Digital Agencies, Don't Forget About Relationships

by Brian Forrester   |   Nov 19, 2015   |   Clock Icon 8 min read
Building long-lasting client relationships is at the core of creating a sustainable digital marketing agency. Attrition can absolutely kill growth (and your company), forcing sales teams to work harder to fill holes and creating uncertainty and insecurity among team members.
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Relationships often trump results. There, I said it. It’s true, and I’ve seen it play out in real life. At Workshop Digital, we’ve had a client leave the agency despite not only hitting its goals for the year, but tripling them… before the fourth quarter. We’ve also had clients experience dips in performance but stay course with us. In both scenarios, our relationships with these clients were determining factors.

In the digital space, where face-to-face meetings aren’t always necessary or easily accomplished, sometimes we become overly reliant on phone calls and emails. This can damage important client relationships. Traditional agencies have been known for developing long-lasting client relationships. Some, such as the recently ended partnership between client Land O’Lakes and agency Mithun, span 80 years.

Building long-lasting client relationships is at the core of creating a sustainable digital marketing agency. Attrition can absolutely kill growth (and your company), forcing sales teams to work harder to fill holes and creating uncertainty and insecurity among team members.

Acquiring new business is often many times more expensive than keeping and growing existing business. Meanwhile, retaining clients can actually result in profit gains. Research by Bain & Company, creators of the Net Promoter Score, claims that improving client retention rates by 5 percent can create a 25 percent increase in profit because existing clients tend to buy more services. Not only is this true in our experience, but happy clients often refer in more business, further adding value to the agency.

Retaining existing clients creates the foundation from which you can confidently pursue new business. With a solid base of recurring revenue, sales teams and management are free to pursue the types of business that best fit the company. By contrast, companies with high churn rates often are forced to take on clients that are not a good fit, leading to problems down the road.

Here are five ways digital agencies can build stronger relationships to improve retention rates and create more predictable long term growth:

Face Time

Emails lack inflection, phone calls lack eye contact and gestures, and faxes, well… when was the last time you saw one of those things? The absolute best way to build trust and rapport with clients is in face-to-face meetings.

In Distributed Work, published by The MIT Press, scholars Pamela Hinds and Sara Kiesler affirm that, “Face-to-face communication was instrumental as a means of ‘cultivating’ relationships, and it facilitated the conversation … in a way the telephone did not.”

Phone calls or emails are more convenient, and depending on the news that needs to be delivered, safer than face-to-face meetings. Yet while phone calls and emails are an important and necessary form of communication, as digital agencies we cannot forget to schedule regular face-to-face meetings with our clients.

I have seen massive, confusing email threads that took days to create get solved in the first 15 minutes of a meeting. Take the time to meet with your clients and genuinely build a relationship.


There are many business-isms out there, and I try to stay away from them. (We’ve got enough in digital marketing). But I recently came across GLUE, and it instantly resonated with me. GLUE, an acronym for Giving Little Unexpected Extras, is a simple yet effective reminder about the importance of building strong relationships.

A recent example: One of our analysts was in a meeting with a new client. During the meeting, the client revealed that she was recently engaged. Immediately after the meeting, our analyst found the client’s wedding registry and ordered a gift to be sent to her house. The client emailed the analyst to thank her for the gift and said she was moved to tears when she found out the analyst had gone the extra mile to send her the gift. That’s powerful, relationship-building GLUE!

It’s important to note that GLUE shouldn’t be contrived. It needs to be organic, thoughtful and not overbearing. If you are interested in some other examples of GLUE to get the creative juices flowing, check out this post.

Exceeding Expectations

In its simplest form, the expression “Underpromise, Overdeliver” starts to pull at the thread of exceeding expectations. But to exceed expectations, expectations have to be set. Sounds pretty logical, right? Yet so many companies don’t set expectations up front, leaving new clients to draw up their own expectations. Setting clear expectations on new campaign launches, frequency of communication, fees associated with additional work, and how soon to expect results are critical relationship-building tools.

Once those expectations are set and agreed upon by both parties, they have to be written down (hopefully in an agreement) and reinforced. I have seen relationships go sideways when a client had an expectation that wasn’t in line with what we’d agreed to do. It can take a lot of time and energy to course correct, so take the time to set these expectations up front.

Finally, make it an internal team goal to blow past those expectations. How? Launch a campaign a week (or even a day) early. Blow them away on the communication front with a little GLUE—send them a relevant article, some company swag, or just give them a call. Crush early targets by generating more leads or sales than anticipated, or by lowering cost-per-click or cost-per-acquisition numbers.

Get Personal

According to Leading on the Edge of Chaos by Emmet C. Murphy and Mark A. Murphy, companies that prioritize the customer experience generate 60 percent higher profits than their competitors. In order to prioritize the customer experience, you have to get to know your customers.

Relationships develop in stages, and understanding how to nourish relationships over time is a critical factor in client retention. According to Wikipedia’s entry on interpersonal relationships, which cites many psychological and sociological scholarly works, the first stage of interpersonal relationship development is Acquaintance: “Becoming acquainted depends on previous relationships, physical proximity, first impressions, and a variety of other factors. If two people begin to like each other, continued interactions may lead to the next stage, but acquaintance can continue indefinitely.”

Many professional relationships never transcend this stage, and that is a mistake. If you are passionate and care about what you do (and if digital marketing is your job, I certainly hope you do) then you should be passionate about your client’s success as well.

To move from the Acquaintance stage to the Buildup and Continuation phases, you must develop trust. And to develop trust, you have to get personal, but not too personal.

Here are a few ways to get personal with your clients.

  • Take a vested interest in your client’s passions outside of work. What sports do they follow? What do they do for fun?
  • Start client meetings and phone calls with small talk. Don’t jump right into reporting. Take time to develop that rapport and relationship every time you meet with or talk to your client.
  • Show them you’ve been listening. If you find out about a birthday, wedding, or new baby, send them a card. This is where getting personal also turns into strong client GLUE.
  • Where possible and appropriate, invite clients out for dinner, drinks, golf, or any outing. Amazing things can happen when you get a client out of the office for a few hours.


One of the most common consumer frustrations is not receiving a timely response to an inquiry. In some cases, even on the new business front, companies don’t respond to inquiries at all. It’s mind-boggling to think how much new business is lost because of this.

When setting expectations, it’s critical to set the expected response time to client communications. If this isn’t done, it can stress the relationship in a couple of ways.

If you start the relationship by responding almost immediately to client calls and emails, the client will grow to expect that. Any change in response time may cause the client to feel they are no longer important or that you are neglecting their account.

If you consistently take too long to respond to client communication, the client may feel devalued and likely will start looking for an alternative solution. Not only that, but clients who experience bad customer service are many times more likely to tell others than those who experience good customer service.

Kissmetrics compiled several data sources to create this infographic that visualizes the importance of customer service. Simply setting expectations for response times internally with your teams and externally with your clients can have a huge impact on customer happiness, loyalty, and retention.

In conclusion, you can—and should—be disciplined and strategic about relationship building, and I hope you’ll find the above advice helpful on that front. However, relationship building succeeds only as an honest endeavor. You must care about your clients’ professional and personal goals. The reward will be far more than retention. It will be better results, built on deep trust, and the freedom to find more clients that match your company culture and grow your bottom line.

Portrait of Brian Forrester

Brian Forrester

Brian has spent over 15 years in digital marketing. He is most passionate about building a better agency with an emphasis on culture, community involvement, and the development of our number-one resource, our team.

During Brian’s time as Co-Founder & CEO of Workshop Digital, the agency has won numerous awards including six-time winner of Virginia Best Places to Work, four-time winner Outside Magazine Best Places to Work in the U.S., 4-time winner of Generosity, Inc., an award celebrating top charitable corporate givers in Richmond, VA, three-time winner of the RVA25 Fastest Growing Companies in Richmond, the 2016 Richmond Chamber IMPACT Award, and Brian was also selected for the Style Weekly 40 under 40 list in 2017.

Since his days at James Madison University, Brian has always sought to give back to the community. Brian has served on the Executive Advisory Council for JMU’s College of Business, Marketing, the FETCH a Cure Board of Directors, the IMPACT Awards Selection Committee, and the Town of Irvington Planning Commission. Brian now serves on the Board of Directors at Northern Neck Insurance and is a member of the Virginia Advisory Council for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.