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Long-term client relationships – the key to success

Everyone talks about wanting business growth but in a world where revenue is rarely guaranteed and winning new clients is harder than ever, it can be tough going. Many agencies battle with the project-by-project challenge even when they are on a so-called agency roster. Or are overly focused on getting new clients through the door, often spending disproportionate amounts of time and money doing so.

Our experience of growing strong businesses has demonstrated that developing long-term clients is a key success factor – and one that’s often overlooked or not optimised to maximum effect.


Developing long-term client relationships is a proven growth driver – with those enjoying the best growth rates earning 70-80% of revenue from existing clients. Moreover, having a core client strategy provides the business with a clear focus, enhanced pipeline visibility and deeper, more rewarding relationships – for everyone. And those rewards are not just commercial – long-term clients can result in better work and happier employees.


It’s not the same as new business. New business can be seen as impersonal, repetitive, untargeted, whereas client development should be focussed, based on in-depth knowledge, and is about adding value to the client’s business. When done well, client development is a strategic, planned activity, which is pursued proactively and continuously throughout the agency’s organisation. It’s not selling; it’s relationship building. And like all good relationships, it requires understanding, commitment and time.


With increasing demand on budgets and resources and the ever-growing need for efficiency, agencies need to decide carefully which clients to focus on and how to prioritise their efforts. Should you focus on your biggest clients, the ones who’ve been with you longest, the ones you enjoy working with most, or all of them?

The key question is: how do you maximise the returns on your efforts? You should firstly take into account your own business objectives – growth and profitability targets, sectors you want to operate in, what kind of work you want to do; and then, using this lens, review your clients and the opportunities they may offer to help you achieve your goals. This may result in some tough decisions in the short-term but your eye must be on the longer-term prize.


Once you’ve decided which clients to focus on, you’re going to need a plan for how to develop each one. The plan is vital to ensure you have clear objectives, actions, timings and responsibilities - so you can track progress against it. First identify the brands/services/categories/contacts you want to target. Then decide on the key messages and approaches. Put all of this into an action plan and make sure you monitor it regularly. Involving the wider client team in the plan is a great way of engaging people and embedding client development in the culture of the business. But do make sure the plan has one clear owner.


Start by working outwards from who and what you already know; then work inwards from what you can find out about the company – its strategic intent, growth strategy and structure. Create an overview of its brands/services, review agency alignments and recent launches on the brands/services you don’t currently work on. Build organograms starting with your current contacts and filling the gaps by asking who’s who. And finally develop a clear objective view on your relationship with the client looking at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.


There are many ways you can engage with your clients to stay front of mind. Keep them informed on what you’re up to. Show off about launches, wins, new hires, case studies. Clients like to know they are working with an agency doing great work. Share knowledge and add value through trends/insight driven pieces, competitor reviews, articles, and get involved by presenting at their internal forums. Factor in time for targeted initiatives, such as critiques, audits and new offers. And don’t forget to make time for the human side of the relationship. Ideally you should be deploying a combination of these approaches to gain maximum effect. They’ll keep you and your offer fresh in their minds and confirm the validity of their decision to work with you.


Don’t try and plan more than six-months ahead. Think about actions in terms of 30, 60 and 90 days. Be pragmatic, keep it manageable and focus on a few things and do them well. This is an actionable plan not a research project so don’t get bogged down in too much detail. And make sure actions have timings and clear responsibilities.


The theory is great and needed but the secret (and often the hardest work) is making it happen. Monitor the plan regularly – monthly as a minimum – and evolve it as necessary. Allocate time and budget (just as you would for new clients). Engage the wider team and ensure each person has a clear role, and ensure senior management is engaged in the process from the start and throughout.


You may well already be doing many of the things highlighted here, but in an increasingly challenging environment, there’s always more that can be done. Ask yourself if you’ve thought deeply enough, planned carefully enough and followed through strongly enough to maximise your client development opportunities and build the best value for your business?

Done well, client development can be the key to unlocking sustained growth helping you achieve deeper, more productive, more rewarding and more profitable relationships.


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