Managing expectations: Secrets of great agency/client collaboration

by | Sep 26, 2017 | Analysis, Public Relations

When a client hires an agency (be it marketing, PR, SEO, design—doesn’t matter), they expect involvement. No client is going to just fork over cash and expect an agency to deliver a perfect solution with a bow on top. The client expects collaboration—but how much? Well, it depends.

Some clients are very hands-on and want to know everything (how you work, who works on what, what the process looks like, what’s done, etc.), while others don’t want to be overloaded with specifics. The trick to good client collaboration is in finding the balance between sharing too little and sharing too much:

  • Does the client need to know who is working on every task and how many hours it took them to complete it?
  • Should the client have direct contact with your team members or only communicate with the project manager?
  • Where is the point when the client’s involvement actually starts to slow things down?

The problem with having an account manager

Clients need transparency because they have concerns. After all, clients are only human. They have insecurities and doubts like everyone else, and they need to be reassured everything is going well and according to the plan every step of the way.

For example, a client hiring an SEO agency might want to know if the agency uses black hat tactics; or when a client hires a branding agency, they’ll wonder if the agency can capture what their company is all about.

That’s why most agencies have an account manager or a project manager. Their job is to gather requirements, communicate with the team, ask for feedback, and handle the client. This way, the team that works on a campaign never needs to have direct contact with the client because there’s a buffer.

This is a good setup for software development companies because the work is very complex and technical, and you need someone who can speak in plain language and protect the developers from being interrupted. But when it comes to creative work-for-hire, having a buffer between the team and the client is a bad idea—to create a great marketing campaign, design a new logo, or define branding strategy, you need direct and unfiltered access to the client’s thoughts and input.

What happens when there’s an account manager (i.e., a buffer) between the team and the client in a marketing agency? The quantity and the quality of the communication goes down:

  • The manager gets to hear everything the client needs
  • Then the manager has to repeat the same story to the team but leave out 40 percent of the details—aka. the most important things
  • When the team finishes, the manager presents the work (again, leaving out important details) and gathers feedback
  • The manager then has to carry the feedback to the team
  • And so the process repeats until the team gets it right

This flow is very similar to the telephone game that children play, where the message changes its original form the more people pass it down.

Managing client expectations: Secrets of great agency/client collaboration

Having a buffer is inefficient because the whole work/feedback cycle takes longer than it should, there’s a time lag between feedback (which you need to account for when planning a project), there are a lot of meetings, and everything has to go through one person, thus creating a bottleneck.

So why do most agencies adopt this? Some adopt it because they’re used to this style of organization. But most choose it because they may have been burned by transparency in the past.

There’s always that client who wanted to micro-manage everything on a project, and giving them access to the team is like inviting a fox to a chicken coop. This client asks a million questions, watches over everything, and only causes anxiety. This in turn leads to teams ending up frustrated and unable to work and collaborate efficiently. To avoid this, agencies build a wall around what they’re doing and never let the client see behind the curtain.

But keeping the client out of the loop is a huge mistake because the client should be your biggest collaborator. The client is the one with the vision, for which there’s no substitute.

A proposal for radical transparency

The best answer to the “transparency vs information overload” question is to let the client see everything by default, and then wait to see how it goes from there.

Let them see work in progress, let them see how you collaborate and organize work, let them see your tasks and who’s assigned to what—and let them see why it’s a good thing they hired you.

And how to achieve this radical transparency? By inviting them to your project management tool and granting them access to their project.

One of three things will happen:

  • The client will be very involved (which is good, because conversation won’t get lost across email threads and all the CCs, plus you’ll get feedback faster)
  • The client won’t care to log in and they’ll expect someone on your team to keep them updated (still good, because the fact that you granted them access will lead to greater trust)
  • The client will micro-manage (still not that bad, because all project management tools have a system of user roles and what they can do)

So, the worst-case scenario is that the client will micro-manage everything, in which case you simply limit what they can do. And the best-case scenario? You finish projects faster, clients are more satisfied with the result, and they hire you again.

You may object and say that this kind of transparency isn’t right for you for a number of reasons: you don’t want the client to see how messy the process is, employees mustn’t know anything about hourly rates, the client mustn’t know the agency outsources some of the work, etc.

These are all valid concern, but only if you have broken processes or bad clients. In that case, no matter what you do, you work in a bad system and there’s nothing you can do. It’s similar to when a company objects to remote work by saying, “But how can we know if our workers are really working and not playing solitaire?”—to which the reply is, “Why would you hire people who you don’t trust in the first place?”.

In web design, there’s a term called “graceful degradation“, which means that you design a website using the latest technology, and if the visitor’s browser doesn’t support it, the website still works, only it doesn’t look as fancy as you envisioned it.

The same principle applies when giving full project access to a client: if they want more information, they’ll check the project—if not, you’ll send them an email when needed. This way, you don’t have to worry if the client is overloaded with information or needs an update every few hours—you simply let the system manage itself and jump in when needed.

How transparency works in practice

You eschew the whole “information overload vs transparency” balancing act by granting the client access to the place where you collaborate and work on tasks, which is usually in a project management tool.

Every project management tool has several different user roles which specify what a person can do. For example, an admin role can do everything, from starting projects to inviting new users, while a team member can only create tasks, upload files, and comment.

Some project management tools, like JIRA and Active Collab, have a special user role specifically designed for client management. People with the client role can see only the projects they’re invited to, see tasks and comment on them, upload files, and start discussions (plus, they get a special dashboard for centralizing all notifications).

What’s important is that a client can’t create or move tasks, or reassign people, which discourages micromanagement. If the client wants to do more – but you don’t want them – you simply blame it on the software and lack of features, and be scot-free.

So, once you invite a client inside your project management tool and assign them a client role (or something similar), they can then log in and see what you’re working on from time to time, if they want to. If someone needs feedback from the client, they can mention them in the comment and the client will get an email notification. When they see the notification, they can either reply from email, or log in into the project management tool, read the whole discussion, and reply.

When radical transparency doesn’t work

Creative work does not always benefit from high levels of transparency. Creative work is messy: it has nonlinear detours, dead ends, rough sketches, and other stuff don’t look nice while in progress.

For example, when brainstorming about a marketing campaign or designing a landing page, you’ll come up with a lot of bad ideas. That’s just the way the process works. But if a client sees the bad stuff too early, they’ll think you’re bad at your job.

This especially goes for design. If a client sees a draft of an infographic with unfinished illustrations, they’ll get hung up on the graphics not looking right and won’t be able to focus on the content itself and the way the information flows. This end with clients rejecting early-stage ideas before the team even gets a chance to develop them fully.

“A client’s immediate negative reaction to a potentially great idea can end a conversation before it takes flight, making it hard to do anything big or new. Sometimes a winning creative idea that is perfectly suited for a client’s brief is something that pops into our heads within minutes, whereas in other cases it can take many weeks. When clients have a “time-and-materials mind-set” they’re likely to focus on how long it took to get the idea, rather than how much value it will generate.” Adrian Brady, CEO at Eulogy communications agency

So what happens then is that creative people start self-censoring themselves, fearing they’ll be misunderstood or criticized, and performance goes down. This is because creative work happens best when there’s a “zone of privacy” where experimentation can happen.

There are several solutions to this:

  • Take important conversations offline
  • Let the important conversation happen in other online channels (like chat or email), or
  • Let the important conversation happen inside the project management tool but hide certain tasks and discussions from people who have the client role

Some agencies decide to solve the problem by splitting a project into two: one set up specifically for clients, and one where the real work happens. This can backfire.

While you do get the benefit of client being accessible to the team directly and having all information in one place, the client-facing project often ends up empty like a ghost town and the client gets a bad impression that you don’t do anything because there’s no activity (and if they find out it’s not the place where you really collaborate, that can erode trust even more than not inviting them in the first place).

Err on the side of oversharing

There are two types of clients: Those who listen to you and trust your expertise, and those who don’t. Radical transparency is not the problem with the first group. They know you’re the expert and they trust you can do the job. You can let them in on your process without a problem.

The second group, those who don’t trust your expertise when hiring you, are the ones you need to decide what to do with.

You need to figure out why clients hire you in the first place (maybe you work in the same town, have mutual acquaintances, or you’re simply the cheapest), decide if you want to continue with clients with similar motivations, and position yourself in the market so you attract the type of clients you need. Because the truth is, a bad client will cost you a lot more than they’re worth.

Managing client expectations: Secrets of great agency/client collaboration

It’s best to give clients information as they need, and let them see the rest if they want to. It’s better to err on the side of sharing too much information than keeping them in the dark, because one will improve trust at a small risk, and the other will mitigate all risk but destroy trust.

When choosing which whether it’s better to spoon feed information or let it all out in the open, always choose the latter because trust is all that matters in the end.

Aleksandar Olic
Aleksandar Olic is a content marketing professional, front-end designer, and editor at Active Collab. Aleksandar has more than 5 years of experience in digital marketing and project management, predominantly in SaaS industry. He's usually based on the relation between Active Collab's headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, US and their office in Novi Sad, Serbia.


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