Managing Client Relationships

I had trouble getting to sleep last night, and for some reason I started thinking about how managing client relationships has changed over the years. I'm not talking about my clients, but your clients. Do you know the really important things about how to do it right? I'm not sure i would have figured all these out, but I have paid attention to the hundreds of firms I've worked with and tried to cull out the best practices that have been proven in the field.

Just for fun, I started writing these down as they came to mind in a stream of consciousness style. Here are a few of them:

  • The only power you have in a client relationship is to withhold your expertise.
  • The degree to which you have power in a relationship is directly related to how long it takes to replace you.
  • There are only two ways to have more opportunity than capacity, which represents your ability to say "no" to prospects and clients: create more opportunity or reduce your capacity.
  • The most important criteria in evaluating a prospective client is whether or not they've used a firm like yours before. Never be the first.
  • Your cheap ass clients are the ones spending their own money. You want to work for clients with budget authority over someone else's money.
  • The clients who trust you say: "I have $140,000 for this project. What's the most we could do with that money?" The ones who don't trust you say, "Here's what I need. What will it cost?"
  • Don't date prospects you can't marry as clients.
  • If your client comes to you knowing what the problem is but just wants the solution, be wary. They should give you the symptoms and let you diagnose the problem.
  • The best way to determine if you really have a life is this: do you get pissed off when your business life (i.e., clients) impinges on your personal life?
  • About 80% of all marketing firms prefer a horizontal specialization, but only 20% can achieve it. The rest simply can't figure out a reliable way to find prospects at the right time.
  • The most important reason to formalize a client relationship is not to protect yourself (you are imminently screwable no matter what) but to prompt the right conversation points before tension enters the relationship. If your client agreement is longer than two pages, you're making it unnecessarily adversarial.
  • People brag about having long client relationships. Why? What's the advantage? Client turnover is good.
  • Never promise to know more about a client's business than they do. Just promise that you'll know more about their business than any other agency they've worked with.
  • Clients are far more likely to notice deficiencies in client management and project management than in the quality of the work itself. Most of that final "shit polishing" you do is self-motivated and not demanded by the client. It's the primary reason you are faced with a mix of under-pricing and over-servicing.
  • Be completely transparent about how much you mark things up. If you aren't, you're covering for the fact that your fees are too low and you are afraid to defend higher ones. Essentially you are hiding behind tactile deliverables.
  • One of the hottest hot buttons a client has is when you change their agency-side contact. Handle it by making sure they know it's not personal and by giving them a choice and even a chance to interview the new contact.
  • Early in the client relationship, ask them how often and by what method they want to be updated on the status of their projects. That will be the best way to adapt your service style to their personality profile.
  • Ask clients to take a personality profile, even, right after you give them yours. They'll be glad to do it and you'll understand them much better. They'll then ask if their spouse can take it.
  • If you want clients to start listening to your strategic advice more carefully, quit being so accessible to them. In developed cultures, experts are innaccessible. The day to day contact for a client doesn't fit that role.
  • It's your job to grow your accounts. If you are incapable of doing that, you are in the wrong job. By the way, if someone with a project management mentality is in charge of a client relationship, their perspective is to maintain the account, not grow it.
  • A career path from project management to account management is one of the stupidest things we've ever done in this industry. Scientifically, no one in the world is great at both (I've tested this with 14,000+ people).
  • In a typical firm, 21% of the total billable time is managing the client relationship and all that means (we have the correct job description). For an in-house department, it's 24% (they have more clients and many of them are unqualified). In an interactive firm it's only 13% (there's much more project management and the client expects their interfacer to have a deeper technical knowledge). In a pure play strategy firm, it's 21%.
  • Account service is one of three positions that should be on-site and full-time.
  • Most structure problems relate to combining some other role with account service. There are five such mistakes.

I'm just getting started. Want to hear the rest? Come to our seminar on the subject on Friday, November 9 for only $695. For another $350 (total), bring as many people as you like!

More info here.

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I usually discard e-messages of this variety because they tend to lack utility. Yours is different. It actually is sensible, and rich in useful content.

Thanks again. Keep up the good work.


Sherry Bruck

Great post David. I am continually strive to achieve the ideal. Getting better every day.


Kim Tackett

As always, you are astute and accurate...even if your observations make us squirm a bit. Thanks for the wake up!


christine takacs

how many clients do you think it takes to warrant an account manager?


Cooper Smith Koch

You're one of my favorite experts and this post illustrates the exact reason why. I love the tough talk and that you advocate that we're not slaves to our clients, but rather partners with them. Too many PR folks try to please clients at every turn and end up being doormats.


Ray W

Great post! I was actually feeing a "Jerry Maguire" moment there as I was reading this post aka "manifesto!"


Tim Lapetino

Great stuff, David. Thanks for the wisdom.

Though I was shocked to read this: "People brag about having long client relationships. Why? What's the advantage? Client turnover is good."

If you have "bad" clients, that might be the case. But I'm curious about your opinion-- I think that long client relationships build trust and creative latitude, and it's also more cost-effective for your business to retain a good client than going through the time (expense) of finding, vetting, and initiating with a new client. Steady client turnover seems to be the sign of a poorly-run firm. I'd be wary of firms who do many one-off projects with clients. It doesn't seem like you ever get to hit your stride with a client, work-wise, or relationship-wise. Do you disagree? Would love to hear your thoughts.


Tara Coomans

Great thoughts here, David. Definitely makes me think. Thank you for sharing! Wish I could make it to what looks like a great seminar.


Joan Gladstone

I always enjoy your thought-provoking commentary, David. I'll take a contrary position on two points based on my niche experience in crisis communications. "Never be the first" doesn't apply since the vast majority of my clients have never used a crisis PR firm before. And if I "quit being accessible" vs. being available 24/7 during a crisis, I'd be out of business!


Elaine A. Young

This was great information my issue this week was disqualifying a client who is a real nut case. This just brought me clarity on some choices I made. Thanks for your expertise!


Shawn Wright

"The most important criteria in evaluating a prospective client is whether or not they've used a firm like yours before. Never be the first."

So true! I can't tell you how many times I have banged my head in frustration only to have the relationship fall apart and the client hire another firm, at a greater expense, to do all the same things I was trying to implement.


Cairril Mills

Good post. Do you have suggestions on a good personality profile?


Brad Farris

Cairril -- I use the PDP profile. It's easy to administer, and unbelievably accurate. My clients love it.

Brad Farris


Cairril Mills

Thanks, Brad. I googled "PDP profile" but can't find anything that looks right. Can you point me in the right direction, please? Thanks!


Brad Farris


Their website is but feel free to call me 773-282-7677 and I'll fill you in.



David C. Baker

Christine, there's enough account management to keep one person completely busy when there are six total people at the firm.

Tim, typically (with exceptions, of course), the longer the client relationship the more the work tails off to non-expert, implementation work. The money and the client satisfaction is heavily front loaded.

Joan, it doesn't matter if they have used a crisis firm before. As long as they have used a professional service firm in the marketing field, they know how much things cost and how long they usually take, so it still applies. And on the second point, we'll just have to disagree in a friendly way. :) I know there are exceptions to this, but many (most?) of the self-declared emergencies clients want handholding with are just that: self-declared. In the crisis field, I see too many PR folks crafting relationships that require constant dependence on them.

Cairril, the best profile is middle D and highest I. That's using the DiSC PPSS General Characteristics profile, which is geared toward work (very rare in the personality field) and the one I did all my research in for the 14,000+ subjects.

Thanks for all the great feedback, folks.


Wendy Spalsbury

Wow... David - where have you been my entire career? Stumbled upon your site and am devouring the info. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!


Comicbook Artist

Thia is a definitive list. I will bookmark this and return again.



where have you been my whole career? Came upon your web page and am taking information. Thanks for talking about your wisdom.


Barry Lohman

Do you plan to offer this seminar again in 2014 or 2015?


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