If I sense that the issue of communication might be an issue, I tell them why it is important, and why they need to be an active participant. But it’s really mind-boggling to me. Why would a business hand you the keys to the car and say…go for it! Do what you want! Because the moment something goes wrong (real or perceived) they’ll be breathing down your neck. I try to build my relationships with clients as partnerships in order to avoid this particular scenario, as well as the opposite scenario of micro-managing. I have a friend who was doing Social Media for her company, and they effectively messed things up by wanting to screen every tweet before it went out, and by saying that all tweets had to be specifically tied to the business. Quite discouraging.

  • Catching up on my Spin Sucks and glad I am. THIS has been my experience far too often with my Social Media clients…. and I’ve decided that IT’S ALL MY FAULT.

    After too many ‘bitter break ups’ I realized that I needed to SCHOOL them in the beginning with a detailed “How it works” outline that I actually make them sign. Part of it is the Client Commitment section so that they understand that if they don’t fulfill their part it won’t work.Lastly, when I have to deal with a Board instead of an individual as the point person, I charge more money. I’m not joking… if part of my job is to bring consensus to a group of egos I get paid to do it.

    Great read.

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