Consulting

Forming Good Client Relationships - 11 Actionable Tips for Consulting Success

2 weeks ago

When a person first starts running clients, it can be really tough. There’s no magic bullet for helping clients to be happy and profitable but to be honest - the stumbling blocks often come far before client happiness or profitability are the main question.

A consultant or account manager can be in a state of absolute chaos for quite a while before it has measurable impact. On the flip side, someone could be excellent in their area of expertise but make clients nervous by being overly conscientious (bear with me, I’ll explain below).

This post is about ways for consultants to build productive relationships with clients. You could maybe call it something like consulting ‘hacks’, but I don’t like that term because the tips in this post are about investing in long-term, productive consulting relationships. This isn’t about manipulation or attempting to cover up an otherwise poor standard of work.

This post also isn’t about how to make world-class strategies for your clients. Those recommendations change from specialism to specialism and, whatever your area of focus, there will be loads of articles out there about excelling at your craft. The closest we could get in a post like this is the broad guidance to ‘know the industry, focus on the money, and make clear, decisive recommendations.’

So without further ado, some of my top tips for building effective client relationships:

  1. Choose your agency well
  2. Start by making your own ‘contract’
  3. Minimise invisible work
  4. Remind yourself - it’s not your job to know the answer, it’s your job to help find it
  5. Say your thoughts out loud
  6. Remember: the right answer doesn't have to make your agency money
  7. Embrace the false peaks
  8. If your point of contact is hard to work with - try to figure out what might make you behave that way
  9. Ask for feedback, even if your client seems miffed
  10. Keep at least a 3 month plan and potential work list
  11. Pretty much everything should go in the appendix

1. Choose your agency well

I know this isn’t advice you can action in the short term but it would be dishonest of me to miss this out.

Honestly - it is really valuable to work at an agency that cares about the wellbeing of its consultants and account managers. Particularly if the agency is willing to turn down new business if it wouldn’t be a good fit.

The truth of agency work is that - no matter how much effort a company puts into developing a strong, positive, internal culture - your clients are your colleagues. You’ll probably spend more time working and interacting with your clients than anyone else at the agency, so sales is a very important part of the picture.

Often, agencies talk about completed sales or clients that stayed on. It’s much less common to talk publicly and sensitively about business that the agency turned down, or times the agency chose to stop working with a client.

Within my first month of working with Aira, the company walked away from huge opportunities with two household brands. In both cases, we looked at the project the client was asking for and thought hard about:

  1. If the aims of the project would have a real impact on the clients’ business (or if not, if we could change them)
  2. If the setup of the project would let our consultants do their best work
  3. If we were the right choice for the aims described.

I couldn’t have been happier to see us turning down business that wasn’t a good fit. It is a fantastic way to build world-class consulting teams because:

  1. We aren’t asking our team to sell snake oil, so we avoid a bunch of bad habits
  2. We don’t jeopardise good clients by having to over-invest to keep bad-fit clients happy
  3. When teams are happy they do good work
  4. Reducing the noise you get from bad-fit clients means it's easier to act on feedback and improve 

If you work in an agency that values you, and understands the importance of your client load, everything in this list becomes much easier. It doesn’t mean that any difficult client will automatically be fired or taken off you (I owe a lot in my career so far to clients my agency didn’t take off me) but you can definitely tackle problems way more effectively.

2. Start by making your own ‘contract’

Don’t worry - I don’t mean a legal document.

Sales processes are messy. By the time you’re kicking off there have probably been loads of back-and-forth between senior people your side and client side. 

Your kickoff call with your point of contact is crucial because it’s an opportunity to confirm what you’re setting out to achieve, how you think you’ll achieve it, and what you think is required for success. This will set the tone for the relationship and it’ll give your point of contact an excuse to raise any issues or concerns they didn’t have a chance to bring up before.

Here are some important things to include in that initial call (this isn’t an exhaustive list):

  • Confirm who your day-to-day point of contact is and, if different, who will sign off work plans and work
  • Revisit why you’ve been brought in - go back over the problem you’ve been brought in to address and how you/your agency are able to address it better than, say, the client doing it in-house
  • Confirm what you’re going to do about it, together, and have both sides reaffirm they’re happy to go ahead
  • Ask if they think there are any issues or road bumps coming up that weren’t covered in sales conversations before
  • Confirm what’s needed on both sides (this includes setting expectations around how far in advance to plan work, signoff times etc.)
    • Part of this can be asking how they like to be communicated with - do they like long emails, task lists in Google Sheets, Slack messages? Do they want weekly check-ins? Or for you to only contact them to plan/deliver work? You can work out the best way to do things together, over time.
  • Confirm plans for the first weeks and months 
    • This is a great time to get ahead of expectations. It is also far easier to challenge whether something is reasonable before the client is saying ‘where is the work I expected?’

While having that chat, keep a look out for whether the point-of-contact seems as invested in this as others have been, or if they seem to be hesitating about certain points. Ideally, any time you spot that kind of hesitation or issue - you, or a senior colleague can address it then and there. Failing that - at the very least write down what you noticed, to discuss with the senior people your-side who were involved in the sale.

3. Minimise invisible work

Pretty much every recommendation in this post is about minimising invisible work. By invisible work I mean anything the client doesn’t see value from.

Having a long, complicated, finicky process for reporting is invisible work. The client gets value from the report, not from the time you spend making sure you’re copy-pasting the right excel data. A common way to handle this is through automation. An even better way to handle this is automation and cutting out vanity metrics that don't inform decisions.

Another example of invisible work is if you are having discussions with your colleagues about what’s next for your industry and never sharing those thoughts more broadly. Putting those conversations into a blog post, or a newsletter, even if that only ever goes to your clients, is a way to show you are actively thinking about what’s next. It’s also a way to (semi) publicly put your name to an opinion, which helps when you then want to talk with your clients about just that.

Client meetings and updates can either reduce or create invisible work. As a client - it can be quite stressful relying on a group of external people you have no direct control over. A quick update message once a week, or a quick meeting, could help reduce that stress - that is value. On the other hand - repeated, unwanted updates or meetings can take up retainer time and generate unnecessary work for clients too - creating invisible work for everyone. 

This comes down to client preference - the sweet spot to hit is:

  • The client has enough information to feel comfortable
  • You’re getting enough input to do a good job
  • The meetings/updates are creating enough value to be worth the work

It’s your job to decide how often to have meetings/updates. Your contracting conversations at the start of the relationship can help but it’s also a good idea to say your thoughts out loud (as we’ll see later) and just discuss with your client when you think a change might be a good idea.

4. Remind yourself - it’s not your job to know the answer, it’s your job to help find it

One of the most stressful parts, particularly on client calls, is feeling like you need to know the right answer to any question in your field of expertise.

You don’t.

Your client is the expert in their business. You have experience, information, or time that they don’t have. Aside from your subject matter expertise - you probably have more experience of the problem-solving process because you’re doing it all day, every day.

The more you think of yourself as a kind of digital therapist, the less you’ll feel the pressure to be a walking encyclopedia. Your clients will pick up on that.

Often when clients complain about consultants or account managers not being experienced/knowledgeable enough, they’re responding to the consultants’ own evaluation of themselves.

What’s more - everyone has limits to their knowledge. As a client it’s hugely valuable to know that you can trust your consultant to be honest about their (and their agency’s) blind spots. 

Even if your clients don’t find this mindset shift reassuring directly - it can make a massive difference to your quality of worklife. Simply feeling less stressed will help you work better so this is valuable in and of itself.

On a related note - Ben Estes has some great thoughts on the difference between "it’s my job to make the client do x" and "it’s my job to help my client decide", which has definitely influenced a few of the concepts here.

5. Say your thoughts out loud

It is really easy to assume that clients know we care about the work, or that we know our stuff.

It’s also really easy for clients to assume we don’t care or don’t know. There are lots of people out there who don’t care about doing a good job, but you’ve read this far so I’m pretty sure you do.

As I say in the section above - you don’t have to know everything and an important part of that is talking clients through your thought process. It often often gives them more confidence, rather than less.

It’s OK to get things wrong and correct yourself, and it’s OK to guess and say you’re guessing. 

Here’s an interaction I’ve seen multiple times between clients and agency teams.


Client: [In their third meeting of the morning, boss breathing down their neck about solving this problem, sounds tense] So, what’s the solution here?

Agency topic expert: [Most informed on the call - probably knows the answer but isn’t 100% certain, or knows how it should work but that the setup is quirky] I need to go check.

Client: [To Consultant/Account Manager] Do you have any ideas?

Agency consultant/AM: [Basing their answer on past conversations with the topic expert] Our best bet is probably X, in which case we’ll need support from you and your team. That said, it matters that we get this right and I don’t want to waste your time, so we’ll follow up to confirm.

Client: [To consultant/AM after topic expert has left the call] We don’t feel our topic expert is knowledgeable enough.


Do you blame the client? Importantly, I’m not contradicting the last section here. I’m not saying you need to pretend to know the answer. I’m saying - don’t feel you have to hide away your ideas.

There is a huge difference between "I don’t know" (which could mean "I’m not smart enough/I don’t care enough to know") and "I have an idea but your time matters too much to waste it on anything other than certainty". Apart from anything else, if the client just wants an educated guess for now - you’re giving them that option.

Likewise, there’s a huge difference between "we don’t have time" and "I want to make sure we’re getting you a good standard of work so we can get that to you on {date}, or we could move {other piece of work} back".

"We don’t have time" feels like I’m telling you no. Working with a client to rearrange the work plan is cooperation. It also makes a distinction between you and the real problem (which is simply the number of hours in the day). 

This doesn’t just go for the times you’re pushing back, it’s even more important when you’re really pulling something out of the bag for the client. "Honestly, we’re overdelivering for you, but I know how important it is that you have this for your budget review, so I wanted to make sure you have it."

By that same merit - if you’ve been talking about a client to one of your colleagues tell your client about that conversation. They won't think less of you if they feel not all the answers come from you. Instead they will feel they are getting the value that so many agencies promise - the experience of 10 people via one point of contact. They’ll also see that you and your colleagues care about them enough to talk about their business, even when you’re not putting together a specific report.

This comes back to the invisible work I was talking about before. If you’re doing the work, make sure they see it.

6. Remember: the right answer doesn't have to make your agency money

Sort of related to the above - if you ever find yourself thinking "I'm an SEO so the right answer needs to be SEO" or "this is a bad use of money but I can't turn it down..."

Consider this - an agency relies on trust to function. There's no other way to survive as a  business that takes money now in return for the promise of more money later.

Clients might sign up to ill-advised projects based on current trust, but they won't stick around if they realise you chose the money over what they needed. 

There is no better way to become invaluable to a business than to unwaveringly tell your point of contact what the best decision is, even if it's "don't give me that money, invest it in CRO". 

The trust you build means that when you DO recommend a change, ask for more money, or run into roadblocks, you're much more likely to get what you need to succeed. Which brings us onto our next section...

7. Embrace the false peaks

A false peak is when you’re climbing a mountain and you think you’re reaching the top, only to realise there’s much further to go.

Whenever you try to change a company or a website (which is often the same thing) there are a lot of false peaks.

The best advice I ever got on this topic was from Tim Allen (not the actor, he was a Senior Consultant at Distilled at the time)

I had a client who had a very clear path to getting the performance improvement they wanted, but things kept getting derailed with new concerns, or even old concerns that we had to address again. 

I felt they were wasting their own money. I was a technical specialist, they had their recommendations and I couldn't spend as much time on other work for them because we were retreading old ground.

Tim explained to me that the client wasn’t paying us to make technical recommendations, they were paying us to help them progress as a company. 

While I might have seen my skill set as technical, it wasn’t a waste of their money if I spent 5% of my time making a technical recommendation and 95% of my time chipping away at the internal issues that were stopping them from making progress. 

That client took us on to help them grow, and what they needed in order to grow was a consultant who did not get bored, did not forget, and was invested in figuring out why we were hitting these road bumps. (We did get that change live years later, they are now one of my favourite clients I've had, and not because we finally hit publish). Funnily enough, this sentiment is also echoed in one of the installments of Tom Critchlow’s excellent SEO MBA blog.

Assume that the mountain will always stay the same size, you just don’t know how big it is when you start. You can get to the top quicker by working smart, and hard, and not making mistakes. You could find new, faster routes to get where you’re going, but all of the climb is part of the job.

If you get pushback from senior management and think of it as the client ‘creating work’ you’re likely to feel frustrated and probably won’t spot the opportunities you have to progress. If you imagine that was always going to be part of the journey, which you’ve just discovered because you’re making progress - it’ll help you to be happier day to day, and it’ll help you spot what the new development is offering you.

A step further on this journey is figuring out why these roadblocks keep coming up. Once you’ve got past the feeling that the client is creating work, once you consider these conversations to be part of the job, you’ll be more likely to spot patterns. You’ll see shortcuts the same way you probably do with any work you’re doing for long enough. 

Maybe all of the issues seem to come from one team - is the project going to make life particularly difficult for them? Or take power away from them? 

Maybe similar concerns keep getting raised by different people, are the’rey trying to anticipate the reactions of someone higher? Maybe that’s something you can work through with your point of contact, using tips from the next section...

8. If your point of contact is hard to work with - try to figure out what might make you behave that way

As above - does your point of contact seem to keep derailing your recommendations with new objections? Maybe they’re trying to protect you from having to present the plan to more senior stakeholders, because they don’t think it’ll go well.

Is your client emailing you at 11pm at night with urgent requests? Are they grouchy in meetings with you? That sounds difficult for you, probably even harder for them though. I’m pretty sure they don’t get kicks out of emailing suppliers last thing at night. Someone somewhere is making them work like that so of course their patience is thin on calls.

Does your client ask for recommendations and then never do anything about them? Maybe the reports are too long, in which case I have one recommendation for that below. Or maybe they have so many things to juggle they just can’t remember everything we’re asking them to do. 

I considered naming this section 'Realise that you are a very small part of their day' because honestly, we are. There are lots of things going on that we don’t see, often lots of pressures we are unaware of. There are very few people in this world who want to keep running in place, read recommendations they never use, or get on the phone and fight with someone for an hour every week.

Importantly - I’m not saying "toughen up, if you don’t like how someone treats you, they probably have a reason". If someone is truly behaving badly - you need the support of your agency’s management team to handle that.

What I’m saying here is - if you figure out what pressures a client is under, you can be the part of their day that just works. That means they’ll get your recommendations done because it’s easy and you’re more likely to have nice interactions with them.

If they don’t seem to remember things you can create a list of all the outstanding recommendations, ordered by priority, and work through that with them, referring back to it regularly. Here the important bit isn't the list, it's that you're assuming responsibility for keeping track of what's been done and progress. 

For bonus points you can combine this with say your thoughts out loud and tell the client you consider it to be your job to keep track of this stuff. If a client knows you know how busy they are, and has permission not to remember every detail, the times when you remind them of something they’ve forgotten become much easier. That doesn’t mean you have to magic up the time to do this - it’s part of the service you’re providing and you can work with your client to fit it into the retainer.

If they know what’s going on but still can’t get things done, you can vary what numbers you are reporting on, or put together business cases targeted at the people who are blocking the work. Again - you can always ask your point of contact what they think is slowing things down. "I'm not doing my job if I just send recommendations and wash my hands of it, what could I be doing to help speed things up?"

If you think your point of contact might be deliberately slowing down the project or shielding you from someone else, you could take it on yourself to put together a concise presentation on why this work is important. Either your point of contact is reminded why the work needs to go ahead, or they have some convenient materials to clear objections for you, or they get more confidence that you can go head-to-head with the people who are making their life difficult.

If your point of contact forwards you questions from their boss, demanding answers about x or y, you can explain it to your point of contact and write out a copy-and-paste paragraph that they can forward on to their boss if they so choose. Again, say your thoughts out loud. Tell your client that you know they’re busy, so you put together a copy-paste for them to use if they want to.

9. Ask for feedback, even if your client seems miffed

All I’d say about this one is that so, so often, asking a client who seems unhappy for feedback can be a really pleasant experience. 

Seriously, it’s easy to feel like you’re inviting a real telling off but often clients are happy to be asked, and can end up bringing a bit of self reflection to the conversation too. More than once I've been surprised to hear "honestly your recommendations are great but it's frustrating that we never get anything implemented" or, slightly more constructive, "I’m so busy, I don’t have time to figure out what I’m supposed to do, could we try x?"

As ever - speak your thoughts. Tell them that it matters to you that things go well, if you think they might be unhappy - say it. It’s not easy, but it really pays off.

10. Keep at least a 3 month plan and potential work list

This is going to seem dry but believe me - these are the two best things I have done for any client. 

As a rough calculation, they’ve also generated about £600,000 additional revenue for agencies from my accounts alone. That includes growing a few retainers (one grew 5x over a couple years), creating new retainers based on lots of accumulated project work, and a steady stream of short-term projects. That’s not including all the retainers that stayed on with us when they could otherwise have left.

None of that is because I’m a good salesperson. I hate talking about money. 

The important thing here is we’re treating clients like the grown ups they are, most points of contact really want their agency to succeed. Knowing the plan is reassuring for everyone and makes a whole bunch of decisions easier (particularly decisions around spending more money with your agency).

It also helps your point of contact when they are having internal conversations. If you need to temporarily increase the retainer they can confidently explain why to their bosses. What’s more - if your client company is thinking about getting rid of suppliers, they will ask your point of contact "what are they doing over the next few months?" This way there’s always an answer ready. 

  1. Make sure that you always have this month’s work locked in, next month’s work fairly well confirmed, and a pencilled in idea of the month after that.

  2. At the start of each call - list the three month plan. Include the plan in the pre-and-post call notes (sending pre-and-post call notes is also a good idea!). This means; 
    • Your clients have time to change the plan
    • They know what’s expected of them
    • By the time you’re doing the work the client is committed to it - you’ve been talking about it for the last quarter! 
    • Setting this expectation forces you to keep this plan up-to-date. This stuff is worth the commitment but, as with any work that’s not a deliverable, any sane person will eventually let it slip unless there’s something to get them continuously doing it

  3. When someone is covering for you, or you’re getting someone more junior to start to step up with the account, get them to also start the call by describing that same three-month plan. It does wonders for confidence on both sides and keeps things on track

  4. If you or the client think of other valuable work there are three very simple options
    1. The new work is important enough to be prioritised - something else should be moved back
    2. That work isn’t more important than anything in the existing three month plan so you add it to the list to come back to later
    3. Everyone agrees the new work is important, but so is the already planned work. You temporarily increase the budget, or pull budget forward to get everything done

  5. You check in on the to-do list about once a month. If there are things you keep pushing back, you bring it up on the call and have the conversation in step four again.
    • Say your thoughts out loud - say why it matters to you that this specific work keeps getting pushed back, if you can’t say why then don’t bother raising it

  6. If you and the client chat about a potential piece of work but agree 'not just yet', set a reminder to ask about that work in about 3-6 months time - you’re doing your client and your agency a favour. Wasted ideas are hundreds of times more detrimental to your clients than wasted money

  7. If you’re finding that you’re regularly having to temporarily increase budget, you and your client discuss a permanent increase

11. Pretty much everything should go in the appendix

This is somewhat ironic for a blog post of this length.

When you start sending your client recommendations, particularly if you’re proud of the research you did to get there, it’s easy to end up writing chronologically. You want them to understand how you came to your conclusions so you start with the data sources, you might even include some of the dead ends you went down and why they weren’t fruitful.

Sorry - that’s boring, it’s wasting everyone’s time.

I get it, I have exactly the same impulse, it’s just the wrong one.

Imagine you and your client are in a lift on your way to a meeting. This is the only opportunity you’ve had to catch up, when the lift stops you’ll need to present this work. You’re not going to start with which Excel files you downloaded. You’re going to start with the headlines, if they want more information on any of it - they’ll ask.

Some of the best, most effective documents I’ve seen are exactly like that:

  1. Table of contents, labelled and hyperlinked
  2. What was the question/problem you needed to answer? (one paragraph, max)
  3. What is the answer? (one paragraph, max)
  4. Any other key findings and any important caveats the client needs to know (including things you’ve ruled out that they asked you to look into)
  5. Key calculations/methodology (including any less crucial dead ends)
  6. Data sources (this could be combined with the methodology if it’s confusing to read in this way)

If the client has the time/inclination to look at how you got the data, or if they’re questioned about it later, they can flip to that section but it’s their choice. Your document is designed for them.

Postscript

I’ve discussed these tips with friends and ex-colleagues who work on both sides of the in-house/agency divide. Some would recategorise some of the points, i.e. combining a few into 'proactivity', but whatever form they take, these themes consistently crop up in client-agency relationships. Here are a few examples of client-side perspectives;

My friend and ex-colleague, Sam Mangialavori, is now in-house Digital Marketing Manager at ZENB. He manages multiple agencies in his current role, the three things he picked out for consultants were:

  1. Help me know how work is going - I can’t be chasing you for things you said you’d do, it harms any trust you might have built with me and it wastes my time.
  2. Well structured meetings - make my life easier, make me feel you’re on top of this stuff. I want to give you as much help and direction as I can but I’ve only got so many hours in the day, when you have some of my time - make the most of it.
  3. Quickly admit your mistakes and show me how you’ll avoid it in future. In the last couple weeks I’ve come across a series of mistakes by one agency, but they quickly took responsibility, told me how they’d fix it, and got on with it. No one is perfect but how you deal with mistakes says a lot.

Likewise, Tim Allen, who is now the Senior Marketing Manager at Infobip said:

  1. When I give an agency work - they need to make sure they understand what I’m expecting as an output. They should know what my boss needs to see to be on board.
  2. We want the agency we hire to be successful - that’s why we’ve hired them. But often we don’t have time to hand-hold. Ask me lots of questions (particularly at the start), write down the answers. As we work together you’ll have fewer and fewer basic questions but you’ll still have reasons to check in. Personally I hate it if I go a whole week without even a light check-in to know how things are going.
  3. On the note of trust - there comes a point where as a client you’re investing in a person rather than a business. You trust the people. That means you don’t have to worry as much about whether the work will get done. It also means that, if that person is looking for clients or jobs in future - you just might hire them.

Areej AbuAli, Head of SEO at Papier independently raised some of the points around efficiency of communication without having read any of the post above;

Even though I worked agency-side for the first 5 years of my SEO career, I only truly learned how to form good client relationships once I moved in-house.

  1. An agency should be an extension to the client’s team, not an external partner. Spend time understanding your client’s KPIs, how they’re being measured and what their boss expects from them. Base your success KPIs as an agency on that.
  2. No more 100 page audits. I never fully appreciated how busy clients were; liaising with an agency is only ONE part of what they do and it’s not necessarily the highest priority. Clients have tons of internal projects they’re involved in, sending them a 100 page audit as an agency and expecting it to get implemented is a stretch. It’s important to properly grasp clients’ priority and where your work fits within that from the start.

I’m keen to hear your thoughts too - are there any other tips you’d add? Is there anything here you’ve seen work well, or not so well, in the wild?

Thanks for reading!

Download our credentials deck.

Pop it in my inbox.
Consulting

Getting started is as easy as having a conversation.

crosschevron-down