Ask any agency founder how important client retention is and they'll likely tell you it's the most important aspect of their business. This truth is not unique to agencies but spans businesses of all shapes and sizes. Retaining clients is vital to a successful business. Ali Cudby is the author of Keep Your Customers, an acclaimed book on this topic and says:
"Most of the research shows that it costs between 6 to 7 times more to get a new customer vs. keeping the customers you already have."
Successfully retaining clients builds loyalty and the likelihood of new client referrals - one of the best lead gen sources. If you haven't already, be sure to check out our other guide: 18 Rock Solid Ideas for Agency Lead Gen.
Retaining clients is absolutely vital, just from a pure economics standpoint. Client churn is expensive because the time, effort and resources to win new business is considerable - especially in a competitive market. Recent research from CallRail suggests that on average, agencies face annual client churn rates upwards of 40% underlining the importance of client retention.
According to research from the Bedford Consulting Group, agency-client relationship tenures have been falling over time. Back in the golden days of advertising in the 1980's, client tenures averaged over 7 years which is an eternity compared to less than half that time in 2013. If the trend holds, we could be looking at client relationship tenures under 2 years by 2026.
This is why we wrote this guide. We wanted to find out from leading digital agency founders what their best client retention strategies were for their respective agencies. A big 'thank you' goes out to the founders we spoke to who generously shared with us their ideas and experiences on the topic.
1. Focus on the Business Challenges
Agencies are well equipped to tackle marketing challenges and marketing goals but one of the most important client retention strategies is to focus on the business challenges and business goals.
Amanda Walls, Founder and Director of Manchester-based digital agency Cedarwood Digital says:
"As simple as it sounds, our main client retention strategy revolves around tying results back to client's business goals and ROI."
The agency meets quarterly with their clients and reviews marketing performance as it relates to business performance. Amanda says that doing so is highly valuable because it helps them to better sell the value of their services into the business and gain better buy-in from all stakeholders.
This kind of reporting that Cedarwood Digital provides is made even better when the agency connects marketing objectives with business objectives and reminds the client of how the agency is helping to improve overall business performance.
2. Showcase Your Value
Reporting is a standard activity for any digital agency and serves as a great way to showcase the value being generated by the agency. Different clients/stakeholders need different levels of reporting and report frequencies. The most common agency reporting is monthly however this can also be complimented with quarterly, half-yearly or yearly reporting too.
Some clients might require weekly reporting or maybe even daily reporting in campaign mode depending on the service and the result cadence. At the end of the day, reporting is a big task and especially difficult when executed over multiple clients and multiple campaigns.
Ideally you should rely on automation tools like SEOptimer's White Label Reports to help generate beautiful, white labelled, client-ready reports at the touch of a button.
3. Build a Strong Relationship
Digital agencies are service-based businesses and most utilize account-based marketing (ABM) which at its core is about relationship building. Fostering a good relationship from day 1 will help you win the client but building on that relationship over time will help you retain that client in the long term.
Become a Strategic Partner
Agency Mastermind groups and Leadership coaches often talk about the importance of becoming a strategic partner to your clients rather than a service provider. So much so that some digital agencies overtly go to market as 'strategic partners', not 'agencies':
We’re not just an agency, we’re your partner.Strategic marketing planning is not an easy task. We’re proud to offer our clients a turn-key solution, designed to meet all their #marketing needs irrespective of where they are in their journey. https://t.co/xxDMzDOEJO pic.twitter.com/EpEMFiX654— Ed2Market (@_ed2market) August 26, 2022
James De Roche is the Founder and Managing Partner of Lead Comet, an SEO agency specializing in B2B clients and agrees with this approach wholeheartedly.
"The key to client retention is to avoid being seen simply as a vendor. Instead, you want to position yourself as a strategic partner."
James says when it comes to actually doing this, the key is your ability to translate data insights into actionable steps to grow the client's business is a key way. Really it's all about your ability to input successfully into the business strategy and direction.
"Always position yourself as a partner. Avoid the vendor zone. It's hard to get out of that space once you fall in there."
Be Invested in the Client's Success
Agency founders often say to their clients "your success is our success". Which is great but it shouldn't just be a token comment, you and your team should truly believe it.
Brock Murray, Co-Founder and COO of digital agency seoplus+ says building strong client relationships not only involves being warm and approachable but it also means being accountable and treating their business as if it were his. This idea of being invested in client success permeates through the team and agency values:
Sweating every dollar of the client's money spent and always thinking and talking about ROI helps you frame communication back to the client and reinforce how invested you are in their business.
Get to Know the Humans
Relationship building is not all about business. Part of any good relationship is maintaining a balance and diversity of themes and ideas throughout your discourse. Put simply, getting to know the people who are your clients goes a long way to building a stronger relationship.
Robin Dimond is the CEO of Florida-based digital agency Fifth & Cor and attests to this approach:
"A top client retention strategy we use at Fifth & Cor is providing a personalized customer experience. No two clients are the same, and we understand that. We take time to meet our clients where they are at, offering tailored solutions for each brand."
Robin goes on to say that the value of getting to know the clients personally is incredibly valuable.
"Adding a personal touch by knowing their birthdays, anniversaries, upcoming vacations, and much more helps to show we care and extends that personalized customer experience in an authentic way."
4. Be Proactive
Proactivity is one of those client retention strategies that doubles as a growth and new business strategy as well. This also somewhat ties into a couple of the previous strategies because being proactive and suggesting new ideas and approaches to your client shows that you not only understand their objectives but that you are invested in their success, plus it helps you build that personal relationship too.
Some agencies turn proactive ideation into an ongoing agency process by building it into monthly or quarterly strategy with the client. For example, you could suggest ideas to your client like:
- 10% of the marketing budget to be allocated to a completely new execution
- At least 1 new creative/ad/targeting test per quarter
- Trial a new tone of voice or CTA to gauge the difference in performance
- Change the competitor set or look outside your category for creative inspiration
- Take learnings from adjacent service areas or other clients
Sometimes, it's just about trying something completely new. For example, in HubSpot's B2B Marketing Survey this year, a whopping 71% of B2B marketers said they were planning to increase their investment in influencer marketing!
Looking for interesting trends and opportunities like this might spark some interest with your client, especially if it can be tracked back to business value.
Aside from building in proactive ideation to your agency processes, there are also certain situations when you should proactively reach out to clients with new ideas or marketing strategy suggestions. Examples of these kinds of situations include:
- During economic uncertainty, like the current economic slowdown post-pandemic
- During fundamental shifts in the marketing industry (ie: iOS 14.5, Metaverse, Web3, etc)
- Leading up to seasonal peaks (holiday periods, key dates or seasons)
- When a new competitor launches or existing competitors do something different
5. Maintain Regular Comms
Maintaining high quality, frequent communications with the client is probably the most obvious retention strategy for a service business. However it all comes down to execution as it's one thing to commit to good communication, and another to actually execute it well.
Vito Vishnepolsky is the Founder of Canadian-based B2B digital agency Martal Group. Vito uses a Communication Calendar to plan and manage his client comms with a mix of email, calls and LinkedIn:
CRM and agency workflow tools have contact tracking, pipelines and calendar features but most agencies use this functionality heavily during new business and lead nurturing only. But it can absolutely be used for retention comms planning too.
"Use your communication calendar strategically to manage client outreach, appointments and create up-sell and cross-sell opportunities."
As Vito says, the up-sell opportunities increase dramatically when communication increases and you can pin account expansion through new services directly to client business outcomes.
6. Surprise and Delight
Surprise and Delight is a common B2C marketing term where big brands like Taco Bell, Kleenex, Master Card and others execute 'surprise and delight' stunts for their customers as a way to be interruptive and capture PR value. You can read about some of these stunts in Inc's article.
But for digital agencies, this same idea of 'surprise and delight' can be an effective client retention strategy. It doesn't have to be big surprises like a free marketing strategy (lol) but even little things like bringing cookies or cupcakes to a client meeting or bringing unexpected items to a brainstorm session like fidget spinners or gyro wheels. Anything that is out of the ordinary and puts a smile on the client's face.
Client Gift Boxes
To celebrate a client anniversary (like their 1 year anniversary with your agency) why not send a gourmet gift box or even a nice personalized gift box:
Simon Brisk, Founder of digital agency Click Intelligence sends personal reminders to clients reminding them that they're his top priority.
"As a company policy, we introduced bi-annual benefits in the form of service credits or campaign credits starting from one month for all our clients."
This has proved highly successful for Simon's agency, securing long-term recurring clients and he puts this strategy down as the main reason some of his clients are 8 years old!
7. Reward (and Incentivize) Referrals
As we covered in our Agency Lead Gen article, referrals are the best source of new business for most agencies so asking your existing happy clients for referrals is a tried and true method for new business. However you can also incentivize this and reward your clients for their referrals which also helps as a client retention strategy in and of itself. Two great outcomes for the price of one!
Platforms like Referral Factory and others can help you build your referral program, check out the full list on Digital Agency Network's guide. But if you don't have many clients you can go lo-fi and just ask them to make warm introductions for you. This is probably the best way to start.
Then if you manage to convert a referred lead, don't forget to reward your client with a gift as a 'thank you'.
8. Work Collaboratively with Other Agencies
Some clients work with multiple agencies that all handle different marketing functions, eg: PR, media, digital, creative, etc.
With multiple agencies in the mix, it's possible that some functions can cross-over. For example, the creative agency might have the capabilities to deliver a social media campaign but so would the digital agency. So who does the work? These cross-overs can create tension or conflict.
By positioning yourself as the strategic partner of the client, you can elevate your agency above the others and take a leadership role. Something that actually takes work off the clients hands.
Being in the leadership or organizing position makes you an even more important partner and ensures a long term engagement into the future.
9. Under Promise, Over Deliver
Agency founders always talk about 'setting expectations' but the trick is to go low and under promise whilst seemingly over delivering. Rory Gillett is the Founder of Parlez Creative, an SEO agency and says this retention strategy is not a ground-breaking one but a worthy one.
"As an SEO Agency, we can’t and will not guarantee results. Instead, we manage expectations, knowing that, in all likelihood, we will exceed them. Doing this time and time again we are able to retain clients and preserve critical relationships."
Parlez Creative's longest running client is 5 years. Rory says they critically analyzed the site, the business, their budget and the market and were therefore able to provide reasonable expectations and not win the client based on wishful promises.
Rory says many businesses have been burnt badly by SEO sharks in the past. Agencies and individuals who guaranteed results within weeks but inevitably didn’t deliver and left business owners out of pocket. Instead, Parlez Creative's approach is to be realistic, win the clients trust, keep their trust and get results, repeatedly over time.
10. Win Awards Together
This strategy is a bit contentious since many agencies say they don't worry about awards but it really comes down to what your client priorities are. Some clients like the idea of creating award winning work and if that's the case, it's mutually beneficial to help support them in terms of crafting the entry submission and doing the legwork to help showcase the work.
There's certainly value in the PR and coverage of being shortlisted or better still, winning an industry award. For some clients, creating award winning work with their agency, validates their decision to work with that agency and leads to more work in the future. So while this might be lower on the list, it's nevertheless an effective retention strategy for the right client.
What do you think? If you utilize any of these agency client retention strategies we'd love to hear about your experiences and thoughts. Tweet to us @seoptimer.