Looking for long and happy relationships

What to do to stop your hard-won clients from straying from you? Jonathan Kirk grapples with the tricky matter of retaining loyalty

Never assume that your best clients are fully appreciative of your efforts and a safe bet for another year. In the current environment your lunch is never safe.

The biggest consultancies are pitching for UK business that would not have hit their radar a while ago, and at leaner fee levels. Meanwhile, start-ups are keen to undercut on price. There is also a lot of hungry new business activity around that can easily make an incumbent group look slightly tired and complacent. This demands a refocusing on clients to safeguard them against temptation. After all, in a project-based business there is little breathing space. You need to demonstrate your value continually.

So what makes clients look elsewhere? I conduct hundreds of client interviews on behalf of consultancies and there are three common triggers that persuade clients to stray.

First, they argue that ’our market is changing’. A new market entrant, the need to respond to particular trends, or changing consumer expectations demands a fresh perspective and a new approach. The incumbent group can be seen as having too much baggage and, therefore, is unable or unwilling to embrace a step change.

Counteracting this perception is about ongoing and open self-criticism. It is admirable when a consultancy is proud of its work and willing to fight its corner, but this can sometimes be perceived as defensiveness. Regular competitive reviews, analogies with other markets and joint consultancy/client project reviews help position you as the ones continually asking, ’How can we do even better?’

’Preening’ is also important. Don’t be shy about blowing your own trumpet to clients – news, wins, awards, newsletters, events – not as one-offs, but as part of a joined-up programme. Clients like to feel that their design group is dynamic, successful and ambitious. It also enables them to understand your full skill set and ability to cope with different challenges.

The ’wow factor’ may be an overworked cliché, but clients mention its presence, time and time again

Second, they claim the incumbent is not getting the ’nuts and bolts’ right. These are client-service and project-delivery issues, as opposed to quality of creative work. They are often small, niggling things that are not properly addressed and are allowed to fester. They then become larger issues and, ultimately, evidence that the agency is ’not listening’.

Typical examples include a lack of transparency on costs, lack of consistent communication, being overly stretched so small errors creep in, failing to be open about mistakes or not flagging up problems early enough.

Many clients are more concerned with process, administrative detail, budget considerations and a smooth-running project than we care to admit. We ignore this fact at our peril. I have found that clients have long memories for these types of error and, sadly, a much shorter memory for great creative work.

It is startling how many groups have never closely defined their approach to client service. What are your guiding principles, promises and guarantees to clients? What are your internal systems that support this? Good client service relies upon a structured and systematic approach, not just upon individual strengths. It’s about how we manage ourselves, not just the client.

Third, they say ’they don’t challenge us’. The consultancy has become too reactive. They answer the brief and deliver the project, but are they adding value to the client’s business? They have become more ’brief-taker’ than consultancy.

The ’willing dog’ approach to the consultancy/ client relationship will always have limitations. More than ever before, clients want knowledge and insight, over and above mere responsiveness. Clients know that you have insight from other brands and markets, but frequently complain that their design group fails to share it. Packaging this knowledge, rather than letting it lie dormant, is time well spent.

The ’wow factor’ may be an overworked cliché, but clients mention its presence, or lack of it, time and time again. What they really mean is creativity that pushes the parameters, surprises, delights and opens up an avenue they never thought possible. Most importantly, it is set within a convincing business rationale that the marketing director could confidently present to the chief executive without you being there.

Of course, being ’challenging’ can sometimes be taken too far. Consultancies can cause needless friction by fighting unwinnable battles, due to the particular nature of the client’s organisation, politics and culture. Most design groups talk about really understanding the brand and market, but for the client an understanding of the organisation behind the brand can be just as important.

Finally, occasionally we just have to accept that, for whatever reason, a client relationship is ending. This is not being defeatist, just realistic. There are times when the effort and money spent to re-pitch, in an attempt to resurrect an already terminal relationship, would be better diverted elsewhere. After all, we only rent clients. We never own them.

Jonathan Kirk is director of Up to the Light

Do:

  • Be more openly self-critical
  • Be seen to continually ask, ’How can we do even better?’
  • ’Preen’ to show dynamism and full skill set
  • Closely define your approach to client service
  • Package and share your knowledge from other markets
  • Understand the culture of the client’s organisation

Don’t:

  • Let pride in your work be mistaken for defensiveness
  • Let yourselves slide into a reactive ’brief-takers’ position
  • Choose unwinnable battles and cause unnecessary friction
  • Let optimism triumph over common sense and re-pitch when the relationship is all but over

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