Welcome back! If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m a huge proponent of learning to manage your clients effectively. This is because it’s something many agencies struggle with – it’s rare to meet a client in my coaching practice that has no room to improve in this area.
Part of the reason why so many businesses struggle with effective client management is that their staff’s beliefs lead them astray. While they may not consciously think so, many fall into the trap of thinking that great service = saying ”yes” to all client demands. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly if you’re aiming to build an agency that competes on quality (not just on price).
Keeping customers is way cheaper than finding new ones. Better client management breeds stronger retention rates, additional sales, higher prices, more satisfied customers and a less stressful experience all around. If you neglect to improve your skills in this area, your business will suffer in the long-term.
We give our staff technical training to do their job but many agencies do not do the same when it comes to effective client management. With that in mind, let’s dive in and talk about how you can do this.
Your Team Are a Vital Part of The Process
In the early days of your agency, you probably spent a great deal of time working directly with clients. Whether you were listening to their concerns or delivering on important projects, you had hands-on input into the process of “client management”.
If you constantly said yes to your clients when you really should have been asking for more money or politely reminding them of your scope of work agreement, you quickly saw the results of that approach. Forced to do more work for no extra pay, you learned your lesson: there’s more to client management than simply always saying YES!
However, as an agency scales up and the day-to-day management of clients is passed down other staff, there’s a shift in dynamics. Navigating sticky client situations is tough enough for you, as you’ve got the business’ reputation and longevity to think about. But your staff have to deal with an additional pressure… pleasing the boss (i.e. you).
This is particularly true of junior staff in the agency. They want to be seen as skilled and competent by senior staff, and client perceptions of them factor into this. With the words “the customer is always right” burned indelibly into their minds from years of hearing it, they’ll be as obliging as possible and try to give clients whatever they want (often without a second thought as to the impact of what they’re agreeing to).
This is not how you build a highly profitable business. Becoming a doormat for clients to walk all over inevitably leads to one outcome: you’ll be stressed, overworked, burned out, and wondering how things got so complicated.
The key to avoiding this situation is to effectively manage expectations from day 1. Perception is a reality, and it works both ways. If your team know what you expect of them, they’ll be able to work towards building your agency into the kind of business you know it can be. And if your clients have unrealistic expectations regarding quality, the scope of work, or delivery times, they’ll perpetually be dissatisfied.
One of the most significant areas of expectation management your team need training on is the difference between “standards” and “extras”.
Standards vs Extras – Avoiding Scope Creep and Unrealistic Client Expectations
You have to set out a clearly defined scope of work agreement at the commencement of any project. Without this, you could be left trying to deliver on the client’s vague vision, wondering if the price you initially quoted them is going to cover the ever-increasing demands they’re placing upon you.
With a scope of work in place, you’ll be able to look back on it and figure out if what the client is asking for is a standard (i.e. already part of your agreement), or if it’s an extra (it’s beyond the scope of the current agreement).
It’s important that your team understands that they shouldn’t feel obliged to deliver extras for free. Doing so will condition clients to expect the same in the future. Before you know it, those extras have become implicit standards. And if you suddenly decide to skip out on these extras one month, what’s the likely result?
Client dissatisfaction, as their expectations have not been met. Going the extra mile is all well and good, but when that becomes the norm, it ceases to be extra… and is soon seen as par for the course.
A clear upfront agreement, laying out what’s part of a monthly retainer or project (and what isn’t) is key. Beyond that, your agreement should also contain details as to how any extras will be billed. The most common approach would simply be charged a flat rate per hour or per additional deliverable completed.
Of course, you don’t always have to charge clients for these extras. Occasionally doing a little bit more for free (if it’s valuable to the client) can be a good strategy to boost long-term retention, or to upsell them on a new level of service. The key here is to ensure that they understand they’re getting something for free and that they’re not under the impression it’s going to be a standard from that point on.
An example of how you could deliver an extra without being put on the hook for delivery in the future:
“This month, at no extra cost to you, we’ve produced x report/deliverable. This would typically cost in the region of ___, but as we feel your business will benefit from it (given that ____), it’s yours for no extra cost.
If you’d like to discuss adding x to your monthly service plan, just let me know and we’ll set up a time to talk about it.”
The above is just an example – tailor it to fit your business, but remember the spirit of it: extras are great, but doing more work for no additional payment is not.
Managing Expectations Around Response Times
Beyond the work itself, you should also consider expectations/service levels around deadlines and response times. Once again, this is an area that junior staff often struggle with (so we must explicitly train them). The impulse to agree to a client request without thinking or to respond instantly to their emails/instant messages/phone calls is one that needs to be trained out of them.
If a client’s fee level means that you respond within 3 hours yet they are conditioned to expect a response within the hour – because the team always responds immediately (who has ever thought “oh I might as well answer this email now since I can”), they’ll be disappointed when you take three hours… even though that is what they are paying for!
Expectations are everything. It’s important that your staff do everything they can to ensure client expectations remain reasonable. Sometimes, that’s going to mean letting client calls go to voicemail, or allowing emails and IM’s to sit unanswered for a while. Staff may be eager to jump in and respond right away, but make sure that enthusiasm is tempered with understanding: expectations matter, so they need to be managed correctly.
Mastering the skills of effective client management is one of the most important things you can focus on as an agency. It’s not enough for the owners to be skilled – all the team has to be too.
Client management is a game of expectations. If clients get less than they feel they’re entitled to, satisfaction plummets. But if you can consistently give them what they expect (and a little more, provided you know how to avoid being liable for free “extras” in the future)? Your retention rates will soar.
Managing client expectations starts with a solid scope of work agreement and clear service level agreements. Without these, you’ll flounder and could end up delivering a lot more than you bargained for.
Having this conversation with clients at the start of your relationship is important, as it sets the tone for how things will proceed. First impressions matter: the work you do in ensuring they have realistic expectations from the get-go will make satisfying them much easier, as the actual service delivered will be in line with what they expect.
Managing client expectations is fundamental, but truly effective client & account management is broader than that. That’s why I’ve written a brand new eBook on the subject.
Inside, you’ll discover my five-part framework for great client management. This could be an excellent training tool for your team, helping you to build your agency and increase your retention rates without over-servicing, constant stress and competing solely based on price.
If you’re interested, you can download a free copy by completing the form below.