How does your client really see you?

Go on, be honest. Put yourself in their shoes. How does your client really see you? Client-agency relationships can be fragile.  Having worked with 120 different agencies from network agencies to independents, from advertising to research, from digital to design, from PR to media, too often I see relationships that are more ‘supplier’ than ‘partnership’.  Most agency people are optimists and that optimism can sometimes be misguided when thinking about the quality of the relationship with their clients.


The type of relationship agencies have with their clients varies dramatically.  From client servant to client partner or trusted adviser.  Working with so many agencies I see both ends of the relationship spectrum and I know which is more profitable, enjoyable and productive.  It is common to think you are a trusted adviser when in reality the client sees you simply as a supplier to do their bidding.  No more, no less.


Are you seen as a client servant ‘doing the do’, or as a client partner or trusted adviser to your client? Most of us like to think we are the latter – a trusted adviser. This is one of the biggest areas I am consulting my agency clients on at the moment. How I can help them move up the food-chain, stay up the food-chain and be part of their client’s inner circle of advisers? It’s easy to delude ourselves. Typically we tend to see ourselves as more important to the client than they think! Agencies may think they have a trusted partner relationship when in reality the client sees you as a supplier.  Yes the client smiles sweetly when they see you but really you can be deluded in how they see you.  Procurement calls it ‘supplier delusion’.


What is the difference between the two, client servant or client partner?  How do you build a trusted adviser relationship?  Can you turn a supplier relationship into a partnership?


My definition is that a client servant or supplier does as they are told, their implementation is bought by the hour and typically the relationships are passed down to junior staff at the client.  The work is mainly tactical, reactive, prescriptive and seen as easily replaceable because you’re viewed as a commodity.


Yes, you can earn revenue in this role but how profitable it is remains to be seen.  You may find the client’s procurement department prevents you from increasing your prices or rates year on year.  With inflation currently running at 3% this can quickly haemorrhage your profitability.  Just because you’ve had a client for 5 years does not guarantee you’ll have that client for another 5 years.  If anything it can make it even more likely you’ll lose the business when a new senior client joins and they either see you as complacent, want to shake things up or want to put in place ‘their people’ or worst of all, all three!


When you are seen as a real client partner you have access to senior decision makers and in many cases the Csuite. To maintain this type of relationship requires effort to avoid sliding into the ‘do’ role and away from regular contact with those senior decision makers. The Thriver agencies we interviewed sought the right client relationships which then makes it easier to sell value rather than simply selling time. “Great clients breed great work and attract other repeat clients” said one Thriver agency head. Some of the Thriver agencies would even resign otherwise profitable clients that didn’t deliver the right relationship for the agency. With the right relationship it’s easier to then challenge the senior client, have a point of view, work collaboratively and surprise, surprise, charge premium prices and increase fees!


One Thriver agency head said to us “Don’t let your people behave like air-stewards” (this agency head felt some of their people in the past were ‘yes people’ and simply did their clients’ bidding.) They then moved the agency to focus on peer to peer strategic conversations and real business impact for the clients. Then their business took off. We expect this is a common challenge for many struggling Survivor agencies.


How do we ensure we are seen as a Trusted Adviser?  It’s a combination of a range of different ‘ingredients’.  Those ingredients can include our focus is on the client’s agenda, specifically their strategic imperatives, adding value to their mission critical areas, being proactive, seeing problems and opportunities before the client does, able to have real business conversations with the client.  If you want to take this up to a higher level it will probably involve you thinking bigger, bolder and braver.  Being prepared to challenge and question your client as an equal, using insights to make the client stop and think.

Trust is a special element which is an absolute must-have.  Everything else can be in place but without trust ‘business’ is highly unlikely to proceed.  As far as I’m concerned, ‘No trust, no sale’. Within our Trusted Adviser workshop we look specifically at how to develop the right ‘ingredients’ for the best client-agency relationship.


Expertise is important and can be demonstrated in a variety of ways.  By sharing insights, by insightful questions and showing thought leadership.


Survivor agencies can be in danger of settling for less senior client contacts. It’s not easy pushing to deal with senior clients. Access can be difficult with gatekeepers barring the way.  Senior clients’ time is precious which is why conversations with senior decision makers need to be strategic, focused, impactful and insightful.


Thriver agencies identified their key priority clients to focus on and actively identified which clients NOT to focus on. Too often Survivor agencies focus on each client equally and often have a long tail of poorer quality, lower spending clients.


One Thriver agency said ‘Celebrate your long term client relationships (not just new client wins which is the natural thing to celebrate amongst most agencies)’ I love the idea of recognising the achievement of an agency retaining a client for 5, 10 even 20 years.


So how do you find the time to do all this ‘stuff’? If you’re ‘busy being busy’ it’s hard to find the time to be able to have the right client relationships. It’s so easy being bogged down in the swamp where it’s then really hard to add real value to the client’s business. let me leave you with one final thought.


Thrivers work WITH their clients, not FOR their clients.

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