BL&T No. 169: Navigating the Client Decision-Making Process

Agency Leadership

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"Business runs on relationships and depends on relationships."

From "The Referral Code: Unlock a Constant Stream of Business Through the Power of Your Relationships" by Larry Pinci and Phil Glosserman [Book]


Earlier this year, Steffen Horst, CEO of Symphonic Digital, invited me on his podcast Performance Delivered to explore the decision-making process for companies looking for an agency and how it's evolved this year. I shared our observations at Barrel, how we've adapted to the changes, and other related topics.

The episode of our conversation went live last week. You can listen to it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

In this post, I'll distill my conversation with Steffen into ten lessons for navigating the agency <> client decision-making process. Check out the podcast for a deeper dive.

1. Slow & Steady Wins the Race

In a time where client decision-making is moving slower than ever, we’ve learned that patience is a virtue. Companies are feeling the impact of more deliberate consumer spending. They're scrutinizing budgets and want to see ROI.

For us, it’s all about focusing on understanding the client's challenges, adding value in every interaction, and guiding the client through decision-making (even if that means going with another partner). This takes time!

2. Transparency is Your Friend

When clients inquire about Barrel, we provide straightforward and honest insights into our strengths, positioning, and how our services (or don't) align with their needs.

Being open builds trust and establishes a foundation for a healthy, long-term relationship. It can also inspire the same from the client and help avoid disastrous situations later, like internal politics delaying the project timeline or being unable to deliver a service you've never provided.

3. Strike a Balance Between Persistence & Passion

Navigating conversations with prospective clients can feel a bit like dating. I even wrote a 'how to' on the topic. There's one difference—we all know how over-texting after the first date can send the wrong signs. In the case of prospects, that same persistence can go a long way.

With drawn-out decision-making, clients appreciate the follow-up. Bonus if you include new ideas or insights. It shows interest and can act as an early signal of what it might be like to collaborate. But like dating, don't come off too eager. It's a balancing act between showing interest in the work without sounding needy.

4. Understand All the Factors At Play

Companies consider many factors when selecting an agency. If you were brought into the process through a warm introduction by someone the client trusts, you already have an advantage. But that's not always enough!

While clients will want to hear about the agency's background, proven track record, pricing structure, and problem-solving approach, many will also give weight to the rapport, or lack thereof, during initial interactions.

Many clients are also looking for a partner who can scale with them. However, they still want the independence to manage on their own.

Lastly, timeliness and responsiveness during early interactions are vital in making a good impression and can positively influence the client's decision.

5. Get the Most Out of the First Conversation

Come prepared for the first conversation with a list of topics to cover and a purpose for the call. Set a clear agenda ahead of time to ensure the conversation is productive and aligned with both sides' expectations. Be sure to find out if you'll need an NDA before the first conversations for those clients who don't feel comfortable divulging much without one.

6. Don't Ignore Red Flags

Be on the lookout for red flags during client interactions, such as frantically discussing the opportunity or speaking ill of past agencies or the company itself. It doesn't matter how incredible it would be to work with the client if you realize later that these flags were early warning signs of a real problem.

On the other hand, companies should be wary of too many success stories or metrics. If you have them, be specific. There are many factors involved in a company’s success. Any agency claiming to have done it all can be a flag. The same goes for client logo walls. If you're a company looking for an agency, take time to understand what the agency did for each vs. being impressed by the appearance of a big or relevant name.

To read more on this topic, check out my article, Red Flags in Qualifying Employees/Clients.

7. Get Familiar With All Decision-Makers

Identifying key decision-makers early in the process helps avoid unwanted surprises later on. We've had situations where we didn't do this early enough and later learned that the focus of our proposal was not in line with leadership. If you can get access to all decision-makers before you share a proposal, do it.

I didn't touch on this in the podcast, but also, be aware of secondary stakeholders who may be driving decisions from behind the scenes.

8. Making It Through the Final Stretch

Sometimes, the client's decision-making process can get even slower toward the end as they try to decide between two or three agencies. Knowing what's most important to the client is helpful in these situations.

To help move things along, you might surprise the client with a design mockup or some other insight that shows you can help. The best move might also be hopping on a phone call to see what's on their mind. Don't be afraid to walk away if you learn you can't provide what they value most.

9. Save Time With Qualification

It's better to spend time upfront to be sure you understand what the client is trying to achieve and know you can deliver that outcome vs. finding out and failing later. We've come to value tight qualification questions, so we're not wasting time and energy on deals that aren't a good fit for either side.

Once you deem the client worth pursuing, you can feel good about investing in subsequent conversations. We always look for ways to add value and help the client, even before we work together. Pattern matching with our clients and resources like our research project, DTC Patterns, are great for bringing ideas to the table more efficiently.

10. Trust Your Gut & Build Relationships:

I once told a prospective client trying to decide between us and another agency to trust their gut. They told me they didn't know what their gut was saying. I helped them unpack what they appreciated about us vs. the other agency. Ultimately, they selected the other agency, and that was fine with me. I was glad to help them make a decision and learned that what they valued most was not where we thought they should focus.

It's akin to the intuition we rely on when hiring employees—does this feel like the right fit? For both you and the client, it has to feel right in the gut.

At its core, we're all people who just want to be successful working together. Fostering a positive and enjoyable working relationship built on trust is key from day one.


In what ways can I improve my next interaction with a prospective client?

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