The 5-Point Plan to Building Trust and Accountability in Client Relationships

For the long-term success of any agency, account professionals strive to develop client relationships that last. Not just until the next project, not just until the next quarter, but for years to come.

At c|change, we’ve seen atypical success in this department. Most of our business is with companies that we’ve called clients for many years, and several have been with us for more than a decade. That’s really unusual in marketing, where it’s the norm for clients to switch agencies every few years.

What’s been our key to building these long-lasting relationships?

I think it has something to do with one of our core values: Mindful Creativity. At the heart of this value is curiosity, the driving force behind proactively seeking out solutions and opening ourselves and our clients up to new possibilities. In a recent blog post, “Getting to Mu,” our CEO, Hugh Schulze, wrote about the importance of curiosity and asking better questions to uncover important insights with the aim of producing high-quality work. As he puts it, “Ultimately, at c|change, our job is to help our clients engage their customers and prospects in a dialogue about their product, solution or service with the goal of deepening that dialogue and relationship.” But how do we accomplish this?

In addition to having a team of Account Managers who are adept at both client and project management, we have a five-point approach to ensuring we build strong relationships with both our internal team and our clients:

  1. Define success.
  2. Live the client’s brand.
  3. Look for, and take, opportunities to engage with clients in meaningful ways.
  4. Respect what it takes to do great creative.
  5. Communicate well.

Let’s take a closer look at these five points:

This starts with framing the business and marketing challenge in a way that focuses both the client and the agency’s creative team. We seek to understand: what outcome is the client working to achieve through this effort? The creative brief begins a conversation of “how do we get there?” In Briefly, a short documentary film about “the brief” and its use across multiple creative disciplines, the creators posit that a good brief is an invitation to a conversation. It is intended to inspire curiosity and thinking in ways that approach the challenge with ingenuity and practicality. John C. Jay, President and Executive Creative Director of GX, states, “The more concise and the sharper the point of view is as to what is the problem, the better the work will be.” The account team begins this conversation with clients, to set up the proper framing so the creative team can efficiently expand on how to solve identified marketing challenges.

New strategic client engagements don’t always start with a thorough SWOT analysis and knowledge of the 5 C’s – company, category & competitors, channels, customers, and business climate. More often, account professionals need to lead the charge for the entire agency in quickly understanding the client’s business and unique challenges. I’ve had clients tell me, “I want you to get inside my head and understand what I am facing as a marketer so we can approach challenges and solve them together.” Easier said than done. But being conversant in the language clients use to discuss their business and knowing their goals—even at a macro level—gives us a baseline for more engaging discussions and better deliverables.

Clients are as busy as we are, and our mutual project is usually not their sole focus. Having some empathy around the fact that you may only be part of one of a multitude of projects they are juggling gives some needed perspective.

How do we approach this? Know the client company and group history. Sign up for Google Alerts with keywords specific to their business and monitor competitive news and category trends. Talk with other clients within the company to get a broader perspective. A common request of some of our larger clients is, “Give me a better cross-organizational perspective on the work we are doing together. What is working for others, and are you applying those learnings to our engagements?” Be curious enough to think “What if?” and act as a guide for your internal team to help them see the big picture. Clients find value in our ability to maintain a relatively high and broad perspective as brand experts—or, as we call ourselves, “agents of change.”

In the article, “The secret to great creative is…account people?,” Vann Graves states that the primary objective of the account role is similar to the creative role, in that they are both charged to push boundaries and take risks. In his words, “They educate the client on the creative process and foster and nurture it. They set boundaries for the client to ensure the agency achieves its full potential. They protect great ideas and advocate for innovative concepts or new ways of thinking, even if these approaches may scare the client. Put simply, they just don’t play it safe.” This is a bold statement, and an aspiration that may not always be fully realized. Clients hire us for two reasons: 1.) to help achieve marketing objectives tied to a business goal (to solve a business challenge); and 2.) to bring new and fresh thinking to that challenge in a way that supports their brand (to inspire!). We would argue that both are equally important and keeping balance between those two is what our account professionals help achieve every day. As Graves states, “For an agency to produce great work, everyone on the team needs to have an active interest in delivering not good work, but great work.”

The final component, and in my experience, the glue that holds all of this together, is the ability to communicate well. In “Give New Clients an Early Win,” an article by author, speaker, and entrepreneurial advisor David C. Baker, Baker argues that your primary deliverable to your clients is communication—and not the completion of tactics. Establishing expectations for regular, consistent, and open communication is a key factor in maintaining long-term relationships and recovering from any missteps that may happen during the lifetime of an engagement. As noted earlier, two reasons clients hire us is to solve business challenges and deliver inspiring creative. Showing progress towards those objectives, early in the process, is key in creating trust and confidence in our ability to manage the work well. Baker states it clearly: “Stellar communication and early wins—especially if you don’t seek to take obvious credit for them—will get those relationships in a new world off to a great start.”

 

The sum of these aspects of exceptional client management are greater than the individual parts. The best client and project management professionals know how to use each in a way that creates a healthy tension for producing our best work.

It’s important to note that it doesn’t always work. Sometimes we fail. Recognizing, naming and owning that failure quickly and transparently is key to building trust. As a former mentor told me, “Great client relationships are the ones that have withstood the test of several missteps over time. When these ‘breaks’ happen, the way that you respond and repair them can either seal your fate in an agency review or make the bond stronger.”

That’s why the most rewarding relationships are the ones that have stood the test of experience and time. The strength and longevity of our client relationships is something we are very proud of—and one of the best ways to measure our own success.

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