The Art of Client Service: A Three-Part Breakdown – Managing Business RelationshipsMonday July 8th, 2013
The three main attributes of managing client relationships in today's digital age are attitude, communication, and trouble. Navigating each is as important as any other, and when working in harmony, can add serious fortitude to business relationships.
I’ve been reading my way through The Art of Client Service by Robert Solomon and writing a blog series I’ve dubbed, “A project manager’s playbook,” and I’m sticking to it. Part one dealt with defining expectations and goals and coming up with realistic strategies and schedules for projects. It provided a good foundation for the rest of the series.
Here, I’ll be discussing three main attributes of managing the client relationship in today’s digital age: attitude, communication, and trouble. Each is as important and relevant as the next, and when working in harmony, can add serious fortitude to the business relationships we account executives and managers must navigate on a daily basis. Let’s hit it!
Part of the reason I enjoy being an account executive just so happens to be one of the reasons why it’s so difficult. Account executives swim in a sea of exceptions. Sure, there are rules, but there are always exceptions to those rules. The key is knowing when to break the rules, how to do it, and what to say when doing it. Account executives with the best judgement have made the most mistakes. They have learned from those mistakes and apply them to their own management style. A manager’s judgement is their best and most sharpened tool, but it’s a double-edged sword that cuts the relationship the deepest if the judgement is wrong. As I grow in my own management style, I have learned to lean on this judgment and look to apply lessons I’ve learned as much as possible.
Meeting face to face with clients is extremely important, but also easy to forget in the age of email and GoToMeeting. I’m currently striving to implement more of this into my management style because nothing can substitute face to face interactions. For example, Brolik had a client in the past that we only met for damage control when things went wrong. The work was great and still serves as a portfolio piece, but the relationship suffered as a result. They associated our agency with negative feelings, and when that happens, it’s too late. We no longer work with that client. I ask myself, “If we had more positive interactions, would we still be working together?” A good rule of thumb is to visit when things are good more than bad, and visit often. It’s much easier to talk with a client when a bunch of negativity doesn’t precede the visit. Even go as far as to create reasons to see clients. It’s an investment of time, but it’s worth it to keep the relationship active and on a positive note.
Screw the Book of Business
In my time as a professional, I’ve seen a fair share of managers investing in personal gains through their work at an agency, and it shows. People talk, and because of that managers get bad reputations, and it can even threaten the agency’s overall reputation. We as account executives, should be building for our agencies, not ourselves. Don’t look at a client base as “your clients.” Instead, think long-term investment and not short-term gain. Have integrity and act selflessly. Some colleagues have challenged this saying, “What if I leave? How will I gauge my success unless I take my clients with me?” Valid questions, wrong approach. Clients may or may not follow managers to a different agency, but if clients leave an agency once a manager has left, it had nothing to do with the work anyway.
Ask any member of any production team, and they’ll tell you it’s all about the portfolio and the pitch that wins clients. They would be right. It’s true that agencies win accounts with the strength of their portfolio. I’m not here to argue that. What I will say is that agencies keep accounts with relationships, and account executives are the keepers of these relationships. Think about it like this – winning jobs in our industry is about the work, and the work is the core business, but business is about relationships. I bet there’s not one member of any production team that will argue that trust in a great client/agency relationship allows great work to flourish. Keeping accounts is all about the relationship, it’s like a circle. Right, Chuck and Larry? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4R0goAC7GrA
Don’t Commit Without Communicating
I admit, I’ve had clients that I dreaded talking to. Every account executive has. For me, it’s even extended to the point of losing sleep nights before meetings. The work was great, but the client was so demanding and belittling that they were difficult to manage. This happened somewhat frequently when I was younger, and even to Brolik as a whole when we were viewed as a “young” agency. To make it easy on myself and others in the meeting, we would appease clients and say ‘yes’ to ridiculous requests. Instead of giving in, we should have bought ourselves time to talk with our team. Saying yes to crazy demands and timelines only results in half-ass work, and nobody on the production side wants to be your friend Bobby Boucher! Our industry is very collaborative in nature. To commit to demands without collaborating with both the agency and the client is ignoring the nature of our industry. Setting and managing expectations… where have I heard about that before? http://brolik.com/blog/the-art-of-client-service-a-three-part-breakdown/
“No” shouldn’t be in an account executive’s vocabulary. That sounds crazy, but hear me out. We’ve all been in situations where a resounding “NO” doesn’t seem like a sufficient enough response for an absolutely outlandish client request. Instead of going grey or balding on the spot, suggest a reasonable solution that still fits the client’s needs. It may not be perfect, and in a pinch it may not go over smoothly, but it’s better than building a wall and not letting anyone over. Didn’t your mother ever say that you attract more bees with honey than vinegar?
If I had a nickel for every time our team wanted to save a client from itself, I’d have at least, like, a bunch of nickels. As a digital agency, we’re contracted to give clients what they want, which isn’t always what they need, but Brolik strives to do just that. I’ve noticed a change in the client/agency dynamic. Clients no longer present their problem and ask for an agencies help. Rather, they now say how they would like their problem solved, and ask to build creative to fit their ideas of what the goals should be. Don’t immediately push clients away from what they want. Instead, demonstrate a thorough knowledge of their initiatives and provide lots of facts. This establishes credibility and opens the door to suggest what should actually be the solution to the problem.
Be Low Tech
Digital agencies obviously operate in a high tech world. As account executives, we need to consider our clients aptitude for technology. Many clients I see genuinely want to understand tech, but even more than that, appreciate a low tech approach to management. Many times I find myself digesting information from our teams and distilling it to be easily understood by our clients. Account executives should be cognizant that they operate in an advanced industry and tailor communication around the audience it’s meant for.
Working between clients and colleagues can be a delicate process. Looking on my own experience, I can identify times that I felt myself bouncing back and forth seeking a compromise between the two. Here’s an interesting perspective to this dilemma; rather than putting up a wall to protect your agency from clients, it’s smarter to rally everyone around a long-term thought philosophy. When the time comes, “eating it” as some may say, is a smart long-term move. Be sure to choose wisely and not get stepped on. Remember, there’s always the looming possibility that an argument won can leave a client feeling sour and result in an account lost. In times of trouble, being supportive and going the extra mile can do wonders for the relationship, and ultimately, the work.
No Surprises About Time or Money
Brolik has always had the mindset that good clients are going to give thorough revisions, try to add tasks, and ask about extra work. If you were a client, wouldn’t you? Rather than getting worked up, understand that this is a necessary piece of the puzzle and the client is simply being diligent. As managers, our role is to stay organized and complete work on time and on budget. If requests go beyond the original scope and budget, be happy to accommodate. Simply explain the situation and meet additional requests with a revised budget and timeline. Managers love to have all the answers, but if the answer isn’t readily available, don’t be afraid to say, “Let me see how this will affect the cost and timeline and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
Meet Trouble Head On
Mistakes happen, it’s part of the business and we’re all human. With the number of hands touching projects I’m surprised they don’t happen more often. When they do, act swiftly and be the first to tell the client. Clients should never hear bad news from a source other than their agency, specifically the account executive. When breaking the news, be prepared and offer suggestions on how to fix it right away. This eases the frustration and also directs the conversation towards a solution rather than focusing on the problem. Our industry is collaborative, and because of that mistakes are likely the fault of several people. Don’t point fingers, and step up to take the blame. This provides some space between the agency and the client, and truthfully, if something went wrong, it had to go through the hands of the manager at some point.
I hope you have found these insights helpful and be sure to stay tuned for the conclusion to my series – Part 3 of 3: Style and Substance.