Why you still need to communicate with clients the old fashioned way

DewGibbons + Partners managing director Steve Gibbons thinks that in the age of communication designers can do more to communicate with them face-to-face.

Business people having lunch, toasting with red wine, Canon 1Ds mark III

It’s a connected world where agencies and clients communicate with each other in myriad ways, but it feels like external influences are pushing us apart, not pulling us together. Are agency/client relationships quietly breaking down because of this?

There are at least three things at play. None are undesirable in themselves, but cumulatively they’re eroding the strong personal bonds from which great work grows.

We don’t go to lunch anymore

When I first became a partner in a design company, I was allocated an annual schmoozing budget that absolutely had to be spent. Fast forward 25 years and client lunches have all but disappeared, let alone dinner and a club afterwards.

A recent survey by Bupa* found only 29% of UK workers take any form of lunch break, and it’s probably even less in the States. In that context, two hours out of the office in the middle of the day looks like time-wasting frivolity. Anti-bribery legislation doesn’t help either. Chewing through company policy on accepting lunch from a supplier is positively indigestion inducing!

Agenda-driven meetings often lack colour and nuance, and fail to get to the underlying issues that drive how people and businesses behave. What’s not said is as important as what is. An organic conversation over lunch reveals more. It engenders trust. And it’s natural instinct to want to do more for someone you trust.

Research** by scientists from the University of Illinois found that exclusively focusing on a problem at hand, as we tend to do in formal business meetings, often blinds people to novel possibilities. When participants in the study drank alcohol moderately, they achieved the flexible state of attention needed for creative solutions to emerge.

I’m not advocating a return to the three Martini lunch of yesteryear (if just for the sake of my liver), but a state of relaxation is missing from many agency/client interactions. The work itself suffers when both sides forsake strong personal relationships in the drive for business efficiency.

Oceans apart

25 years ago almost all of my clients were in London. Now 75% of our clients are overseas. That’s great and reflects the global reach of the UK design industry. But when we first started working internationally, travel budgets were set aside to allow face-to-face meetings throughout projects. Increasingly, we carve out travel budget from what would have been solely the design fee. It’s almost a given that the relationship and work should be carried out remotely.

We don’t pick up the phone any more

Before there was email, we often wrote letters. If the message was really urgent we’d fax the letter. But mostly we’d just pick up the phone and talk. Now I sense an increasing aversion towards speaking on the phone with each other. Emails serve a purpose, but they’re not dynamic. Real dialogue is interactive – it evolves, responds, and goes off on tangents.

It’s good to talk…

It’s not just about lunch, location, or telephone calls – it’s about the possibilities that emerge through truly meaningful communication. Even, perhaps especially, conversations that might not be directly related to the topic at hand. Just as creativity requires a degree of disconnect to allow the subconscious time to work, so do conversations.

The net needs to be cast wide to reveal where the issues – and the solutions – really lie. Briefs are at the heart of what we do, so they should never be a one-off meeting, phone call, or just a (digital) piece of paper. They’re a process of discovery through dialogue. And increasingly that’s missing.

We’ve all got to get back to a more relaxed approach to agency/client interactions. Meeting in person isn’t an extra, it’s an essential. At the very least, we’ve got to stop our reliance on emails and pick up the phone.

I’d love to know if you agree. Give me a call on 020 7689 8999.

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