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How to Effectively Communicate with Your Digital Agency

Julie Symonds headshot
Julie Symonds
Director

We’ve been doing this thing for a while; being a digital agency, building sites, apps, helping our clients put their best digital foot forward. The truth is where we see the best work happen and where it results in the most success for our clients, is generally on the projects where we have built a strong relationship with the client.

Your agency WANTS to do good work for you. There’s not an agency out there I know of who brings their team together and says, “Let’s see if we can really screw up on this account, shall we?”

At the start of each new client relationship, we have the ability to foster effective communication, do good work and ensure both our client and our team learns a little something along the way. After all, in order for us to provide the most value for you, we need to learn about your business so we can use that informed knowledge to advise on decisions regarding your audience/customers and your goals. Just like any other relationship, the start of a great agency relationship is where we learn more about you and where we earn your trust.

Quite literally, we succeed when you succeed, so why wouldn’t we want things to go well?

In my career I have had the privilege to sit on both “sides” of the fence. I’ve been the marketing executive for the company/brand working with an agency, and I’ve been the agency working with the marketing executive on their digital platforms. It’s given me some unique insight into client/agency relationships that work and what some of the keys to success are for those relationships. So if you’ve arrived here looking for some advice on how you can manage your digital agency relationship to garner success, below are some tips I have for things that are within your control to make that relationship great.

Be clear about your expectations from the beginning

We all have expectations in our head about what success looks like. At The Refinery, we actually ask this question of our clients during project kick-offs. “What does success look like for you on this project?” So it’s easy to say, “A completed, well-designed, functioning website.” But when you go deeper into that question, I think you’ll find there’s more to it than that.

Your expectations of the working relationship are an important piece of the puzzle here. You could end up with exactly what we stated above at the end of the project, but what if it took twice as long as anticipated, used more budget than you allotted, or what if you never got an update about where things stood and just had to wait for word on when it was complete? In most instances, up the chain somewhere, projects are measured by the financial ROI they deliver. See what I’m saying? There’s more to the success of a project than just the end-product. Your expectations for the relationship need to be clear as well, and you can’t assume that the agency has a crystal ball that tells them about some of the subtle nuances of your particular needs, so if you expect daily updates, say it. If you need a weekly budget recap for your CFO, ask. If you prefer a phone call to an email, let your Project Manager know. The truth is, speaking for our team here, we are dedicated to a positive outcome, but knowing what will help ease your mind and understanding how you like to communicate is key to the overarching success of the project. Help your agency understand what's at stake, that will help them make other suggestions to get more ROI out of the project.

See them as an ally

We know you may have been burned in the past by another agency, a freelancer, perhaps an internal resource at your company. It’s frustrating and rage-inducing to feel like you’re paying the price for a bad decision, or lack of communication from someone else. So it’s easy to come into an agency relationship with a fair amount of distrust. Add to this that most marketing representatives are not designers or developers and you have an additional layer of concern when it comes to the production of a company website or app. You may not have all the answers and may have to rely on someone else to help you piece together an effective work product.

The biggest piece of advice I can give you having been where you are is to do your homework, vet your agency, but then give them your trust and see them as an ally. Your agency should be part of the team, trusted to help you find success in the mission they are tasked with. Don’t begin the relationship in the mindset that they are trying to fleece you for more money, would lie to cover their own butts or don’t care about your project. Clear the air in the vetting process if these are legitimate concerns for you based on past experience, and then give the team you select the trust they need to help you achieve your goal.

Know your scope and know when you’re asking for more

When you enter into an agency relationship you should have scope documents that clearly define, in detail, what you are agreeing to pay for and what the agency is agreeing to accomplish on your behalf.

Here’s some inside baseball for you, again based on my past experience as both the client and the agency: Those scope docs are good faith estimates/descriptions of the work both sides want accomplished but rarely represent the work done when the project is complete.

The fact is, things happen. Teams can only make reasonable estimates of the work that needs to be done until they get “under the hood” of an existing website to see what’s going on. If it’s a from-scratch project, more often than not, someone on the client side (usually not the main point of contact but perhaps someone higher up the food chain or a sales teammate, etc) will have a want/need for something out of scope in order to consider the project a success. It’s going to happen, we get it. And that’s ok!

When it’s on the agency side, if there’s something we discover or something that doesn’t go as planned, your project manager should immediately make you aware of that change in scope so that you can be an active participant in the game plan for how to tackle that issue.

When it’s client-side scope creep (agency lingo for “more than what was agreed to”) that’s ok too, we get it’s going to happen and you can’t control everyone else on your end. All we ask is that you recognize the scope creep and work with us to determine either what needs to “go” to make the additional ask work within your existing budget, or what additional expense is going to be incurred to make it happen.

Communicate the “why”

This point is taking us back to my second point. We (the agency) want to be your ally. So when a deadline changes, scope creeps or you’re just really upset about something, please communicate the “why” to your project manager.

We know external pressures happen. Someone changes a deadline without telling you til it’s nearly upon you, the sales team neglects to mention a conference they are attending with 10,000 fliers already printed with your website URL on them and an “enter to win” contest driving traffic, your ad team places a buy for a billboard introducing your brand new site with the wrong launch date. I’ve seen all of these happen (and had 2 of them happen to me as a marketer) and I know the stress they create.

Communicating what you need and why you need it when plans change is critical to an effective agency relationship. Again speaking for my colleagues here at The Refinery, we want to make it happen for you and support you and make you look like the rockstar. We will do all we can to work with you to make it happen. The key is, when what you need may not be possible, we also want to support you by offering a plan b or plan c, and we can’t effectively help to mitigate the situation unless we know what’s happening.

It’s much easier to be compassionate and offer assistance when we know what’s going on.

When you’re unhappy, tell them and be clear about how they can be better

Am I starting to sound like a marriage counselor yet? Ha ha! Truth is, just like any relationship, when you’re unhappy you have to communicate that so that the offending party can apologize, explain themselves and/or work to rectify the situation. Don’t let displeasure with something fester and don’t assume that your agency recognizes it and just chooses not to act on it.

Additionally, there may be a very good explanation for it. If, for example, your agency goes over budget on a maintenance task, this is never ideal. While we try to stay well in front of a scenario like this they can still sometimes happen. Say a developer is updating a plugin on your site or adding a feature. In the process of doing this they uncover a major breach in the code they inherited from your previous agency that’s resulted in the potential that your customers’ data could be compromised. Fixing this sticky situation is time sensitive and really important and if they discover it at 5pm on Friday they may not be able to get you (or you may not be able to get whomever you need to in order to approve additional budget) but you wouldn’t want them to wait to fix the issue. It’s an outlier example but situations like this do happen. You may not like the overage on your budget and you may propose a better course of action if it happens again. The team needs to hear clearly what you’re upset about and how to do it better next time.

Your relationship with your agency should evolve over time. The best way for it to change for the better is for you to be an active participant in the conversation and let them know how you’d like to see things go moving forward.

We can’t do it without you

One of the biggest mistakes I see when it comes to bad relationships between a client and an agency is the misconception that, “I’m paying you to do X, so you should do it all.” I would love to tell you that you/your company is paying for something and thus we can be autonomous in the fulfillment of that need. 90% of teams would love to have everything they need from day 1 on a project in order to plug away and just go heads down and get it done. Yet the fact is that successful projects almost always rely on active engagement from the client side.

The team is going to need things as we go. Assets, content, passwords, decisions, agency types are a needy bunch when a big project hangs in the balance. Your prompt response and assistance can mean the difference between a project staying on time and on budget and it going off the rails. It’s critical to your project’s success that you assign a decision maker on your end and entrust them to make the decisions or gain consensus and communicate that back to your agency.

Having sat on both sides of the table (as a product owner and on the agency side) I know there are a lot of people who want say in what happens on the website and those people don’t always see eye to eye. Be transparent with your agency if you’re facing challenges with internal stakeholders and let them work as a team with you to try to find solutions when people have competing priorities.

Get consensus from all relevant stakeholders on your end

That last point from the section above leads nicely into my next point. Get consensus from your team, or at least a mutual understanding, before you commit to a decision about your project. We’ve seen this a bunch recently where client-side, stakeholders get busy with the day to day business of their company (how dare they!) and leave the designated product owner on their side in charge of some major decisions about the project. We get it, it happens, but this can create so much additional work and expense on the backside of the project if that stakeholder pops back in later and decides they don’t like the decision or want something to look/function in a different way. If you’re the designated product owner, make sure you’re getting support and agreement from your client-side team on any major design or development decisions that impact the project. If you try and they don’t answer, at least you’ll have a paper trail to support you when they complain later about the decision.

If you don’t understand, ask for clarification

Websites and apps are complicated. It’s a whole new world of terminology. From server configurations and SSL certificates, to CMS and Google Tag Manager, to HTML and GitHub repos, you’re gonna hear a lot of jargon. The catch here is that you’re probably going to have to make some decisions based on all this jargon and how it should best be set up and function for your needs. You don’t have to know every nuance of every topic, but you do want to be able to make informed decisions so when you don’t understand something, ask!

While developers have a reputation for preferring the company of a server to a human, most of them are really smart people that are happy to help you learn. And your secret weapon will always be your project manager. A good Project Manager can help translate all the gobbledygook terminology used by your digital team into plain English.

It's also advisable to ask for a recommendation. A lot of times your agency may try to remain unbiased about certain decisions so they aren’t offering opinions you don’t need, but when you need an opinion, ask for one! Trying to decide where hosting should take place or which CRM would work best with your current site, if you want some insight, ask for it. The caveat here is, know where their bread is buttered. What I mean is, it's common for agencies to get kick-backs from products or services they recommend. This isn’t dirty pool and it doesn’t mean they would steer you wrong, but you should know if they are receiving any benefit to the recommendations they offer so that you can appropriately weigh that recommendation.

We, the agency, work for you. Trust me when I say that we walk into every new project with the desire to do good work, make you happy, and produce a quality product. I can’t speak for every agency, but here at The Refinery I can tell you that we’ll give you every ounce of our energy to help create a successful outcome for you and your project, but we need your help. Having a great working relationship, seeing us collectively as a united team with the same goal in mind, and being able to problem solve with transparency and honesty are all contributing factors to that success. We really are a team of people doing what we love and while it’s not always easy, with a good working relationship with our clients it can be rewarding and fun even when there are challenges. Hold up your end of the bargain and hold your digital agency accountable to their end as well. You deserve nothing less.