This article was originally written in December 2014, but has been updated for current standards - Level343 Editors
There are only a few days in our career that we can really remember vividly. The day we were recently fired as an agency is one of those days. Yes, the team assigned to this project, actively working on this project, got their collective pink slip. That’s right – fired by a client.
It saddens me in so many ways, but most of all, on a personal level. I truly liked the client and knew we could help them solidify their presence around the San Francisco Bay Area, and globally.
A Client Relationship Is Not a Marriage
Let me begin by saying that the relationship between a client and an agency is not like a marriage. I’ve heard and read about how you should treat your clients. Some agencies like to say it’s like a marriage or a partnership… really? Actually, a lot of agencies say they’re “partnering” with a client. That’s all well and good in a world with unicorns and rainbows… but is that what you’re really doing?
At every agency I’ve worked at, it’s been stiff relationships, a gauntlet of needing to please the client, hold weekly meetings (depending on the size of the company), prepare periodic reports, give presentations – and more often than not, become an order-taker or a yes-man/woman.
If you’re determined to compare it to a marriage or a partnership, you have to remember that those are based on years of courting, respect and the desire to be with your husband/wife for life, or to grow with your “partner”. That’s not the reality. I don’t want to partner with my clients, I want to become their business friend, confidant and a sounding board to brainstorm great ideas. So for people that say it’s like a marriage, I say poppycock. I wouldn’t ever want a client to treat me like a spouse or vise versa.
As someone who has worked in large corporate America, now running my own agency for over 20 years, I’ve learned it’s not wise to compare clients with or treat clients like partners, but as good business friends. I don’t know about you, but I always tell my good friends the truth. Good bad or ugly, they’ll hear nothing but the truth from me. That goes for clients, too, which brings me to the next point of a working friendship.
You wouldn’t spend that much time nurturing a business relationship unless you truly believed your friend needed the help, and in many clients’ cases, they do, or they wouldn’t have hired you. They sign on the dotted line and ask you to promote, SEO, write, clean, audit, etc., their site.
On many levels, that’s how we came to be with this client. I took on the contract because I knew we could help them. Yet something went wrong within the sixth month. The following information is only one example of what can and will go wrong with a client if you don’t cover all your responsibilities and theirs.
Cross All Your Ts
I could tell that the friendship was deteriorating when a new person suddenly appeared. In this case, it was a new “guy” that was brought into the mix. Sure, I’d like to blame it all on the new guy, and be done with it. But, I can’t. I want to take responsibility for some of the interactions that went on during this short friendship, but I can’t even do that.
We dove in like any good agency and wanted to establish a strong understanding of what this new intern was going to be responsible for. After all, we had already established the strategy, the goals, and marketing/branding direction we were going to work on for the next 8 months. We had the contract written out, we had a few meetings with the client, including the team that would be working on the project. But even after several requests for definition of the intern’s responsibilities, we never got a definitive answer.
Is Your Contract Clear
I made sure we referred to the contract and made a few changes in order to adjust some of our input. But within the first week of this newfound intern’s arrival, our friendship, courting, honeymoon we once had with this client – whatever you want to call it – was gone. That’s when I had to step back and truly assess what we had agreed upon. You see, when an agency takes on a client there are some fundamental agreements made. What I have always insisted upon when Level343 works with clients is to make sure we have everything defined in the contract. Down to what their responsibilities would be in order to stay within the confines of the contract and the strategy work order ahead. The fact that we were never given a definition of what role this new intern played was the first sign of our relationship going sour.
Challenging is Not a Dirty Word
When we first laid out the contract, we wanted to make sure we understood the brand, language and goals the client was going after. What and who their market was, and what we were going to do in order to have scalable content that would be shared in social media. These are all things that had been discussed ad nauseam with the client, prior to the new intern coming onto the scene.
Yet, any and all challenges that had already been discussed and agreed upon were no longer on the table. You see, the client and the new intern decided to move the site website, with no concern for the content twe had already cleaned, and ranked, including adding new sub directories, and documents we were never made aware of. The various developers were making our lives miserable and the migration of the site had already gone over the estimated time of completion by a few months. And the beat goes on…
Playing Nice In A Common Sandbox
Here’s the second insight I want to share with you. When taking on a client and working hand in hand with another agency make sure you include this language within your contract. Something we could have done better, but as it stands, again you’re looking at a perfect world, not reality. Their timeline isn’t your timeline. Their process isn’t your process, and they weren’t part of the original discussions or scope that had been agreed upon.Furthermore, once a week meetings is out of scope… can you imagine doing that with every client you have? Yoozzaa, once a month is good, I would even do once every two weeks, but that’s something the client should schedule if they need.
Basically, if you know you’re going to be working with another agency your client has outsourced to (in this case, adding a developer), make sure you’re all on the same page. The migration of a site can be a nightmare, even under the best circumstances, but when you’re looking at a large library of duplicate images and you’re supposed to be taking care of their on-page SEO, that’s when things can get really muddled.
We had to wait for a few months for the re-design of the site. But then, all the work that had been done on the testing site didn’t survive the migration. The most disheartening thing was that their Google Analytics kept disappearing, so every time we ran a report, we could only show a flat line rather than a boost in traffic.
Measure, Rinse, Repeat
That’s probably when we should have, as a company, realized we couldn’t measure our impact or grow their online presence, if they kept deterring from the original contract. They had only one interest; what keywords were they ranking for, and was the traffic organic. Meh, Joy!
In order to move forward and grow a client’s presence, you have to create compelling content, build their link authority, make sure you discover new ways their message can shared, and establish the client’s authority in a specific niche. Regardless of the niche your client is battling, you have to create content – that’s what people and search engines are consuming. Whether you’re writing e-Books to grow an email list or writing blogs to keep your readers interested, you have to create content. Your architecture has to be top notch and you have to be ready to make changes.
Friendships Are A Two-Way Street
Look, I’ve been fired before, but never since I founded Level343. It was during my years in corporate America, and yes, I’ll admit I didn’t play by the rules. Clients, like friends, sometimes just don’t get it – they can’t grasp what you’re doing. Some clients all they see is their numbers aren’t going up, their traffic isn’t showing up in their analytics, and they have an intern telling them you haven’t been in contact with them for months. All untrue, but due to so many hiccups along the way, don’t resist the inevitable break in your friendship.
In conclusion, I’ll say that we have always had a formidable exit. In this case we gave them the above image showing a 1400% growth organically in the last six months, and we were ready to tackle the conversion and bounce rate issues to the next level. Their loss really, simply stated if this client had truly believed (trusted) we were friends (had their best interests at heart), then maybe, just maybe, we could have salvaged this relationship.
I’ve really tried to see where we could have handled things differently and still protected the client’s best interests… sorry, I can’t see anything I’d change about the way we handled it.
The one way that a client relationship can be compared to a marriage or partnership is this:
Sometimes, they’re just not that into you anymore. So one of you boxes up your personal effects and hits the road. You move on. But a little smarter, and perhaps a little jaded, to the next one.
I’m sure you have a client gone sour story, go ahead share it with us…as a matter of fact here’s a recent article Outsourcing & Work Delegation Tips: 41 Entrepreneurs Share Their Experiences addressing some of these very issues, but more importantly, how to resolve some of these challenges.