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Expectations, Communication, Trust: The Fundamentals of a Great Agency-Client Relationship


Great client-agency relationships are not built on hard skills like the ability to do the work. Of course, development skills are essential, and many a relationship has been burned by an inability to code an effective solution.

But as we like to say, shipping code is the easy part. The quality of the work is a direct result of the soft skills, behaviors and characteristics that really set one client-developer relationship apart from another.

Analysis of more than 23,000 client-agency relationships by the consultancy firm Aprais confirms this. The Aprais team found that behavior metrics are becoming increasingly vital.

Trust, communication and a set of shared expectations are what really matter.


A Foundation of Trust

“Trust is the pinnacle of any relationship when genuine collaboration occurs between teams and there's a total belief in each other's capabilities,” says Vlad Komanicky, founding partner and commercial and strategy lead at go-to marketing advisory company Alchemists.

Komanicky says he places trust at the very top of his company’s client-agency evaluation framework and that “outcomes can become genuinely game-changing” when there is genuine trust.

His comments align with research.

Trust has a direct correlation with economic output, according to research by neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak. “Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies,” Zak writes. “They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.”

Put that into numbers, and the differences are staggering. When compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies were:

  • 74 percent less stressed.
  • Had 106 percent more energy at work.
  • Were 76 percent more engaged.
  • 50 percent more productive.

How can you increase trust at the beginning of a client-agency relationship? Both parties should strive to be as transparent as possible to increase trust, even if they have proprietary methods or information, says Matt Bowman, president of Thrive Marketing Agency. Regular checkpoints and milestones are also useful for building trust on both sides, as well as maximizing “the chances of achieving success and exceeding goals.”

Don’t stop working on it once trust has been achieved, however. Komanicky points out that failure to nurture trust can lead to complacency. “Even though you have reached the coveted ‘Trust’ phase, it’s not self-sustaining,” he writes.

“Both parties must continue to work on it and to innovate – and more so in today’s environment.”



Great Communication

Communication is essential throughout the entire client-agency relationship, says Denise Beachley, CIO and partner at Kingsmen Software. “From the pitch and introductions to planning and development, strong communication channels help everything run smoothly. It can also help smooth things over if things go awry.”

Great communication is how both parties build trust, too. Bill Gadless, founding partner of life sciences marketing agency emagine, recommends companies “establish a collaborative tone from the outset, including frequent use of video chats instead of just email and phone” to show that they care and are willing to commit to a great working relationship.

Transparent communication in particular is key, says writer and editor Jory MacKay. Both parties need to be open and honest with each other from the outset for the project to succeed.

“To ensure there’s two-way transparent communication, everyone on the client and developer teams need to know what’s expected of them with clearly outlined responsibilities and accountability from the very outset,” he writes. That means setting timelines and building a communication plan that keeps everyone accountable.

It’s important to respect everyone’s time, too, says Michael Brenner, CEO at Marketing Insider Group. Unnecessary meetings take time away from more important activities and are not acceptable. Both parties can avoid this by establishing expectations when entering into an agreement.

At the same time, be respectful when meetings do occur. Come with a clear agenda and stick to it.



Shared Expectations and Milestones

One of the biggest strains on a developer-client relationship stems from early miscommunication, says writer Will Morris at Manage WP. “Both parties may enter into a project thinking they have a shared understanding of the expectations, only to learn later they’re speaking two different languages.”

A set of shared expectations are essential for benchmarking progress and measuring success. It’s why we spend so much time during the discovery phase to help clients better understand their goals, says Bill Clerici, CEO and partner at Kingsmen Software.

If those expectations are out of kilter at the very start, the relationship will only deteriorate in the future. It’s also why we spend a lot of time mapping out a work breakdown structure. The WBS lays everything bare and shows the client exactly what we will be working on for the next few sprints so there can be no misconceptions.

Open communication about a client’s initial goals and expectations can also avoid scope creep when work starts, writes Jonathan Schwartz, CEO and cofounder of Bullseye Strategy:

“Alignment in exactly what's covered within the scope of work permits clients to prioritize their deliverables and allows agencies to set a reasonable expectation of what will be completed by the end of the month.” Regular milestones also reduce scope creep and keep projects on track, Schwartz adds.

Expectations should be clear for both parties, says Dana P. Hundley, cofounder of Career Cooperative. It’s expected that the development partner will set expectations for themselves, but expectations should also be set for the client. Those expectations might include:

  • What deadlines do they need to meet?
  • How should they communicate with you, and when are they allowed to contact you? Are non-working hours off-limits?
  • What specific tasks do they own in each process?

Like the project’s expectations, these should be set from the very start.

Both parties, the client and the development partner, have a responsibility to embody these characteristics and work hard to build a positive working relationship. Do this, and creating business-orientated software products becomes significantly easier.


Images by: CoWomen, Luis Villasmil, Austin Distel

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