Pop quiz: How much of your agency’s revenue comes from clients?
If you didn’t answer “all of it,” the percentage is still pretty high, right? (And if it’s not — well, we want to know your secret!)
Without clients, an agency can’t continue to pay its people or keep the lights on.
This reality isn’t lost on managers and CEOs, and if asked, just about every one of them will say their agency is customer-centric.
But often, there’s a sizable gap between saying an agency is client-oriented and actually operating with that mindset.
If you’re working to take a more customer-oriented approach at your agency, this essential guide will help. We’ll show you what client orientation is (and isn’t), then provide six key improvement strategies.
Understanding client orientation
Client orientation is an approach to doing business that puts the client’s needs first. Rather than organizing an agency around its own priorities, sales metrics, customer retention, or products, a customer-focused business strategy prioritizes the client’s version of those elements.
That isn’t to say that a product-oriented business never thinks about client needs, nor is it to say that a client-oriented agency doesn’t care about making money. Instead, it’s a change in central focus.
The client-oriented agency believes that to make more money, it must meet its clients’ needs and achieve their goals. So, instead of focusing first on profit figures and leaving the client stuff to account execs or customer success, a client-oriented agency focuses on the client’s priorities. When they meet these priorities, profits will follow.
Sometimes “client orientation” is misunderstood as a process or phase the client goes through, similar to college orientation. This concept exists as well, but it’s typically called client onboarding (especially in the agency world).
What sets client orientation apart from similar concepts
The general tenets of client orientation might sound similar to the roles and responsibilities of specific business units, like customer service and customer satisfaction. In agency terms, we might talk about account execs or client success managers to get the same concepts.
The difference is one of scope. In an agency-oriented approach, customer support and customer success teams (which may go by other names) are devoted to the needs of the client. Other divisions and roles focus on the agency’s needs more directly.
But in a customer-oriented company, everyone operates based on what the client wants and needs. Here’s an example to further illustrate the difference.
At many businesses, if a customer complaint comes in via social media or other channels, it’s someone’s job to solve it. Usually, a front-line member of the customer service team fixes the issue, and that’s the end of the story. No one in other departments even knows it happened.
But in a client-oriented business, customer care takes center stage. The entire company pays attention to what customers want, engaging in problem-solving and brainstorming how to improve the user experience.
Another related concept is client management, where an agency might take a more active approach to meeting client needs rather than waiting for the client to specifically request help.
The difference between client management and client orientation is, again, one of scope. While client management is a natural tactic for a client-oriented agency, it’s also possible to do client management in pursuit of a different orientation. For example, it could be seen as a (temporary) means to another end, like increasing profits or retention.
Why client orientation matters
Taking a client-oriented approach can make a surprising difference in day-to-day operations for some team members, but looks more like a subtle shift in focus for others. It’s fair to pause and ask whether a change like this, which could be fairly disruptive for some, is worth pursuing at all. Will it really move the needle enough to matter?
We say yes, especially for organizations like creative agencies, which already have a heavy client focus.
That’s because client orientation has the potential to significantly improve customer interactions and grow customer loyalty and trust to unprecedented levels. It can also have a positive impact on brand reputation.
Client orientation is also an interesting way to boost your agency’s bottom line. It’s well documented that gaining new customers is much more expensive (four to five times more) than keeping existing customers.
This is especially true in the digital marketing industry, where client acquisition costs (CAC) can be significant compared to other industries.
Client orientation helps you please current clients more effectively, and happy clients are more likely to stay and add additional services. Both of these increase their customer lifetime value (CLV) — all because you kept them happy by focusing on their needs.
Key strategies to enhance client orientation
Client orientation may be the right approach for your agency. Still, what does it look like in action? How does an agency move from the way it operates currently to a more client-oriented future?
These six customer orientation strategies will help you move your agency in a stronger client-centric direction.
1. Create a feedback loop for you and your clients
A client-oriented approach requires hearing from your clients in a regular cadence. Your clients’ priorities can and do change over time, so staying focused on those priorities means staying up to date on what they actually are.
The best approach for this is a client-agency feedback loop. Create a mechanism where you’re continually receiving customer feedback and returning with insights, actions, or other responses to that feedback.
These feedback loops could look like monthly or biweekly meetings. Or they could take place entirely digitally, within a client-oriented project management solution like Teamwork.com.
Not only do feedback loops set the stage for a client-oriented approach, they also help agencies manage client expectations. But keep in mind that not every client demand is feasible, and staying client-oriented doesn’t always mean bowing to their every whim.
2. Tailor products and services to your clients
A product-focused agency focuses on the products or services they offer. If a client needs something the agency doesn’t normally offer, most agencies will naturally try to flex at least a little to keep a client happy. But they typically don’t expand very far beyond their standard offerings.
But the client-oriented agency goes much further. With the client’s needs as its central focus, an agency eagerly tailors its products and services to meet customers’ expectations. This level of client orientation creates value for the client and strengthens your relationship.
Of course, there are limits to what your agency can and should do. You probably aren’t good at heavy construction, commercial landscaping, or catering — and that’s okay.
Even still, there are options besides a straight-up “no.” If the requests start to veer outside your capabilities, you may need outside help. But by being the one to provide that outside help, you’re still delivering value to your client.
3. Work with clients with similar values
Some marketing agencies are (in)famous for finding creative ways to speak clients’ languages and create a bond — even when there isn’t a great deal of value alignment.
That works out okay in transactional relationships or profit-driven models. But it creates problems if you want to be truly client-oriented. To be a client-oriented firm, you’ll need to do more than speak your clients’ languages. You need to believe in what your clients are doing.
Often, this dovetails nicely with nicheing. For example, if you’re already targeting eco-friendly companies, it’s probably because those companies align with your values.
But where a profit-driven agency might hold its nose and do some work for an auto dealership or an industrial client, a client-oriented agency might choose to pass on those opportunities.
4. Put the right tools in place
Putting your clients first is good business, but full-on client orientation is a major mindset shift. Changing the way your people think about clients, business, and priorities is a major undertaking.
But changing people’s minds isn’t enough.
You also need to equip your agency and your team members with the right set of tools, so they can succeed at adopting a client-oriented mindset.
For example, you might need a tool to get a better handle on client communications and create cleaner, more consistent feedback loops. Investing in a customer relationship management (CRM) suite is a great way to improve in this area. Or, if you’re already using one, it might be time to step up to a better option.
You’ll also need a project management software solution designed for a client-oriented approach. Many solutions on the market are built for enterprises or short iterative workflows (like you’ll find in agile tech businesses).
They can be used in creative contexts, but often, it feels like you’re trying to shove a square peg (your agency’s workflow needs) into a round hole (or an enterprise-sized cavern).
You can use it to plan and manage creative projects, allocate resources, balance workloads, maximize capacity and utilization, and more. And it’s all built in a way that’s friendly for creatives and creative-adjacent professionals.
You can even collaborate with your clients within Teamwork.com, giving each client unlimited free access to their projects in a customized client view. It’s the perfect way to scale your agency, even as you develop a client-oriented approach.
5. Hire and train the right people
Your agency’s focus matters — but the people you hire matter even more.
So make sure that, throughout your recruiting materials and hiring process, you incorporate the language of client orientation. Make it unmistakably clear what kind of focus you want, and it’ll change the kinds of people who are attracted to your agency.
Take Amazon, for example. Their philosophy on what the right leadership team looks like is embedded in the company’s leadership principles:
“Leaders start with the customer and work backward. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.”
By establishing exactly what kind of leader the company desires, Amazon shows a commitment to customer orientation. Assuming the company hires in accordance with this stated philosophy, it will continue to build the right team for creating a customer-oriented culture.
And don’t forget training. Bringing in people who are ready to focus on clients is a crucial first step, but you need to reinforce your commitment to a client mindset throughout onboarding and training materials. You also need to train your existing staff, especially if this change feels like a significant culture shift.
6. Cultivate long-term relationships with your clients
Last, keep your focus on building long-term client relationships.
Quick wins (and quick paychecks) are enticing, and there’s nothing wrong with pursuing some quick wins for a client. Sometimes, those quick wins serve as validation or proof of concept, convincing the client to commit to a deeper and wider range of services, increasing customer value.
The danger is in making those quick wins the goal. Instead, keep the right prize in mind: a long-term customer relationship.
The longer you work with a client, the greater that CLV grows, and the more likely the client is to trust your agency with more (and more valuable) work.
Simplify client orientation with Teamwork.com
Transitioning your agency to a framework based on client orientation takes effort. It might even take some shifts in how you organize and approach your client work.
Change is never easy, but it can be much simpler when you’re working with the right tools.
Teamwork.com is the project management solution you’ve been looking for — a solution that gets creative agencies and doesn’t force them into the mold of other business types.