High-Touch Clients in a High-Tech World: What’s an Agency to Do?

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Penny Jo Welsch
Penny Jo Welsch



Technology and data-driven solutions to engage consumers and facilitate client relationships dominate industry think and speak. It’s little wonder that so much agency management attention is focused on how to adapt their team and operations to the technology explosion.


Digital marketing has now been rightfully proclaimed as “mainstream” and will continue to grow. In fact, the Gartner CMO Spend Survey 2015-2016 reports, “one-third of marketers say digital techniques are now fully incorporated into their marketing operation.”

But what can happen if your agency is in the digital high-tech fast lane and your client is in the other two-thirds? Marketers who have only partially taken the digital plunge or barely dipped a toe?

At Hallway Talk, we've seen many agencies bent on this tech-first thinking. More often than you may think, our conversations with clients reveal there are those who feel at odds their agency when it comes to technology. Will that change over time? Yes, it will. But while that transition unfolds, agencies need to be aware of the phenomenon we call the “high-touch client vs. high-tech agency.”

What Does a High-Touch Client Look Like?

There is a significant group of clients accustomed to doing business, communicating, and receiving information in a more, shall we say “traditional” way. These people often belong to legacy accounts for established agencies.

Yet their agency partners have embraced the brave new world of technology and the latest innovations in marketing and internal systems.  

The result can create a contentious relationship because clients don’t like to admit they’re not up to speed on the latest and greatest while agency partners may think the clients are being obstructionists.  

Here are a few of the qualities we've seen in high-touch clients:

1) High-touch clients value person-to-person relationships and communications. 

These clients prefer having a reliable “point person” on their business. Someone they can contact for answers and action. For them, transitioning to technology-based project management systems can be a problem. Here are some of the comments we have heard:

  • “The agency has brilliant people, but they don’t have the right people facing us. When we have a conference call with more than one person on the agency team, there is no indication they ever talk to each other.”
  • "Their new process, with things going into a 'queue,' is hard for us. It takes forever to make simple changes.”
  • “I want to know the person who is ultimately responsible for our business.”

2) High-touch clients tend to avoid risky behavior.

We see high-touch clients in corporate cultures that are highly risk adverse and often stick with the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” approach. Which is not to say that they are against adopting new technologies and approaches -- just that the fear of failure is so high that they find it almost impossible to go out on the limb. And surprisingly, these clients may be completely self-aware of their attitude.

We hear comments such as:

  • “We don’t like to be trailblazers. It’s more our style to join a new trend after it’s been proven by someone else.”
  • “We want the agency to ‘think out of the box,’ but when they do, we often turn it down because we don’t believe it would ever work.”
  • “Our leadership is not very progressive. It’s not behavior that is rewarded here.”

3) High-touch clients value fundamental skills and industry-specific knowledge.

High-touch clients tend to value strategic leadership and creativity aimed at driving sales. These traditional skills along with deep knowledge about their specific industry and sales channels are far more important than expertise in emerging trends or high-tech project management techniques as evidenced by these client comments:

  • “We need an agency that knows our top retailers and how to move the needle.”
  • “Their 'new' processes are far more complicated, and we’d really like to go back to the old ones.”
  • “Sometimes we feel there’s not appreciation from the agency side to truly understand our business and how to get the most from our budgets.”

1) Start dialoguing with the client

Somebody needs to have frank and constructive conversations with the client. Agency management can do it themselves or bring in a third-party, but it needs to happen ... and soon. Odds are your client wants this relationship to work out every bit as much as you do. Ask what your team is doing right, what they’re doing wrong, and together come up with a shared set of expectations and an action plan.

2) Help your staff tune-in to your clients - Build true working relationships

Let’s face it, the traditional business practices of your high-touch client can seem “foreign” to new or younger staffers who grew up surrounded by technology. And your clients probably don’t want to admit that their digital expertise is not up to speed, either. So take the opportunity to build true working relationships.

For starters, consider cross-education seminars. Your team's digital experts would conduct client seminars on digital topics and trends. You would also ask your client to plan sessions that bring your team up to speed on what’s happening in their industry or company. Encourage your agency team to consciously reach out to the client by phone or to meet in-person regularly. Suggest that they learn more about the client personally so that they can establish a more empathetic relationship. Never simply forward recommendations via email; take the time to explain them fully.

3) Build a timeframe and plan the next steps together

Once the most pressing issues have been addressed, work with your client to plan the path forward and a timeframe to get there. A big part of that path may be bringing your traditional client to a place where they can fully integrate all that the great digital revolution has brought to marketers. Manage their risk concerns.

Establish and report on expectations and metrics so the client can be assured that you are as invested in seeing new initiatives succeed as they are. Adapt processes to better meet your clients’ needs.

As technology changes the way we work, we can’t forget that the agency business is a service business -- by people for people. Be conscious of your clients’ corporate culture, background, and past relationship with your agency and how that influences their thinking. Work with them to evolve together. Addressing short-term needs will help with long-term client retention and growth.

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