Setting the tone for a good relationship

The time to establish the procedures that will solidify agency-client unions is when they start.

The time to establish the procedures that will solidify agency-client unions is when they start.

The dawn of a new client relationship is an exciting time. Possibilities exist on many levels, including, unfortunately, misunderstanding and disappointment. That's why mutual understanding, constant dialogue, and clearly delineated processes and procedures are so essential.

"Work should begin with at least one meeting in which the client and agency team [get to] know each others' businesses," says Greg Loh, senior partner PR and public affairs, Eric Mower & Associates (EMA). "Become better acquainted personally. More client relationships are with people we see face-to-face only occasionally. It's a challenge that requires a strong common starting point both professionally and personally."

Debra Raine, SVP of new business and Western region GM at Waggener Edstrom, says relationships must be "built on a foundation of clarity, transparency, and trust." She also advises spending several days in on-site "immersion" with new clients. "You get data and understanding of [a client's] culture and DNA," she notes.

Working on the business requires clear, detailed parameters and plans. Loh advises always working with a contract that defines scope of work, financial terms, and procedure for both parties if the relationship ends.

"We [learned] through experience there are too many unknowns and potential problems because they aren't discussed at the start," says Ed Moed, cofounder and managing partner at Peppercom, which created its own "rules of engagement," which are included with contracts. "If we go off course, we bring it right back [to those rules]."

Those rules include setting goals; regular reports (on initiatives and responsibilities of both parties); payment and invoices; authorizations; notification of staff changes or financial considerations for both parties; information flow; vendor use; and no-compete-clause information.

Setting goals and defining value for both parties is critical. "Agency and client need to agree in measurable terms on what success will look like," Loh says. "Without agreements up-front, measurement is impossible and the relationship is likely to sour. It needs to be [a] written plan and monitored by a regular measurement system. The most user-friendly systems are dashboard-based."

Setting goals on a regular basis keeps the relationship smooth and propels programs.

"[Without goal-setting,] it's nebulous," says Moed. "It potentially creates too many interpretations of what a program should or shouldn't have done. If we never set goals, we [couldn't] keep [improving]. If a client won't set goals with you, you're starting a program to fail. [Without] a road map, you can be disjointed, digress, or be thrown in a new direction."

Peppercom also developed "Harte Chart," a tool that details initiatives and both parties' responsibilities over 30-day periods. "Process is critical to getting results," Moed adds. "And process varies. You must be flexible."

WE uses a Web-based management and measurement tool. "Everybody [has a] 360- degree view," Raine says. "We all need insight and visibility into what's going on [if it's to be a true partnership]."

EMA prefers written protocols on executional tasks. "Team handbooks cover everything from terminology to detailed steps for approving and sending press release[s]," Loh says. "The more that information exists in written form, the less time spent recreating and more on things that create real value. It [also] holds firm and client accountable."

"[Relationships] fail when you stop communicating or assume," notes Raine.

Moed agrees. "[Be open] with everything," he says. "It's critical that clients understand up-front what they're getting - who their point person is, the team, work we can and can't do, and what we're saying we will do."

Loh also cautions against bait-and-switch.

"The people who pitched must be involved in serving the client," he says. "That's especially true at the start of a relationship, when strategies and plans are developed and all the systems and procedures that will lead to an effective partnership are created.

"It's vital in the start of a relationship that the most senior-level talent [on both sides is] actively involved in [its] formation, adds Loh. "The first formative three to six months set the tone for everything."

Technique tips

DO

Get to know each other well on all levels
Establish clear systems and procedures
Set goals and measure results regularly

DON'T

Take each other for granted or let communication lag
Hide things
Engage in bait-and- switch tactics

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