How to Hold Your Client Accountable

Chad Kearns, Vice President of Marketing Services

This is one of the hardest things to do effectively when working in an agency environment.

If your day-to-day role puts you at the table working directly with clients, learning how to hold your client accountable is a skill that is not discussed or taught as often as it should be.

By effectively holding clients accountable to the work agreed upon, agencies and their practitioners can benefit immensely. I’ll also argue that it can help clients get better results from their engagement as well. Getting this right is so important, and it’s a fine line for agency folks who are constantly under pressure from the prospect of losing a service contract.

Effectively holding your client accountable positions your agency team to do their best work, it keeps your agency financially healthy, and arguably, it actually sets your client up to achieve the best outcome from your work together.

Missing here results in your client dictating the course of your work together, an unprofitable account for your agency, and an unhappy agency team held back from properly executing on their expertise. Your client may be happy with that in the short term. Long term, nobody, including your client, will win.

With so much at stake, it’s vital to get it right.

If you’re struggling with where to start, there are a handful of places to narrow your focus. This post is all about how to set yourself up to hold your client accountable more effectively. No matter what, it’s a hard thing to do well, but it’s made easier if approached correctly. Here’s where to begin.

Know the SOW

Hopefully, you have a detailed scope of work to lean on before any work happens. As the agency, you need to know that SOW inside out. If well-written, that SOW should set you up with initial expectations and boundaries. Use that to your advantage.

Clients will push for everything they can get (and they should)! When the SOW is infringed on, you have to say something right away. ‘No’ doesn’t have to be the answer when a client asks for something that isn’t included in your SOW. If it’s a small ask, consider taking it on to build the relationship. If it’s a big ask, the answer can still be yes, adding, “but we’ll need to re-prioritize this with other work or draft an additional SOW for what you’re requesting.”

The SOW is there to protect both the agency and the client. Don’t ignore it. If your client signed up for something but wants something else, that’s fine. Talk about it, go back to your SOW, and decide the best path forward.

Your SOW is a signed acknowledgment of the agreed-upon work to reference. Don’t forget about it!

Acknowledgment of an agreement is the foundation required to better hold a client accountable. If you don’t have a specific agreement with acknowledgment from your client, good luck with any of this.

Start Firm

The best thing you can do to hold your client accountable to the work scoped is to set firm boundaries and expectations right from the very beginning.

The first 45 days of your work together are key. If you can get into a regular cadence that is in line with the SOW, you’ll set yourself up for success in the long run. If you’re consistently overservicing your client early so you can get off to a good start, plan on overservicing for the long run and losing profit margin on your work. Once you’re a few months in, the expectation is already set; reeling that back is incredibly difficult.

Document and Agree on a Work Plan

It doesn’t matter what kind of agency you are; whether you’re completing small tactical project-based work or you were brought in for a multi-year consulting contract, you should build and maintain a work roadmap that is shared with the client.

Once the work is planned and expectations with delivery dates are detailed, get sign-off from your client. I’ll clarify: get sign-off from your client in writing. A shared project management system is a great place to house all of this stuff.

That sign-off is your client’s acknowledgment and agreement to the plan. Acknowledgment of your agreement in combination is key. That acknowledgment gives you a receipt. Don’t forget about it!

When plans are made, expectations are set, and agreement happens, accountability becomes much easier. Yes, plans will change. And when they do, go back to your work roadmap, prioritize appropriately, reset deadlines, and get acknowledgment and agreement.

Document and Agree on Work Dependencies

Work dependencies represent the place where clients most often miss their commitments. When not held accountable to those commitments, agencies get crunched with unrealistic times or are asked to complete their work without everything they need to get it done.

This is where I see agencies struggle the most to keep their clients accountable to their agreements.

If you’re in a professional services environment where there are no dependencies on your work from the client, you’ll be in good shape. For most of us, our work has many client dependencies built into what we do. Those dependencies could be anything from waiting on marketing collateral to be delivered so we can start our work to waiting on approval from a senior vice president or CEO to launch something.

Regardless of what dependency you need from a client to progress your work, outline the dependency, detail how it affects the rest of your work, and set a deadline for the client to follow through.

It’s crucial to get acknowledgment and agreement from the client here as well. Once you have that, you’ve got another receipt to go back to when expectations aren’t met.

The documentation of details and agreement arms you with the basis you need to push back effectively when clients don’t hold up their end of the bargain. Agencies will always have to flex, but agencies should also be prepared to push back on clients who don’t follow through appropriately.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Saying ‘yes’ to a client is easy. Not saying anything when a client doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain is easy.

But taking that route over and over again isn’t going to get you very far. It’s really hard to step out on a limb and challenge your client. It puts agencies in a vulnerable place for so many reasons. The consultants, account managers, and agency practitioners that can do it the most effectively are also the ones that get the most out of their agency-client relationships.

Our strongest, most meaningful client relationships are the ones where we’ve been able to hold our client as accountable as well as we hold ourselves accountable.

The push and pull of a successful client-agency relationship must be a two-way street. But all too often, a needy client who is under pressure to produce results fast can run over their agency team with additional requests, delivering late on their commitments, or scrambling to change direction at the last minute. And as an agency aiming to please, it’s easy to let them, since they know they hold power in the dynamic of the relationship, right?

But when agencies can hold their clients accountable, and when those clients can take that pushback from their agencies to address any issues constructively, the promise of meaningful work is ever-present, and relationships between agencies and their clients can flourish.

Other posts in this series:

Building Great Brand-Agency Relationships
How to Set and Maintain Meaningful Marketing Goals
How to Hold Your Agency Accountable

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