Building client relationships is vital to the success of any agency — but — this doesn’t necessarily mean agencies always treat their clients in such a way that the agency is regarded as a partner in the client’s business.

I hang out with agency owners all the time and over and over I hear them say “I want clients who treat us like partners, not vendors.” This sentence is usually uttered in the context of the good old days versus running an agency today.  I don’t disagree at all — every agency should be treated like their clients’ partner.  They should be marching in step towards the client’s business goals.  But I find myself asking these same agency owners — “okay, but do you really act like a partner?”

In building client relationships, I think we have to be careful about what we wish for. I’m not suggesting for a second that it’s not a worthy goal.  But you have to be worthy of the title.  Partnership is a two way street, so you can’t just get the goodies without doing your fair share.

Here are some best practices if you actually want to be your client’s partner.

Know their business: Not just the marketing side of their business — but understand it like you’re running it. Learn about their distribution challenges.  Look for ways their sales system could be improved. Offer to walk the production floor so you can see the actual manufacturing process.  Get your hands dirty along side them and add value with your observations on the whole of their business, not just their marketing.

Be transparent with your pricing: However you are choosing to be compensated — are you being 100% transparent about it?  Do you always disclose how you’re setting your prices (be it fee income, mark ups, commissions, etc.) or is it a bit of a black hole?

Own your mistakes: When you screw up, own it and fix it.  And then, demonstrate what new process/tools you’ve put in place so it doesn’t happen again. By the same token, when they screw up, be graceful in helping them save face.  Sooner or later, you’re going to need that same grace.

Have the tough conversations: Anyone will tell your client what he wants to hear. A true partner will tell them what they need to hear. Even if it means you’re going to lose the client. Hopefully you’ve built enough rapport and you have enough tact that you don’t — but it’s not a reason to avoid the conversation.

Care about what they care about: If they’re doing a Habitat for Humanity build day — why not offer to help or at least bring them lunch? Partners share passions and support each other in the pursuit of those passions.

Don’t talk badly about them back at the office: In too many agencies — the clients are the butt of the jokes. In our AE bootcamps I remind the AEs that it’s their job to love, protect and advocate for the clients (and to do so equally for their agency) even when they’re not being so lovable.  If you’re an owner and you let your team complain about clients (or worse — you set the example by doing it) then shame on you.

If you want to be a partner to your clients and really focus on building client relationships, you need to really act like a partner. Otherwise, settle in and be their vendor.