Be a 'thinking' agency and your clients will thank you

Don't just focus on 'doing' - clients want a 'thinking' agency that will be proactive and provide guidance rather than just taking orders.

Be a thinking agency, writes Alison Clarke
Be a thinking agency, writes Alison Clarke

A successful and long-term client/consultancy partnership is a two-way street. It has to be mut­ual to last. Some consultancies would benefit from taking a step back to reflect on how they really add value to a client while also reviewing whether the relationship adds value to the consultancy.

New clients take a great deal of time, effort and money to acquire. So it’s clear the team needs to stay focused on delivery, exceed expectations and demonstrate return on investment.

Yet frequently I work with client organisations that feel disappointed with their agency relationship. Why is that?

Often, it’s a disconnect with what the consultancy thinks the client wants and the reality. Campaign delivery is a given – but a focus on ‘doing’ rather than ‘thinking’ is misguided.

Some years back a report on the PR sector by BDO Stoy Hayward concluded that clients wanted consultancies to think faster than the client and be proactive in the relationship.

Around the same time Professor Murray at Cranfield School of Management confirmed in a study that clients wanted comms practitioners to be skilled in consulting. That was defined as having an ability to clarify problems and provide guidance on dealing with them. These conclusions are still relevant today.

Client relationship management is not a question of the client saying ‘jump’ and the response being ‘how high’? No – we need to plan for a long-term partnership and that means really taking time to get to know and understand their business.

Clients engage consultancies to benefit from the broad range of skills and diverse experience that they bring to the table. Being focused on implementation alone isn’t going to build a powerful and long-term relationship.

So next time you review your client engagement processes, client satisfaction audits and how you define success, create time for, and encourage, thinking, reading, debate and consulting in your teams. Don’t just be a ‘doing’ and ‘delivery’ shop.

Equally important when you consider the health of your client relationships is whether it is working for the consultancy. Does this relationship present opportunities to deliver campaigns that stretch and excite the team? Is the relationship one of mutual respect where you can discuss commercial issues around scope of work, fair fees for professional advice and timely settlement of invoices? Does the client name support or add to the consultancy’s credentials and reputation?

You have a say in this relationship. Fantastic client retention because they are massively over-serviced and getting a great commercial deal for them but not you is nothing to be proud of.

Be sure you have the right business culture, sound processes and honest and open internal dialogue to ensure thinking and consulting are part of the value that you bring to a client.

At the same time, be prepared to be brave and walk away if the relationship isn’t working for you. Healthy and therefore long–term client/consultancy relationships work both ways for both parties. Make sure your business understands that.

Alison Clarke is principal of Alison Clarke Communications

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