I used to work at an agency in a client-facing role. In my opinion, the most important key to a successful agency-client relationship was trust.
But do we alltrust our inbound marketing agencies? I mean, really trust them?
Think about it: A new client would come on board having never met me or some of the key players on the team, but rarely if ever would the client ask to talk to any of us before signing a contract. Despite this, I'd be their main point of contact, their consultant, and managing the team that's getting their work done ... for at least a year.
At first I thought, wow, that's quite a leap of faith. And yes, it definitely was. But I think it was also a symptom of many marketers and business owners either 1) not realizing the importance of trust in the agency-client relationship, or 2) not realizing they could get to know the people with whom they'd be working through a little research and some simple requests from their prospective agency.
Have you ever had someone say, "Ugh this dish is awful. (Pause) Try it!" (By the way the right response is, "No, thank you.") Or maybe you've heard someone say, "Never trust a skinny chef." What all these food analogies are pointing to is this -- one of the easiest ways to figure out whether a prospective agency is poised to deliver you good advice is to see whether they're taking their own advice. For example, why would you listen to an agency wax poetic about how important social media is when their accounts have been dormant since Bruce Springsteen played the Super Bowl Half Time Show?
Erin Wasson, VP of Marketing at UrbanBound, summed the feeling up nicely: "When evaluating any company, the first thing I do is look at their website and social media presence. I Google to see if I can find them online and evaluate how well their website is optimized for search engines. Occasionally, I even ask what content they use to drive traffic to their site to see how well they do inbound marketing for their own business."
In other words, it's important not just that the advice an agency is doling out is sound and vetted but that you can see they actually know how to implement that advice. If they've done it for their own business, it's more likely you can trust them to do it for your business, too.
They Have Case Studies That Put the Proof in the Pudding
(Sorry, I wanted to carry on with the food analogies, and I'm a big fan of pudding.)
Agency case studies should extend beyond their own results using inbound marketing; they should be able to point to very specific instances of success with client case studies, too. Ideally these align directly with your business goals -- whether it's showcasing industry-specific knowledge, tool- or channel-specific abilities, or a knack for solving for a particular problem, like low lead volume.
Chad Reinholz from HindSite Software cited the need to seek out exactly that -- case studies from agencies that are specific to his business and goals. "I’d want proven success in my industry," he told us. "An agency that works with primarily B2C customers probably won’t be a good fit for my B2B business. Likewise, a company with a strong tradition of helping food brands probably won’t be a good fit with my software company. We’ve worked intensively with a marketing consultant with roots in our industry who also consult with many members of our target audience. We couldn’t get the same level of insight from an agency that didn’t have those roots. To understand our market, you have to have experienced it before."
You should also be able to get in touch with an agency's clients for more in-depth references. Not every client under the sun is willing or able to act as a reference, but reputable agencies have strong relationships with many of their clients and should be excited to get you in touch with these people to have open conversations. In these calls, you can get at some of the more nuanced information, too. What's it like to work with the account managers or consultants? Have they had any problems meeting deadlines? Is there anything that just rubbed them the wrong way, and how was it handled? If you aren't able to meet with your agency after work for a drink, or meet up at a conference for a cup of coffee or a lunch, these conversations are a great way to establish whether you'll work well together and be able to cultivate a trusting relationship.
They Directly Address Your Specific Goals
Speaking of your specific business goals: does your prospective agency know what your goals are? And do they have a plan in place to make those dreams a reality? Could they actually repeat it back to you, build on your ideas, and point you in the right direction with a strategy, and the tactics that will make that strategy work? Most importantly, are they delivering that plan before you sign a contract, or are they promising "brainstorms" after you've sent your first check?
There's certainly upfront research and work that goes into developing a new inbound marketing strategy for a business that can't take place until a contract is signed. But an agency should be able to help you flesh out your goals, identify opportunities, and start building a plan that you can get excited about and envision actually ... you know ... happening. If you're an agency, have a plan for your prospective clients that they can get behind; marketers, ensure your prospective agency has that plan, and you can see how with their help, that plan will help you meet your business goals.
They Are Up-Front About Which Services Are In-House
Outsourcing services is not (or at least should not be) a deal breaker. In fact, it's a sign of a mature agency that knows their strengths and weaknesses. If your agency has a weakness in multimedia content, for instance, would you want them to phone it in but pretend they've totally got it down? No, you'd want them to admit it's not their strong suit and that they have a vetted service provider they've used for years that can create excellent multimedia content for clients.
Ask your prospective agency which services are in-house, and which services are outsourced. If they're up front about this, it's a good sign that they're trustworthy and won't pull the wool over your eyes.
They Stay Up to Date With Industry News
Staying up to date with industry news means knowing about not just marketing industry news and trends, but your specific industry's news and trends. Additionally, prospective agencies should be prepared to teach you about what you need to know in a timely manner.
"If I know more about available technology out there than a prospective agency," says UrbanBound's Wasson, "I likely wouldn’t hire them. I would want them to teach me new things and keep me on top of trends -- not the other way around."
You don't want to spend your engagement with an agency double-checking that they're on top of their game. It's important that you trust them to do their job and to do it really, really well. Before you sign a contract, assess how they stay up-to-date on your industry and on the marketing world. You might ask what publications they read, if they have a process for learning about new tools and technologies, how flexible they are for things like newsjacking, and how they currently communicate new advancements to clients.
(If you want to be sneaky or less blunt, tell them you're interested in inbound marketing and ask where you might turn. If they stammer or struggle to answer, chances are good they aren't keeping up with such a fast-moving industry!)
They're Focused on the Success of Your Business, Not the Size of Your Wallet
Let's just call it like it is -- agencies need to make money. But it isn't a great feeling when a client is treated like a paycheck instead of, you know, a client. How can you tell whether your prospective agency is concerned with your success, and not just in it for the cash?
Well, for me, the easiest way to tell if I could trust an agency (and the best way I tried to build a sincere and effective relationship with my clients) is to see whether they were willing to be honest with me. Even when the truth kind of hurt.
When an agency says, "no," it's actually a really good sign. Why? Well, even if that "no" is a deal breaker -- perhaps for a service request the agency isn't equipped to handle -- it means they're not willing to lie and pretend they have expertise in something they simply do not, just to get a paycheck. They're concerned about their reputation as an all-star service provider, and they're concerned about your success and whether they can really help you get there. If an agency is very clear about what they can and cannot do for you, that's usually a really good sign you can trust them to be invested in your success for more reasons than just making bank.
How else do you determine whether you can trust an agency? Agencies, what do you do to establish a trusting relationship with current or prospective clients?