Kate Stevens is President of Europe at top tech PR agency AxiCom. Since joining the business 14 years ago, she’s gained a wealth of knowledge around the behaviours that increase (and decrease) client retention. Here, she shares her 10 top tips for agencies looking to build rock-solid, long term relationships with their own clients.
“Maintaining strong, long-standing client relationships is vital because of the investment required to win a new piece of business. From going through the process of pitching and winning, right through to that onboarding. That’s a huge investment of both the agency’s time, but also on the client’s side, and none of you really want to have wasted that investment. You really want to maximise it.”
“By getting close to clients, you can start to actually mine for new opportunities within their business.”
If you’re going to be working with people on a day-to-day basis, the chemistry has got to be good. It’s just much easier to work with people you fundamentally get on with. People have to factor a bit of ‘getting to know you’ time into client calls and meetings. It’s just about building that rapport, remembering to ask people how they are and also understanding the type of person they are.
You might not be best friends with them, but if you can connect in some way, it allows you to have broader conversations. That has a business benefit for all parties because you can understand where the thorn in their side comes from. By getting close to clients, you can start to actually mine for new opportunities within their business.
It’s really simple. It’s just about communicating, which should in theory be easy because we’re in Comms, right?
GETTING THE BUDGETS RIGHT
“Ultimately, if the numbers aren’t right, all that happens is that you run the team ragged because they’re overworking and over-servicing, and then they get burnt out and they quit. You lose talent over it and you lose clients over it.”
A lot of agencies will say “We won’t take on any work for less than X amount of money.” We’ve never done that because we work in tech and sometimes there are some really interesting startups that we can take on and grow with. If we do good work, that’s where the sheer joy lies. Our longest standing client has been with us for 18 years. It started small, got bigger and bigger and bigger – ultimately expanding into different markets.
For us though, we do heavily focus on retainer versus project work because retained work allows you to predict, forecast and plan. If we want to grow as a business and hire more staff, we need to know those revenues are coming in. If you’re doing a good job, chances are they will renew that contract with you.
However, what we have seen happening increasingly is more people offering smaller retainers, with projects on top of that. It’s an interesting shift. What we’ve had to do is work quite closely with our clients to try and work out the reality of how much project money is coming, not only for us to forecast financially, but also for us to plan and make sure we’ve got the staff available to them. There’d be nothing worse than a client saying, “Yeah, let’s do this project,” and we simply haven’t been able to staff up for it in time. Those projects can sometimes drop quite last minute. There’s a little bit of the gambling of how certain we are that this project money is coming in.
Standalone project clients are also happening a lot. You have to work out the cost of that; what’s going into this pitch versus the money that’s going to come to us as an agency?
I sometimes think clients aren’t truly mindful of how much it costs an agency to go through that pitch process. We had a really interesting brief. It would have been a great, great company to be working for, but the effort we would have spent just by trying to win it versus the money that we could have made me feel a bit queasy. I ended up saying “I don’t think we should spin our wheels on this one.”
Ultimately, if the numbers aren’t right, all that happens then is you run the team ragged because they’re overworking and over-servicing, and then they get burnt out and worn out and they quit. You lose talent over it and you lose clients over it.
SETTING ACHIEVABLE TARGETS
“From the outset, you have to be realistic and clear about what you want to achieve vs what is achievable for the financial investment being made.”
We put measurement first, so that everybody’s really, really clear on the KPIs. “What are we measuring and how are we measuring it? Does it ladder back up to the business objectives so that everyone within the chain, from our client contact right through to their bosses and stakeholders can be clear about success and whether we’ve achieved it?”
You can do that for small budgets and you can do that for big budgets, but if you’re not clear upfront about what success is going to look like, people will walk away disappointed.
Setting the clarity about what we’ll achieve over time is also important. There’s often a lot of pressure on people to show immediate results. Some will think, “I’ve hired a PR agency. I’ll be famous tomorrow,” and it really isn’t quite as simple as that. It’s helpful to have a 90 day plan so that everybody knows where they are every step of the way.
“We ask our teams to always think about the value they’re bringing to a client in every interaction that they have. That helps cement those relationships.”
When you hire an agency, you want somebody who’s not completely sold on your Kool-Aid. You want somebody who’s going to push and challenge a little, somebody who’s very, very clear of what else is happening in the industry and can bring in influences from it.
We ask our teams to think about the value they’re bringing to a client in every interaction that they have. Time is money and the client is paying for our time to do work on their behalf. Making sure that we’re always adding value during every interaction, even if it’s a simple WIP call, status call or something, being able to bring something to the table, that’s going to make them think, “That was a helpful call for me. It was well worth me having.” That too, helps cement those client relationships.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
“Typos, being late for calls – it’s like death by a thousand cuts. Clients need to know that somebody is on it with the details so they don’t have to worry about it.”
Do you know what’s really interesting? Over the course of my entire career, the biggest thing I’ve noticed is clients are a lot more forgiving of a big mistake. It’s the little things that will push them over the edge; lots of typos in work, being late for calls – it’s like death by a thousand cuts. That can be a lot more frustrating than a big mistake. You’ll get a good dressing down for it, but it doesn’t usually lead to a breakup. But if you continually deliver poor service and they just don’t feel they’re getting value from what you’re doing, then you’re out the door.
Spelling with typos and inconsistencies seems to be the thing that pushes people over the edge, because you’re in-house, you’re under pressure, you’ve got to deliver something and you want to just be able to give it a quick once over and send it on. You don’t want to think, “I’ve got to proof this, I’ve got to check this. They haven’t double-checked that messaging consistency there.” Clients just need to know that somebody is on it with the details so they don’t have to worry about it.
PROTECTING THE TEAM
“I as an agency leader see it as my role to ensure that the client is behaving well in order to make sure that my staff are happy – and that’s the priority.”
Agencies should be looking after their teams first and foremost. It’s soul destroying when clients behave badly – and I’ve seen some clients behave in an extraordinary manner.
If clients are allowed to behave badly, agency staff won’t put up with it, but if they see the senior team addressing it, they think, “Wow, my employer has got my back.” It’s important.
I have absolutely had to have some very difficult conversations about bad behaviours that I’ve seen exhibited from clients to staff. It’s tough to have those conversations. You have to say to somebody, “When you do X, Y, Z, the impact is this. You need to understand and realise that.” But I as an agency leader see it as my role to make sure that the client is behaving well, in order to make sure that my staff are happy – and that’s the priority.
“Consistency of the team is so important. It’s a red flag to a client when there’s a lot of churn and you bring in new people all the time.”
We’re lucky as an agency as we have very low churn of staff. Well, we’re a great place to work. We’ve won awards for it. That’s great because it can give clients real consistency in the teams that they have working on their accounts. They like that. It’s a red flag to a client when there’s a lot of churn on the team and you bring in new people all the time. They think, “Oh, what’s going on? Now, we’ve got to waste time with this person getting up to speed on the account.”
“Knowing that we care enough to be proactive and invest time thinking about new ideas is absolutely the secret sauce to keeping a client for the long term.”
One of the challenges when you do have the same people working on the same account year on year is that they’re going to start to get a bit dry. They might understand the business in and out, but it’s very difficult to bring fresh thinking. There’s something slightly demotivating if you can’t see momentum. I think that can be one of the reasons why sometimes client agency relationships sour: that sense of momentum just isn’t there.
That’s why it’s so important to bring in new perspectives. That’s not to suggest that you have to change the client team, but make sure that you draw on resources within the rest of the agency.
What a client’s going to want to see is, “Are these people thinking about me? Are they thinking about what I could do?” They might not have the budgets for it. They might not have the resources for the things, but knowing that we care enough to be proactive and invest time thinking about new ideas is absolutely the secret sauce to keeping a client for the long term.
“This is the moment that the client can go to their boss, ‘OMG, look at this amazing stuff I coordinated with the agency. This is why I need more budget in my pot.‘”
Back in the day, my day job was reporting, reporting, reporting. I just always thought of it at the time as a really menial task of just pulling data and sticking clippings. I didn’t actually understand that this was the jazz hands moment. This was the moment that the agency goes, “Look at what we’ve done for you.” This is the moment that the client can go to their boss, “OMG, look at this amazing stuff I coordinated with the agency. This is why I need more budget in my pot.”
All too often, reporting falls on junior people who don’t understand the context. Junior people today are head and shoulders above the junior person that I was. I was just somebody who happened to get a job after I graduated and was grateful. Now people are so driven and so keen, but again, this sense that reporting is a menial task still lingers. People think reporting is menial.
I would love to see more people go, “Hold on a minute. This is the value moment. I need to understand exactly who this report is going to and how I should be packaging this information.”
A big challenge with reporting is 50% of the people out there are very data-driven, 50% of them are going to be all about the visuals. You’ve got to try and marry the two.
I’ve learned over my career that reporting is a really, really important part of the process – the most important – apart from actually doing a really good job and having great strategy and ideas.
“Ideally, you’d want to have a relationship with a client of three to four years to have really achieved something, and to be able to walk away saying ‘We did good for them.'”
Maintaining strong, long-standing client relationships is vital because of the investment required to win a new piece of business. From going through the process of pitching and winning, right through to that onboarding. That’s a huge investment of both the agency’s time, but also on the client’s side, and none of you really want to have wasted that investment. You really want to maximise it.
But the reality is that you’re an agency, so you are going to expect that at some point your clients will move on and leave you. There are any number of reasons why that might happen. You could be failing them, of course, but sometimes they need to go in a different direction. Sometimes they don’t have the budget. They may just feel that they’ve outgrown you.
Ideally, you’d want to have a relationship with a client of three to four years or more to have really achieved something for them, and to be able to walk away from that relationship, no matter how it ends, saying, “We did good for them, and we can prove that over time.” It’s a really good feeling when you can think about what you’ve achieved with a client.