Client Communication Best Practices for Agencies

As an agency owner, you might believe that the quality of your work should speak for itself. As long as you get the job done – and done to the standard your client expects – there’s no need for too much communication.

And you’d be right!

Too much communication is a bad thing because it bogs a project down in meaningless meetings. The problem comes when trying to avoid “too much” devolves into barely communicating at all. That’s what leads to unhappy clients, which is something that most agency owners agree with – 75% say that “clear and honest communication” is massive for building trust.

So, it’s time to learn how to communicate with clients the right way, building trust without bogging them down, with these key client communication best practices for agencies. But first…

What Is Client Communication?

It seems like a simple question. Client communication is, well, how you communicate with clients. But for a more structured description, the term relates to how you create a flow of communication with a client. Ideally, that flow needs to be smooth – rules and methods for communicating should be in place and, ideally, there’s a schedule for meetings so you can keep up a communicative rhythm.

Where client communication falls down is when it becomes haphazard. The client has to chase your agency for answers. You have to chase them for resources. There’s no fluidity there, with both feeling like they’re on the backfoot constantly, which leads to the breakdown of trust between client and agency.

And therein lies the challenge.

In addition to 75% of agency owners believing clear and honest communication is key, 80% of clients say the same thing. Unfortunately, only 56% of clients – a difference of 24% from the 80% who believe good communication to be important – actually trust their agencies.

There’s clearly a communication breakdown going on here, which is why agency owners need these eight best practices.

Practice 1 – Systemize Your Communication Practices

Every aspect of client communication starts with the systems you have in place for handling that communication. Think of it like any other repeatable process in your business – you’re always going to speak to your clients, so you need a set of rules and standards to govern that communication.

Documentation is key to creating those standards.

On the basic level, you need to know who within your client’s company you’ll communicate with, as well as when and how you’ll talk to them. The “how” is especially important because it’ll serve as the structure for your communication going forward. Often, it’ll be a mix of email updates – perhaps even automatic notifications sent from your project management software – phone calls, and meetings. All need to be structured so your client understands what each form of communication involves and what they can expect from you when it happens.

The key for your agency is knowing the “Who?” “When?” and “How?” Answer those questions and you have the skeleton of a client communication system you can build upon.

Practice 2 – Set Expectations with Your Clients

Once you have your structure in place, you need to ensure your client knows how you intend to communicate with them. You’ve covered some of this in your documentation already – particularly in the methods you’ll use – but you’ll go further here by creating a schedule, as well as a process for communication that takes place outside that schedule.

For the latter, you’ll also set expectations for when the client should expect to hear back. For instance, you may set up a ticketing system for the client to communicate with you about project issues outside the scope of your scheduled meetings and calls. That client won’t want to be kept waiting, with no idea of when they’ll get a response, after sending a ticket. So, give them an anticipated response time – within 24 hours is often a good choice – to remove uncertainty.

And that is what you’re looking to do when setting expectations with clients – ensure they completely understand how your agency will communicate with them. Any uncertainty only adds to the distrust factor.

Practice 3 – Define Roles within Your Agency

Without internal role clarity, you can’t run a fluid agency. Therein lies another problem – Gallup reports that around half of employees wouldn’t “strongly agree” with the statement that they know what their workplace expects from them.

Having that lack of clarity inside your agency has repercussions for your clients. If an employee doesn’t understand that it’s their job to handle communications – or to at least provide data or insight into somebody else’s communication with a client – you get a system breakdown. Meetings might get missed. Key data may not be shared with the client. It all causes trust to flow out of the relationship because those breakdowns prevent you from offering transparency in communication.

How do you avoid this?

Set clear responsibilities for every employee who has a role in the client’s project. Specifically, who’s responsible for communicating with the client? Is it the project manager? Perhaps you have an account manager who handles communication duties? Whoever it is, they need to know that’s their job, and – crucially – the rest of the team needs to know what (if any) information they have to provide to make the communicator’s job easier.

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Practice 4 – Set Boundaries

So far, we’ve talked about creating a communication system, explaining it to your client, and making sure you have a “point person” who’ll handle talking to the client about the project.

Now you need to pull things back a little.

Though your client should have the option – and a defined process – for communicating with you outside of your schedule, you also have to be wary of over-communication on their behalf. We touched on this in the intro – too much communication (on either side) bogs people down and can delay a project.

It’s all about balance.

If you have a client who’s repeatedly calling and emailing at all hours of the working day, you’re having to expend time dealing with them rather than completing work on their actual project. That’s a recipe for delays. So, you need to create boundaries. Part of that’s handled by your scheduling and your ticketing system, assuming you have one. Other techniques could be reinforcing that the client can only communicate with you outside of the schedule at specific times. For instance, you could dedicate the first hour of the working day to responding to client communication from the day before, creating a rhythm for the client to slow into, as well as an expectation for when you’ll respond.

Practice 5 – Tackle the Silo Problem

What is a silo in an agency?

It’s any department that is completely cut off from the other departments you have in that agency to the point where it’s not receiving key information. In a client communication context, you have several departments in your agency that may communicate with a client in different contexts, including:

  • Customer support teams
  • Billing and invoicing
  • Project management teams
  • Account managers

If any of those are siloed from the other, you lose alignment in how you communicate. For instance, let’s say the customer support team doesn’t know anything about the project that the project management team is working on for the client. That’s a problem – how can they offer adequate support when they don’t even understand the project?

It’s here where project management software that incorporates a client portal shines, such as the portals you can create in Function Point. With a portal, you can centralize all communication with a client – providing access to those who need it – to ensure the key people across the various departments that have dealings with the client also have the information they need.

That portal can also slide into your overall communication strategy – it’s a great place to store a knowledge resource your clients can use to answer basic questions without calling you.

Practice 6 – Be Honest About Challenges

Agencies are service businesses. They work with clients to form and complete projects, and those projects are almost always going to face challenges along the way. That’s a given – it’s the reason why project delays hovered around the 45% to 50% per project mark between 2011 and 2018, according to Project Management.

Why does this matter from a communication perspective?

It all comes back to what your clients expect from communication – clarity and honesty.

Your clients know that delays can happen for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they’ve changed the project scope so you have to do more work. Or somebody in your agency has to take sick leave, delaying part of the project until they return or you can reschedule. Delays happen. What’s key is that you don’t try to hide away from these challenges by keeping them from your client and trying to handle them internally. That will only blow up in your agency’s collective face where the challenge grows to the point where it’s impossible for its effects to go unnoticed.

So, be honest about the challenges the project faces along the way. If something happens that will likely cause a delay – from a scope change to an employee going on unscheduled leave – your client needs to be notified both of the challenge and the effect it’ll have.

They may not be happy about it.

But they’ll appreciate the clarity and honesty you deliver enough to continue trusting your agency.

Practice 7 – Use Active Listening

Let’s move on from setting up communication protocols, and into how you actually handle speaking to clients in meetings or when they provide feedback.

There’s a serious listening problem in the business world.

A staggering 75% of clients believe that the companies they work with don’t listen to them. And those companies don’t make it easy for those clients to be heard – 42% of them don’t collect feedback from clients during or after projects.

So, your clients may feel like they’re not being heard when they talk to you.

Active listening is the solution to that issue.

According to Harvard Business Review, active listening goes beyond hearing what somebody is saying and involves attuning yourself to the emotions and thoughts that go into their statements. It works on three levels:

  • Cognitive – Paying attention to the information you receive from the client, ensuring that you comprehend what they say and why it’s important to them.
  • Emotional – Remaining calm as you listen – even if the client isn’t calm as they talk – and managing your reactions during a conversation.
  • Behavioral – Ensuring you convey interest in the topic of discussion, verbally and nonverbally through what you say and your body language.

In a meeting context, doing things like interrupting your client, yawning, or even closing your body off by crossing your arms shows that you’re not actively listening. People pick up on these things – even if it’s just subconsciously – and may start to distrust you because it’s clear you don’t really care about what they say.

Don’t let that happen.

Practice active listening and you may just find you’re better able to interpret what your client is trying to communicate beyond the words they use.

Practice 8 – Automate Whatever You Can

Blanket automation in client communication isn’t the answer. After all, 80% of customers say they’re more likely to buy from a brand that offers a personalized experience, and that carries over to creative agencies.

Your clients don’t want automated messages serving as a barrier between them and you.

But that doesn’t mean automation has no place in your client communication strategy. Internally, you can use automation to provide reminders and notifications related to upcoming client meetings, for instance. If you have a ticketing system for client queries, an automated response telling them when they should expect you to get back to them is a great use of the technology.

As with so much in client communication, it’s all about finding a balance. Use automation to speed up processes – or provide handy reminders – but don’t rely on it as the only form of “communication” a client has with your agency.

Client Communication Is a Process

So, treat it like one!

Most of the best practices here relate to setting up systems and processes that allow you to communicate with clients more fluidly. Scheduling, setting communication boundaries, and dealing with the internal roles and responsibilities of your people – in a communication context – all feed into creating those systems.

Think of them as laying the groundwork.

Once they’re in place, you can plug clients into your systems so that you communicate on terms that work for your agency, as well as your clients.

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