8 tips to foster a partnership-style relationship with clients

Laura Sacchi

6 minute read

A partnership relationship between client and agency is one that involves collaborative goal-setting over the long term, using the client’s business objectives as a framework. It is very different to a conventional buyer-vendor relationship where the client hands down a list of requirements for the agency to execute.

How is it better then? And for who?

A long-term commitment between client and agency usually results in better work, thanks to the opportunity for both partners to acquire mutual knowledge and, for the agency, to get under the skin of the client’s business strategy and brand identity. This type of commitment is also likely to lower the costs and provide a premium service.

How does this apply to the digital industry?

As innovation in business strategy is driven more and more by digital and technology, businesses look at design methodologies and new tech capabilities to create compelling customer experiences and competitive differentiation.

This wave of change pushes businesses to appoint agencies specialized in digital and technology as key partners in delivering transformative programmes of work.

In this often-complex arena, more than most, partnerships are critical to success.

Even with this premise though, building a partnership can still be difficult at times.

So, when a relationship doesn’t naturally start as a partnership, what can a Client Lead do to develop such behaviors with clients?

First, let’s look at what it is.

Essentially, a partnership-style relationship starts with transparency. When a client is able to share their business strategy, objectives, internal processes, politics and approach to decision-making. It implies trust, confidentiality and it manifests in open communications in the day-by-day, reducing formality and focusing on creating value through great work.

Financial commitment: A commercial agreement reflective of the mutual trust between partners and shaped for the long run is a key lens to look at a partnership relationship. It enables the agency team to plan ahead, invest in the right people and develop new skills.

Counsel: When the agency's expertise and reputation support the client team in crucial decision making. Similarly, when client & agency partner up at an event, giving a speech and publicly ‘showing’ their mutual understanding.

Collaboration: Client and agency working side by side as a joint team dramatically increases engagement and success of the work. It also keeps the client reassured that their needs are answered and their objectives met.

The client gets more from their money and feels rewarded by the provided commitment with good quality work.

What stops partnerships from forming?

Clients might be reluctant to disclose information on their business, either because of a lack of trust in the agency (inconsistent performance, previous bad experiences with agencies) or because of a lack in clarity in how this information will help the agency to produce better work.

At times a client might feel uncomfortable in exposing their inexperience or weaknesses with respect to the agency’s core areas of strength. Therefore becoming protective, rather than open as a way to defend their reputation.

Another scenario is when the seniority of the agency team landing the client doesn’t match with the actual skills required from the project team to do the work, showing a disconnect in the agency organization and leaving the client skeptical and dissatisfied with the agency’s performance.

Pride can also be an element of the equation: it involves preaching ‘partnership’, but then acting differently. For example, when the client wants to be in full control and, therefore, is looking for a glorified executional supplier, as opposed to a real partner. An agency who is accommodating with the client’s ideas without asking too many questions. Or, when an agency is deafto the client’s needs, pushing onwards their creative and visionary thinking with very little room for compromise.

And how might these potential barriers be overcome?

By crafting a bespoke relationship between client and agency, deeply rooted in the agency organization and true to the client and agency founding principles.

A relationship that doesn’t solely rely on individuals and personal preferences and is transparent, open and driven by good work and shared goals.

As Client Lead at Friday, I have distilled 8 tips to achieve this relationship:

  1. Get the basics right

    Develop a deep understanding of the client’s business context and needs, showing that you ‘get them’. Demonstrate your values in actions at first. Deliver on time. Be reliable.

    Always ask yourself, ‘Have we done our best for the client in this project”?

  2. Be a partner

    Before expecting the client to do so. Show that you have plans and ideas for the long run. Highlight opportunities and risks, given your deeper expertise and industry knowledge. Partner up at industry events to nudge public demonstration of trust. Show that you honestly care.

  3. Support the client in their career objectives

    As well as managing the wider client team of stakeholders. Be sensible, but open in advising the client on the right approach to achieve theirs objectives and career moves. Provide transparent feedback to develop the client team skills and knowledge.

  4. Don't be afraid to ask

    Expect transparency. There is no need for fake bonhomie.

  5. Engage the client in a 'one team' philopshy

    The client should see the agency team as a natural extension of their own people. This also keeps the agency team engaged, reduces churn and supports middle management in developing business acumen and become better leaders.

  6. Don't be greedy

    Don’t instantly expect the client to sign a long-term agreement. Be patient and listen. Be open to start small and prepare to wait until the client is ready to commit to a partnership.

  7. Be loyal

    And demonstrate genuine interest in the client’s business. Even if the relationship doesn’t work out, this attitude will ensure at least you grow your network.

  8. Be able to let go

    There are battles we can’t win and sometimes it is just the way it goes. Avoid negative gossip and holding a grudge.

These tips might sound basic and logical. But at times they are not easy to put in practice and might require significant shift in the agency culture, stakeholder management and ways of working.

How do we to it at Friday? If partnership is the North Star to point to, Client Leads are the helm keepers in a crew-style collaboratively effort.

Laura Sacchi

Client Lead

Friday is now part of PA Consulting