Since I joined the agency world in 1994, I’ve had the opportunity to pitch digital marketing services literally thousands of companies. In that time, I’ve even been fortunate enough to have won a reasonable percentage of those businesses as clients. One critical pattern I recognized relatively early in the game, was how and why my former account teams were losing clients. Here’s a hint: it wasn’t due to a lack of performance.
Agencies and clients typically agree on the most common reasons they part ways, and they’re deluding themselves. Popular justification for firing agencies include: budget constraints, lack of return-on-investment (ROI), incongruous personalities and poor customer service. None of those reasons actually addresses the real problem, however. The true reason agencies fall short is a failure to create a meaningful connection with clients. Every other “reason” is just a symptom of the problem.
As an agency, if you’re able to create a meaningful connection with your client contact(s), the following will occur:
- The client will “magically” find budget for your key initiatives
- The client will empower you to create campaigns that generate an ROI, understand why you fell short and give you an opportunity to make course corrections
- The client will proactively address any personality issues with you to give you an opportunity to make necessary adjustments to the account team
- The client (with help from the agency executive team) will inspire the account team to provide world-class customer service; or the client will communicate dissatisfaction and give the agency an opportunity to rectify the situation
All too often, clients will notify their agencies that they are disengaging and cite one of the reasons without making the effort to identify the real issues or communicate them to the agency. I can count on one hand the number of accounts I’ve lost due to “lack of performance.” On the other hand, I can point a lack of connection as the reason 95 percent of clients do leave.
When you connect with a client, they like, trust and respect you. When they like, trust and respect you, they will make the necessary effort to make sure you succeed and give you the benefit of the doubt when you fall short. Essentially, they treat you more like family than a vendor. But you have to earn the right and the opportunity. I’ve outlined four primary elements necessary to truly connect with your clients below.
One day over coffee, Jay Sigler, CEO of IT Assurance, recently told me about the concept of “Talk Time.” In essence, Talk Time is a sales concept backed by research that values conversation with clients and prospects. Regardless how good a sales or account person is at “selling,” every minute they’re talking to a client or prospect is worth $25 per minute in future revenue. Whether you’re a bartender selling a drink or a Boeing VP selling a 737, the time you spend developing a relationship is valued at $25 a minute towards future revenue.
Sample scenario: if an account team member bills $100/hr and manages 10 clients, the agency would lose out on $1,000 in potential billable work each month by following this strategy. In actuality, that same 10 hours of Talk Time generates $15,000 worth of future work (at $25/min), or a 15x ROI. Agency owners should take note that obsession with the billable hour without creating connection is akin to stepping over dollars to pick up pennies.
The beauty of Talk Time is that it doesn’t require sales training. Instead, direct your account team to get to know their contacts better through a combination of small talk and pointed questions. Encourage them to understand what keeps their client up at night, how they’re being measured by their boss and gain insights into their communication preferences. With minimal oversight, your account team can significantly grow the business. Client-side contacts should appreciate any time an agency is willing to spend (on their own dime) to get to know you and your business more intimately.
As a long-time member of Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of the 8,500 business owners from around the world. In my own back yard, I’ve been fortunate to connect with Jill Nelson, CEO of Ruby Receptionists, a virtual receptionist service. She’s grown the company significantly on one key concept: WOWism. After seeing her present the concept at a recent EO Experience event in Portland, I was motivated to implement WOWism at Anvil and Formic Media.
In short, WOWism is all about understanding the client and making them feel special and appreciated. The secret behind WOWism is to create a workforce driven to WOW customers, and providing the systems to deliver remarkable experiences with every interaction. Ruby does this by asking questions, making observations and taking diligent notes about a client’s interests, motivators, aspirations and relationships.
Another reason clients leave, which I failed to mention earlier, relates to the downside of successfully creating a meaningful connection with clients. The problem occurs when a member of your account team creates that connection, then leaves (sometimes taking the client with them). To mitigate this from happening at Anvil, we determined our traditional organizational structure did not address this issue and needed retooling. After a few weeks of discussion and analysis, the executive team came up with a multi-faceted structure that increased the level of connectivity, yet mitigated the chance of losing an account if a key team member leaves.
The three “legs” of the stool in our new organizational structure include the following roles: Evangelist, Counsel and Workhorse. Although our specific titles and job descriptions are different, the roles are essentially the same. The goal is to create roles and responsibilities that map to equivalent client-side positions which foster engagement. The roles are broken down as follows:
- The Evangelist: typically, this is an Agency President, VP or Director who engages with clients on a quarterly to annual basis and focus on the long-term relationship, goals and strategic thinking
- The Counsel: typically an Account Director, Supervisor or Manager, this person engages with the client on a weekly to quarterly basis and is ultimately responsible for facilitating the overall relationship, focusing on mid-term strategy and oversight of the account team
- The Workhorse: typically an Account Executive or Coordinator, these are key muscle on the account and interface with the client on a daily to weekly basis and are responsible for developing and implementing strategies and tactics
With this model, if any one of the key roles is vacated, there are at least two other team members intimate with the account and have a level of connectivity that maximizes the chance the account is stable, if not happy, through a critical transition.
Depending on your disciplinary focus, your ability to deliver results for a client may vary based on levels of client support. In the world of search engine marketing, for example, it is possible to make meaningful impact in terms of ROI without deep client engagement or support. The same is not true when it comes to branding or advertising, for example. As such, we’ve been able to successfully develop a results-oriented culture at Anvil and Formic that is compelling and appreciated by (most) clients.
Regardless of your discipline, however, there are ways to create client connection when results are pending or lackluster. The primary strategy is to develop a communications structure that plays well with a client’s corporate structure. Developing relationships at a peer level is an effective way to address this approach.
Peer relationships are essential to any lasting business relationship. A CEO or business owner connects more readily with another CEO or business owner. Likewise, a junior account person is more likely to connect with a junior marketer on the client side. As such, it is wise to provide multiple levels of seniority on each account, so peers will have a like-minded contact with which to connect and collaborate.
The three levels of account contact outlined earlier apply in this situation, as an Evangelist at the agency level is likely the appropriate contact for the senior level marketing executive on the client side. Regardless of which level you engage, there are key strategies that can create a lasting connection, as described below.
- Empowering the Evangelist: provide qualitative and quantitative insights the primary client-side senior contact, which they can share with executive management (their bosses) to maintain awareness and build trust
- Influencing the Influencers: schedule regular meetings, or be sure to incorporate client-side influencers to important conversations to ensure they feel respected. The influencers can make or break a client relationship, especially if the evangelist is not available or accessible
- Supporting the Workhorses: while lower-level contacts on the marketing team may not have much sway in the overall relationship, they can make an agencies job that much easier or more difficult, so make sure they feel appreciated.
Generating results for a client can certainly appease if not please a client. Unfortunately, performance is often insufficient in maintaining a client relationship. Building a strong connection with your clients will result in a critical level of trust and respect that offers not only stability but ultimately a more productive and strategic partnership. Build your client engagements around these key elements and you will have long and fruitful relationships.