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Why the best client and agency partnerships rely on trust

AKA the tale of the scorpion and the frog

Austin Santaniello Bucholtz, Unsplash

A Frog prepares to cross a river in the jungle.
A Scorpion approaches.
The Scorpion asks for safe passage across the river.
The Frog thinks.
The Frog asks the Scorpion if it will sting him.
The Scorpion assures the Frog that this will not happen, as if it does, they will both drown.
The Frog allows the Scorpion on its back, and both start to cross the river.
They get halfway across the river, and the Scorpion stings the Frog.
The Frog asks the Scorpion, whilst sinking, ‘Why did you do that? Now we’re both going to drown…’
The Scorpion replies, ‘…because I’m a Scorpion’.

Quick question. What the hell does this have to do with digital products...?

Symbiotic relationships between a client and an agency are essential to the success of any digital product build.

Denoting a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.

Throughout my experience in client-facing roles, I’ve worked with many different companies on a broad range of digital products, delivered using various project management methodologies. Each project, each product, has been executed under many different forms of client partnerships, arrangements and agreements. Within these, there are brilliant working relationships and there are those that are… not so brilliant.

9 times out of 10, the client relationships that are not so brilliant are best represented by the fable of The Scorpion and The Frog. The client perceives the agency as the scorpion, and the agency perceives the client as the scorpion.

Trust me, I’m your agency

Why is this such an issue? There’s no mutual trust established for the agency or the client, which is key to giving each party the peace of mind that one won’t sting the other. The absence of trust usually manifests itself and culminates in both sides wasting copious amounts of time and energy safeguarding, second-guessing and blocking each other – time which could be much better spent focusing on achieving project goals.

In my experience, a combination of agile methodologies and an overarching digital framework or client agreement is the perfect way to establish and maintain mutual trust in a client relationship. The digital framework provides a clear set of guidelines and ways of working that the agency and company are committing to, whilst agile methodology centres on trust and a drive towards a common goal.

If you are the client in this situation, you have a team made up of professionals who are great at their jobs. They will get through as much as they can in ‘x’ weeks. Let’s go!

If you are the agency, you have a client who is ready and willing to help you to crack through as much as you can, safe in the knowledge that provisions are taken care of and there is a framework in place which means the client won’t just abandon you. Both of these aspects help make scorpions and frogs a distant memory.

Time and time again, waterfall methodology has shown that with fixed scope, fixed deliverables and fixed costs, there is a tendency to fall into the same pitfalls. Elements such as scope creep from a client, penny-pinching from the agency, or even fundamental arguments over intellectual property, serve to wear away the great client relationship that caused the agency and company to set up together in the beginning.

No one wants to be made to feel like a frog.

Mutual trust in action

Don’t just take my word for it. We have been working successfully with our clients in this way more and more prevalently over the past year, achieving great results.

A shining example of this is our work with Busy Bees, one of the largest and most well renowned childcare providers. From a foundation of mutual trust, and with a lot of hard work from both parties, we’ve created an industry-first digital product that’s helping to give children the best start in life.

We’ve done this by focusing on the needs of the end user and using agile methodology to deliver work iteratively. We’ve created a communication framework, consisting of daily standups, regular sprint demos and monthly steering committees, which ensures both sides are regularly updated with progress at all levels. There is no big reveal and, most importantly, no surprises, as we pivot, reprioritise and realign to meet our shared objectives and goals.

For clients who haven’t worked in this way before, adapting to product teams can be a learning curve, but in our experience it results in much healthier team dynamics and relationships. And our clients would say the same thing. I recently caught up with Jenny Shaw from Busy Bees to chat through their experience getting to grips with agile product sprints, and she agreed that it was hard to imagine the project being delivered to the same standard in any other way.

So, how can clients and agencies build a partnership based on mutual trust? It starts with respect. Don’t make assumptions about nature, and nurture a symbiotic relationship. Focus on sharing the win / win, instead of competing on the win / lose, and you will quickly find that working towards a shared goal with good intentions becomes a lot less fraught with friction and time wasting.

Like the sound of working with clients, rather than for them? Good news – we’re hiring. See all our open roles here.

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