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The ‘single source of truth’: How to retain clients (and avoid getting fired)

September 24, 2020

The ‘single source of truth’: How to retain clients (and avoid getting fired)

Read time: 9 minutes

Why clients fire agencies

In 2014, Australian marketing guru Darren Wolley responded to the latest Forrester Digital Outlook survey in The Guardian. On agency-client retention, his analysis was that clients often use data to post-rationalise a “largely emotional response” to ending agency relationships. This led to the claim; “it’s all about the relationship. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying”.

This sounds contentious, but there’s scant quantitative evidence to totally disprove it. A 2015 survey by Agency Management Institute and Audience Audit questioned 500 US agency clients on their top reason for firing agencies. While the single most-cited reason was failure to hit performance goals, it was mentioned less than half the time.

From an agency perspective, at Blue Array we internally monitor, address, and record the main retention ‘watch-out’ for each client on a weekly basis. Quantitative analysis of 1,500+ of these solicited weekly ‘watch-outs’ shows 20 different classifiable retention concerns, none accounting for more than 11% of the total. (Humble-brag: not hitting performance goals only accounted for 6% of client retention concerns). In the spirit of full transparency, we’ve listed these concerns below.

Blue Array retention concerns (SEO Managers, 1,500+ data points) 

So what evidence there is shows a myriad of complex reasons for why clients part with agencies.

Marketers are regularly beaten around the head with messages about the high cost and low success rate of acquiring new business vs retaining or increasing service to existing customers. Perhaps the above goes some way to explaining these frightening agency-leader survey statistics (2019 RSWUS Agency New Business Report):

  • 43% of agencies have no plan for growing revenue from existing clients
  • over half of agencies accept the majority of their work from ‘churn and burn’ projects, rather than retained services.

Steps towards mitigating these concerns

Clearly, the first step towards better client retention among agencies is ‘strategy’. More soon.

A second step towards better client retention is to listen to what clients say their top priorities for success are.

How often do we look at this holistically, and what would we expect to see among these top priorities? Deep specialism? The most up-to-date practices? Lightening-fast turnarounds? Actually, the 2020 iteration of the Forrester Digital Outlook survey listed these as clients’ top priorities for success according to their marketing leadership:

  • culture
  • internal structure (interpretation; structural effectiveness)
  • collaboration
  • leveraging data to make smarter and faster decisions.

Finally, specifically on the client-agency experience, 78% of clients want greater detail and transparency from their agency partners (up markedly from 66% in late-2018).

Translating this into strategic plans that retain clients

So, how to translate this into strategic plans designed specifically to retain clients? A short recap of the above reminds us what we’re striving for.

Needs for strategic retention plans (summary)

  • to hit performance goals
  • to achieve longer fixed contracts
  • to convert the few projects we accept (eg audits, migrations) into contracts, and turn down ‘churn and burn’-type projects entirely
  • to achieve explicit resource commitment (applies to the freelance consultant or consultancy/agency hybrid models only)
  • to be a product of collaboration, with activities that empower clients’ delivery-focussed stakeholders under scrutiny from their leadership
  • to be built with some pinpoint features:
    • data-driven
    • detail rich but transparent and to-the-point; demanding very low cognitive load for leadership or incoming new stakeholders
    • designed through the lens of the client’s desired culture, more than the agency’s
    • able to accommodate agility, when needed.

How we’re fulfilling this [+ template]

The most straightforward vehicle for retention plans are clients’ existing roadmaps. As part of a comprehensive audit process, all account handlers at Blue Array provide these SEO plans for a 12-month timeframe (regardless of contract length – more on this shortly).

Given that individual account handlers interface with clients more often, more deeply, and across more functions than agency leadership; it follows that separate top-down retention plans may not make the boat go faster.

SEO Director Luci Wood has previously summarised the mechanics of putting together an impactful SEO roadmap; including working through prerequisite audits and north star goals.

Audits achieve the retention requirements of being data driven, providing full-transparency about the gap between what’s possible and what’s real. North star goals fulfil the retention requirements of being data-driven; and requiring low cognitive load for senior leadership and new stakeholders.

What follows is how we optimised the roadmap and related processes for retention.

Iterate immediately

Nothing commands client confidence like a specific, measurable, time-bound plan presented at audit. However, given that an audit is usually our first substantial interaction with clients, our roadmaps were failing on meaningful collaboration. Through our own thoroughness, we realised we may be imposing plans that aren’t achievable for reasons of appetite, culture, or resource.

Given the trend of client appetite for collaboration and emphasis on effective structure, we’ve since introduced an explicit post-audit step for client reflection and roadmap iteration. The product of this step is that the roadmap is then ‘signed off’. The need for this is further evidenced by Blue Array’s table of retention concerns; see points about lack of capacity, lack of engagement, and internal politics.

This step also achieves the retention requirement of helping clients meaningfully scrutinise the amount and type of resource needed to succeed.

Iterate immediately: effect on the bottom line

A collaborative iteration like this draws a tacit emotional commitment. Research shows that groups who sign off on goals can improve actual commitment by 50% compared to those who do not. More output equals more success.

Design a single source of the truth

We use various project management formats at sub-team and individual level; including Trello, TeamGantt, Toggl, and more. For roadmaps designed specifically for retention, we circled back to a gantt-style Google Sheet format as the client-facing single source of truth.

Thanks to feedback from SEO Managers who acted as producers, we realised a spreadsheet would be crucial for the client retention requirements of low cognitive load for new stakeholders and senior leaders. It’s a familiar format with no learning curve, it’s portable, real-time, and simultaneously supports a ‘long view’ for leaders with a ‘to do list’ for implementers.

Crystallizing plans to a single source of truth in this way achieves absolute transparency over how days should be spent. It’s detail rich but concise, and requires very little understanding for senior managers and new stakeholders. It’s hoped that having the discipline to maintain this will reduce the perceived friction of unexpected senior management involvement (see row in our table of retention concerns).

Single source of the truth: effect on the bottom line

Failing to create a single source of the truth increases likelihood of cognitive overload among stakeholders. This creates barriers to access and understanding. In turn this leads to general ambiguity, which studies have shown to amplify negative responses to perceived threats (ie the threat of failure).

Use a 12-month timeline

It doesn’t matter how long a client has signed for, or how regularly they reprioritise, a 12 month view of the ideal road to success is a basic requirement.

Why? Ex-Googler Maile Ohye said that SEO projects typically take 4-12 months to start getting results, and it’s unlikely anyone can achieve fully-optimised climactic performance in this time (if ‘fully optimised’ even exists).

If it’s easier to offer more service to existing clients than it is to bring in new clients, then the least we can do is demonstrate the opportunity left on the table by not seeing at least a full year. This also helps mitigate the row in our table of retention concerns about trajectory, because it puts less pressure on fast results. Finally (and purely from a commercial perspective) if the number one retention concern is the end of a fixed contract, why not help make these events less frequent by giving clients a reason to commit for longer periods?

The main counter-argument to a 12-month roadmap is the need for agility, but this is a false dichotomy. More next.

Use a 12 month timeline: effect on the bottom line

A 12-month timeline shows the opportunity left on the table by committing to less. From an agency perspective, it removes the incentive to prioritise tasks that show some results quickly, and allows us to focus on those that will have the greatest total impact overall.

Adopt an agile, scrum-style framework

It’s a reality that companies change tactical focus, sometimes suddenly. Our table of client retention concerns suggests this happens more frequently than we might imagine. Couple this with the Forrester Digital Outlook survey’s emphasis on clients appreciating faster decisions, and it’s clear that accepting agile principles helps us respond frictionlessly to changing circumstances in a way that satisfies clients.

For those who aren’t familiar with agile principles, this image from Henrik Kniberg communicates it more intuitively than any short description could. If every number is one week, it visualises the idea that something usable is ready at every milestone should it be needed.

By using a modular roadmap that assigns projects to blocks of time, projects can then be switched out with minimum possible fuss when necessary. Crucial to the success of this is the maintained visibility of projects that have been swapped out (to avoid losing sight of their importance to our north star goals). A focus on very short but very regular ‘all hands’ meetings is also part and parcel of this way of working. While this helps with the retention need to win the hearts and minds of stakeholders in every function, it’s not something that’s universally adopted at Blue Array. Many teams prefer client points of contact to fulfill this role.

Scrum-style framework: effect on the bottom line

By tracking and recording differences between a recommended plan and the operational reality it’s easier for all stakeholders to keep sight of progress and priorities, and it also makes it easier to manage expectations or bill for overdelivery.

Summary

Our approach to client retention is ever-evolving, but with the evidence suggesting that it has more to do with relationships and operations than bottom-line performance, we’ve been able to tweak our approach to planning in pursuit of ‘raving fan’ clients who stick with us for longer.

Sources

Forrester Research & Soda – 2020 digital outlook report
2020 RSW/US new year outlook report
2019 RSW/US agency new business report
AMI & Audience Audit – 2015 agency hiring and firing insights
ARR Thinks 2014 – Clients and agencies: a senior view on current challenges and partnerships
The Guardian – It’s not you, it’s us: why clients really fire agencies
Google says give SEOs 4-12 months

SEO Manager Ben is a career marketer with a near-obstinate belief that bullet-proof operations are the backbone of organic search success. He's particularly interested in the characteristics of high performing teams, and has previously helped two large generalist marketing departments establish and embed specialist functions and processes.

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