Empathy: the unsung hero of high client retention

It’s tough out there for both clients and agencies right now. Budgets are getting smaller, competition is fierce, and change is constantly afoot. All of this has a direct impact on our day-to-day lives.

During uncertain times, staying positive and showing kindness becomes increasingly difficult, often overtaken by worry and stress. But exercising compassion – even when you don’t feel like it – has a surprising knock-on effect on your soul and your work.

How do you do this? Empathy.

In this article I’ll cover not only what empathy is (and what it isn’t), and how you can express it through every interaction you have, working or otherwise. I’ll also discuss why it might be challenging to execute empathy, but how – when done correctly – it makes a huge difference to your client retention.

Working in client services, it’s perhaps not surprising I dedicate a significant chunk of my time to our existing client relationships. It is fundamentally my job to understand the client better through trust building and engagement, as well as delving deeper into their struggles and successes, seeing it through their eyes.

In our highly competitive industry, the key to retaining client relationships is not purely through delivering performance – you need to understand the human impact of it too.

Because of my role, I’ll be discussing everything from the perspective of the client/agency relationship. However, empathy is a universally applicable trait, so wherever you’re looking to build a lasting relationship – personally or professionally – keep empathy and how to employ it at the front of your mind.

The definition of empathy

At its most basic, the dictionary definition of empathy is:

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

For a more nuanced explanation, it’s well worth watching this short clip from the RSA, where Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor who specialises in empathy, breaks it down into more detail.

A key takeaway from that snippet is, “what makes something better is connection”. But how is this relevant to digital marketing and the client/agency relationship?

Seth Godin writes in his book ‘This is Marketing’:

Marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem… It’s the chance to serve.

Any good marketer worth their salt will create a detailed customer profile when identifying their product’s target audience. This should highlight key characteristics, including the customer’s goals and struggles.

Using empathy, we can use these attributes to identify what’s important to the customer as well as why they behave the way they do. From there, it’s easier to position the product as something they identify with. The product should either ease their struggles or help them achieve their goals – if it does, they’ll buy it.

Empathy is, therefore, a requirement for understanding customer experience. It allows you to better serve those who are keeping your business afloat.

For those of us working in agencies, our clients are our customers. Understanding their perspectives as well as their business problems is key to their business success and the success of their agency experience.

Think about relationships with your closest friends. What makes them so great? It boils down to two things: shared experiences and knowing that person inside and out. Now, I’m not suggesting you feign friendship with every client you come into contact with – this is business after all. But bonding with clients over more than just top-level stat emails and agenda-led conference calls will take them from business acquaintance to colleague. And yes, they might also become your friend.


The common empathy misconception

When we think of the definition of empathy, the associations that often spring to mind are those of connecting with someone through negative experiences, but empathy can be applied during positive events too.

Having compassion doesn’t have to be shrouded in swapping stories of profit losses, competitors overtaking sales or the latest fall in inflation. As Brené said, empathy is about being down in the hole with that person, saying to them, “I get it, I’ve been there, and I understand how hard it is”. This can be flipped on its head into a statement of optimism, allowing you to climb onto a pedestal when the client is riding high. Sharing the scale of these wins will also allow you to understand the level of success they’re aiming for. Positive connections are built from all shared experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly.

For this to work, they need to trust you enough to share everything from the big stuff to the minutiae of their everyday developments. Instilling empathy on the agency’s side starts with trust building, but remember, trust is a two-way street.

Like sharing the news of a promotion or watching a goal together at a sports match, sharing wins – even small wins – creates an impactful impression.

How do you express empathy?

There are four key elements of empathy. Surprisingly, it doesn’t actually take anything in particular to express each of these, save for the self-discipline and willpower to convey them habitually.

1. Perspective taking

This is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s about taking someone else’s position and imagining how they would react to specific challenges or opportunities.

Builtvisible approaches this right from the onboarding process with our new clients. We’ll schedule a kick-off meeting to set the scene on both sides. During this meeting, we ask to be treated as a new starter to their business. Through this, we’ll get a comprehensive brand overview as well as a breakdown of expectations, challenges, and the all-important KPIs.

Once onboarded, this communication should not only be continually maintained but should become stronger through touching base regularly. Asking personalised questions about the client’s current state regarding the project as well as challenging your own perspective surrounding the answers should always be on the backburner for anyone working in relationship management.

As my colleague Will Nye explains, onsite consulting is also invaluable for experiencing the realities of a client’s position, how this changes over time and why they might choose to respond to our recommendations in a certain way. Being present allows you to see what they’re dealing with daily, how their hierarchy play out and facilitates a level of comradery you just don’t get from off-site relationships.

2. Staying out of judgement

From the side of the agency, we’re the digital specialists who’ve been hired to help solve a problem or provide a service. It’s tempting to assume we always know best. Our egos may well get in the way of what’s actually best for the client – blaming them for not listening to our recommendations won’t solve the problem and certainly won’t make the relationship any better.

We are not the experts in what the client does, day in and day out. There may be aspects of the business that we can’t do in a certain way, e.g. compliance or regulatory requirements.

Client-side marketers will have a fuller view of the company’s overall marketing strategy, both digital and offline. They will always have a rationale for the decisions they’re taking, and it’s our job as the external agency to understand their situation and help them effect change.

For example, if there’s a shortage of development resource, don’t blame the client. Instead, help them make a business case, tackle quick wins or look elsewhere for how you can make an impact.

3. Recognising emotion

This sounds simple, but this is often where we slip up. Particularly when we default to text-based communication like email, where the nuances of emotion are often lost.

As Peter Balgazette highlights in ‘The Empathy Instinct’:

It’s easy to attack or offend in a textual interchange because you can’t see the real effect your words have had… A short conversation can save a lengthy exchange of emails, and more crucially, is a much more effective and human interchange.

There’s no substitute for contact time here. It’s why we always include account management as part of our project plans, and why we insist on quarterly reviews to ensure we’re aligned with our clients’ business direction.

Wherever possible, aim for communication to take place face-to-face; video conferencing is just as good if you can’t meet in person.

4. Express understanding

Once you’ve recognised the type of emotion coming from the client, it’s time to communicate with them that you can and have recognised what they’re going through and then be empathetic towards this by reacting accordingly.

At this stage, it’s crucial to showcase the distinction between empathy, which develops a relationship, and sympathy, which can add distance. As Brené said, “empathy fuels the connection, sympathy drives disconnection.”

As an agency, it’s our job to provide solutions to a client’s problems. That means approaching an issue with honesty, transparency and tact (empathy), instead of trying to brush over something that is important to them or put a silver lining on it (sympathy).

Mountain reflection

The difficulties of empathy

Empathy is a skill. Like all skills, it can be learned. Equally, it can become disconnected.

If you’re busy and stressed with trying to hit this target or that deadline, it’s tempting to go back on autopilot, put your head into the sand and focus on shipping that piece of work, instead of taking the time to ask yourself, “are we acting in the best interest of the client?”

When challenging conversations come up, as they always will, it is hard to express empathy instead of sympathy or – worse – disengagement or defensiveness. When it hits the fan, clients may be frustrated, confused, anxious or angry, and there may be pressure on them to ‘blame the agency’. We’re tribal animals by nature, and it’s very easy to fall back on the ‘us vs them’ mindset.

Let’s say there’s a major algorithm change, or a migration has gone so wrong that it has caused organic traffic to tumble, or an update causes tracking code to fail. As an agency, we market the fact that we can provide actionable solutions to those business problems. The question is, why should a client choose us to do that? And not only pick us but stick with us for the long haul? There are over 25,000 digital marketing agencies in the UK who could also potentially help with that business problem, as well as countless freelance consultants. What makes us special?

Leaving price to one side (and if you’re competing on price alone, you’re doing it wrong),  clients pick agencies based on two things: success rate and word of mouth. If someone has recommended us for both our project performance and how passionate we are about creating a great relationship with them then we’ve done our job right.

The amazing work you’ve done may prick up their ears, but being known for how well you face down setbacks, deadlines and achievements side-by-side the client will show the strength of your relationship management and make a name for you in terms of retention rates. And this can only mean good things…

Increasing customer retention by just 5% can actually increase your revenue by 25% to 95%.

Harvard Business School

Often, when people are facing a challenge or dealing with a difficult situation, they aren’t looking for that magic bullet that will fix all their problems. Instead, they may be looking for someone who can help them feel like they’re not alone in solving that problem. They may even be looking for people who have been through the same situation before. Most importantly, they are looking for a connection. That’s why empathy is so important in developing and maintaining the agency/client relationship.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Far from it. However, taking an empathetic approach to your client/agency relationships will lead to long-term working relationships, filled with mutual respect and understanding. And who doesn’t want that?

Join the Inner Circle

Industry leading insights direct to your inbox every month.