Tactics for the battle of keeping hold of clients

In the week that military action is expected against Iraq, Jim Surguy delivers some practical intelligence on trying to cope in an uncertain business climate

As I write, war seems imminent, stock markets are falling and business is increasingly ‘dog eat dog’. It’s depressing enough already, yet tough economic circumstances are all too often a reason for clients to change suppliers. How can designers avoid being given the heave-ho?

First of all, look for warning signs that clients’ thoughts are wandering – key people not as available as they were, invitations to lunches and internal workshops refused, decisions taking longer, invoice payment slowing, market feedback not given as freely or as spontaneously as before.

Moreover, is your advice still sought? Is there a lack of compromise? Does the relationship feel more formal, the body language and tone of voice less warm, but nothing is said? If you are experiencing these symptoms, you are wise to be worried.

When clients consider looking around, they are influenced by two kinds of factor – those outside your control and those within your control. The ones outside your control are usually client conflict, alignment or group issues, and key client management changes. I’m not going to comment on these because frequently there is nothing you can do about them. However, there are factors within your control that you can address.

The old adage trotted out at times like these is that business is won on creativity and lost on service. In many cases, this may be all too true, particularly if you have poor processes and unreliable delivery. But these days a lot of other factors come into play that may give clients grounds for looking around.

We all know that clients are downsized, time-starved and value hungry. Costs are becoming a key driver, so it’s no wonder they are focusing on stripping them out. Since financial transparency has become the norm, anything you can do to provide a value proposition has to be good news.

But it’s not just in the financial area that clients are expecting more and more. Ask yourself: are you challenging enough, are you interesting enough, is your offer sharp and relevant? In a media neutral world, do you understand the need to collaborate with clients’ other suppliers? Be honest: is your creativity, in the widest sense, at a high enough level, or does the client perhaps think that you have ‘lost it’? Are you still coming up with strategic insights and innovative thinking? It’s all part of the value equation. Or has familiarity bred content?

When clients are jittery, you have to be extra alert – and really on your mettle. In a longer-term relationship, take nothing for granted. Even successful consultancies have to keep selling and reselling themselves to clients. You have to merchandise your successes. Why not give an annual presentation of your current capabilities to current clients perhaps, combined with a competitive review of the client’s market?

At all costs, stay visible; stay salient. Never forget: your clients usually have two audiences. The consumers that your work is designed to reach – the external audience – and the client’s internal audience – his or her peers, colleagues and boss.

Discover what internal salesmanship is needed and go all out to provide support. Clients tend to require help in selling difficult and innovative work internally. This is just part of understanding your client and his or her realities. But, crucially, you have to understand the key person as an individual, not just professionally.

Successful relationships rely on chemistry and the continued enjoyment of working together.

A lot of concerns about client stability can be mitigated if you have an account business plan. If you don’t have a written business plan, is your top management really attaching enough priority to the management of long-term client relationships?

If matters have got as bad as having to ‘head off’ impending breakdowns in client relationships, you are going to have to pull out all the stops. Over and above ensuring you deliver a superb level of service that matches the brief, be proactive on your client’s behalf – and encourage every member of your team to do the same. Review how effective you think your account management team is. Have a checking mechanism, managed via your client services director, which allows you to use them better as the eyes and ears of the consultancy.

Externally conducted reviews with clients can be enormously helpful, as the reviewer carries no historical baggage. You are likely to gain significant insights into the level of satisfaction for the consultancy’s performance across a whole range of measurements.

At all costs, do address your worries. Insecurity is not a good mind-set for producing great, let alone mould-breaking, creative work.

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