Just as it was in the good old days of agency life, a critical task of account service is developing strong relationships with clients by becoming a trusted advisor and an extension of their marketing department. Back in the day, this often happened over a long boozy lunch. But as budgets have tightened, this has been one of the first activities to go and it’s an absolute tragedy.
I get it. Relationship building involves an investment of time and money. I can see how celebrating personal milestones such as birthdays and weddings could be considered dispensable as those bottom lines tightened and quarterly reporting kept a constant lid on spending. But what’s also been lost by those who choose to nix this is the immersion in the client’s business that came with these activities. Without it, the history and understanding of brands are no longer developed or preserved as they should be, at either end.
Only by spending time with our clients away from the office and talking at length about their business can we truly build an understanding of the intricacies and pain points they are experiencing. This allows for the addressing and even pre-empting of client and business challenges.
Of course, it’s not just lunches. You must spend time with them at the factory where products are made – Cadbury was always a great account to work on – or, if it’s a retail client, in stores serving customers.
True account service calls for a serious commitment to this. You’ve got to learn to use the client’s products (chainsaw school was awesome), attend and contribute to client conferences and leadership meetings, and understand the day-to-day process. All of this helps to deliver insightful and effective work and get buy-in from key stakeholders.
Today, with so much of our business conducted over email, too many agencies and clients hold each other at arm’s length. Efficiency objectives dominate, but the development of knowledge and trust are the casualties.
Without suits and marketing managers establishing a history and the intimate business knowledge that comes with that, they will rarely have a deep understanding of the real business issues and challenges at hand. Nor will they appreciate what true impact competitors’ activities and other economic factors are having on the category because they invested enough to develop a deeper understanding of all the moving pieces.
This piece by Bruno Gralpois, Client/agency relationships: confessions of an ex-client, really hit the mark for me in highlighting just how important these tried and true principles still are.
While the lunches, freebies and gifts are less PC these days – the boozy part is definitely outdated – spending time with clients outside of the hothouse of daily challenges is not only enjoyable but essential.
To truly deliver excellent client service, sometimes you need to take a step back to see the wood for the trees as you come to an understanding one another’s aspirations and challenges. In this business, you need to reflect and review in order to realise we are all human and trying our best to deliver great outcomes – together.
The irony is that clients still want this level of commitment. They want that trusted advisor, empathiser and right-hand partner who can add value to their business through insight, advice, diplomacy and hunger to win together.
We need to commit time to the relationship, including the socialising, and get to know one another on a personal level. It helps to have the perspective of being in someone else’s shoes.
I’d encourage all agencies and clients to have an immersion program. Get familiar with each other’s businesses whether it’s as simple as working from the client or agency’s office once a week, attending planning sessions, conducting regular store visits or even making the product.
Create forums outside of the day-to-day for idea development, reflection and recognition of what is and isn’t working. Listen more, talk less and help make the work and business better.
Most of all, we’ve got to do it together. And doing it over lunch, on the odd occasion, is totally acceptable.
Penny Flanders is the director of client service for full-service agency Spinach