How to Bewitch Your Communications Agency into Kicking As* on Your Behalf


A Failure Story

I once sent an email to a client reminding her about a looming deadline when we would need her feedback. My team was under the gun to deliver an important report and she’d gone into the proverbial cone of silence for reasons unbeknownst to us at the time.

We later learned that she was swamped and under the gun to get the report in shape and deliver it to her organization’s board, in addition to her regular, daily duties of which there were many. In a moment of what I assume was extreme stress, she shot back an email accusing me of being pushy, which she mockingly chocked up to me being pregnant.

And, I was pregnant at the time, and my husband may or may not tell you I have the capacity to be pushy, but she and I both knew that my pregnancy had nothing to do with this project or my management of it or pushiness for that matter.

Deadlines, though, they had everything to do with the project.

I was caught off guard but swept the incident aside at the time to focus on getting the job done. I put myself in her shoes and realized that she wasn’t trying to be hurtful just like I wasn’t trying to be pushy–we were both just trying to get through the project as best as we could while still delivering a great product.

Client Vendor Relations Fail

I reflect on that incident today as a key demonstration of a “client vendor relations fail,” and wonder how she and I could’ve prevented the confrontation. Just days before we’d had the trust, open communications, respect and credibility required to work well together. And, in one email exchange, that was all undermined, albeit temporarily.

For my part, I know I could have done things differently–I should’ve picked up on her stress signals when we didn’t hear from her for a period of time and reached out from a place of caring rather than a place of asking… I could’ve picked up the phone so we could hear one another’s voices and been humans together. On her end, she could’ve stopped, taken a deep breath, considered my dilemma, and responded with the understanding that it was my job to keep the project on track–not an attack on her.

Casualties, Not Pioneers

It turns out, she and I were not pioneers in having this sort of exchange, we were just casualties of the all too often strained client vendor relationship. Google the term, “client vendor relationship” and the results are rather cringeworthy. Two videos, in particular, “The Vendor Client Relationship in Real World Situations” and “Client vs. Agency” underscore the delicate nature of this relationship and how easily misunderstandings and frustrations can crop up on both ends.

Your Rights as a Client

As the client, you have the right to a vendor who is transparent, skilled and reliable–a vendor who answers your emails, delivers what you’ve asked for, and one who understands this industry and has passion for your subject matter. You have the right to work with someone you like, someone you respect and someone you find credible. Do not settle for less.

And, as vendors, we want to work with people like those of you reading this–people who are excited to partner with us, people doing great work, people who are driven to use communications to build their organizations. We public interest communications vendors genuinely want to use our superpowers for good.

We’re in This Together

It all seems so easy–but somehow, maybe because we’re all just human beings with a built-in panache for mistake making–the client vendor relationship can get… funky.. sometimes. I’ve heard about it happening among colleagues across the country and even experienced it (obviously), myself, once or twice over a near 15-year career in the client service industry.

But, we’re in this together, right? Why should it be so hard? Why can it be so challenging to come together in the name of making the world a better place?

How Vendors Can Help Clients

Well, I don’t think it should be. I think we vendors should commit to:

  • Responsiveness: Responding to client emails within 24 hours and answering questions accurately as best as we can
  • Listening: Really REALLY listening–and, picking up on signals like I failed to pick up on in my client
  • Communicating: Maintaining clear and consistent communications about budgets and project statuses
  • Kicking As!: Delivering the best, most well thought out strategies, creative concepts and reports we can within the budgets, timelines and other constraints we’re given


How Clients Can Help Vendors

And, here are four ideas on how clients can better work with vendors to help empower us to empower you to succeed:

  1. Trust us: First of all, let me get this out of the way: If you don’t trust your vendor, you shouldn’t be working with them. If you think they will lead you astray, lack the insight required to support you or that they’ll just plain let you down, fire them–quickly.

Trust is arguably the most essential part of the client vendor relationship and the one factor I see clients struggle with the most. I totally get it. It’s hard to trust that an outsider “gets it” or really understands your particular issue. It’s hard to comprehend the intersection between your work and our work, sometimes.

And, to top that off, you’re one smart cookie—you created a foundation or nonprofit that is changing the world. You are highly credentialed and respected in your field. And you deserve it–there is no doubt.

But, so do your vendors—many of whom are, themselves, respected leaders in the field, award-winning, and chock full of the knowledge and experience that can help you make the most out of your communications program—if you let them.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t think critically about our recommendations–you absolutely should. You should always let us know if something doesn’t feel quite right. But, trust that we have your best interest at heart and truly want to forge a partnership with you that makes the world a better place. Trust that our years of experience doing this kind of work will help your nonprofit meets its goals. And, trust that the processes we follow to complete your project are tried and true.

  1. Communicate clearly: The more overt you are about your organization and your needs, the easier it is for your vendors to be effective in designing strategies and creative concepts to meet your needs.
    • Give vendors access to the webpages, documents and people that define and understand your organization.
    • Answer questions when they come in.
    • Make sure your vendors know all the essential bits and pieces that make your nonprofit.. your nonprofit.
  1. Respect deadlines: We vendors throw spreadsheets and deadlines at you, rapid fire–and I imagine it’s overwhelming (maybe even annoying) sometimes.

Our goal in setting these deadlines though, is simple sheer pragmatism based on the date you need the project delivered. If you respect the deadlines your vendor lays out for you, your project will be delivered on time.

In the event, however, that your vendor presents you with a project timeline that doesn’t seem realistic, make sure to let him or her know that right away so adjustments can be made as necessary.

  1. Don’t get defensive: Feedback is hard to hear sometimes.

But, if you hire a communications agency to take an assessment of some part of your communications program, know that our recommendations aren’t based on hunches or emotions–they’re based on years of experience, knowledge about the industry and expert assessments of your program–think of it as science, not art.

We’re never judging or pointing fingers, we’re simply trying to identify areas of improvement to help make you stronger.

A Lesson Learned

So whatever happened with my aforementioned client after the project launched? While we never discussed it in the open, I think we both learned a lesson.

She must’ve realized she was out of line and began responding to emails, most importantly, working towards deadlines on all future project work–without gentle reminders. I began thinking more holistically about what was happening in her camp and responding thoughtfully and accordingly.

In fact, we totally overcame our brief client vendor relations fail and went on to change the world together for years afterwards until she went to a new organization…no hard feelings. We still keep in touch to this day and, if we’re being honest, I’d be happy to work with her again, and given our time in the client vendor “barracks” together, I’d work my booty off for her—you might say she bewitched me.

How do you think vendors can support clients better? How can clients support vendors better? I’d love to know in the comments!

Jennie Day-Burget

Former Vice President and Managing Director Jennie Day-Burget is a lover of surprises, wine and chevron (the pattern, not the oil company). Jennie has worked in communications and public relations for more than a decade and cites the hashtag (#) as her favorite communications innovation.
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