Whether you're dating someone new in your personal life or courting a new vendor at work, setting and properly managing expectations is tough. That's why they call it the honeymoon period, both in dating and in business.
I recently took my agency through a series of tests through the Kolbe platform for a management and operational gut check. While the findings revealed that my team is solid (no surprise there) and that everyone knows how to communicate extremely well internally, the results also showed that my team's biggest collective challenges related specifically to client management and expectations.
Don't be a "Yes" Man (or Woman)
Being in a service industry means that you say yes... a lot. In fact, when you're just starting out like I was 8 years ago, I said yes a lot and figured out how to do it later. After being an agency in growth mode and (hopefully) much wiser than when it was a baby agency, I've noticed that while the clients and budgets are bigger, the management of expectation remains one of the hardest parts of being a service-based business.
But at the end of the day, the reason clients hire my agency is because my team is made up of the experts. Sometimes clients forget that along the way, but that's also part of the job to remind them from time to time.
Start with the Right Client
Everyone goes into a new relationship with the best possible intentions. You want to provide your services and the client wants to receive those services. You agree on a scope and a price and a contract is signed.
After talking to several other agency owners, the general sentiment is that from the point of signing a contract until the contract's termination, a significant amount of time is spent trying to keep that client. Trying to keep them happy, responsive, engaged, paying the bills, and, most importantly of all, trying to keep them trusting you.
Maybe it's just a personality trait, or maybe it's symptomatic of a larger issue. The truth is that as an agency, marketing specifically, and creative and subjective service businesses as a whole, most of the clients that hire you have a cursory knowledge of a few of the areas of your expertise.
If you're lucky, they will have 1 or 2 areas that they know extremely well. Unfortunately it's human nature to distrust and question that which we do not know. This goes double for industries that require a high level of expertise, a high output of capital for success and a high expectation of return on investment.
What's Really Happening?
If it's a personality trait issue, you need to get better at defining your target client and issue spotting prior to engagement. At its core this should be someone who pays the bills and understands your value, but to maintain a lasting relationship with a client, it's important that your values also align.
For example, family, fun and balance are three of my agency's top values. That means if I come across a client who expects responses to emails at all hours of the day and on holidays (unless it's an emergency), it's not going to be a good fit. They are fundamentally misaligned with my team's core values and as woo woo guru as that sounds, it's what makes the difference between happy clients and clients whose expectations can never be met.
If the issue is not one of core values, it means that somewhere along the way you lost the trust of your client. I've found that the only way to regain this trust, which is critical to a healthy relationship in any capacity, is to call a spade a spade.
As the owner, I've had those tough meetings where I say all the things I'm terrified to say. There are only 2 ways that conversation could go. Either you lose the client, or you get the train back on its tracks so everyone can continue to do the job they set out to do in the first place.
It's absolutely terrifying to have these talks, especially with larger clients or when your cash flow is hurting, but as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. This is absolutely true of your client base.
Believe you are the expert and continue to provide stellar service and the clients will continue to evolve into those that trust you more, micromanage less and are excited about your relationship. It's worth picking through the bushel to find those ripe berries.
If you're reading this and thinking, "this lady is nuts, I can't imagine firing a client or having this conversation, " just remember that the clients that no longer trust you are going to take 5 times the amount of time and handholding as those who get your value and are aligned with you and your team.
Maybe you can't afford NOT to have that conversation?