Paul Arden said, ‘Do not seek praise. Seek criticism.’ I interview hundreds of clients on behalf of consultancies and they are a great way of impartially monitoring the health of client relationships, spotting problems early, gauging perceptions of strengths/weaknesses and helping to identify client development opportunities. Criticism can be painful but ‘from the horse’s mouth’ evidence is always useful in business.
‘If you could give the agency one piece of advice, what would it be?’ is a question that elicits rich responses. I certainly can’t recall many replies along the lines of, ‘Don’t change anything.’ I’ve been collating the different answers to this question. Needless to say, they are all confidential and relate to particular circumstances but it’s still possible to group answers under three umbrella headings.
Firstly, ‘Listen harder.’ Clients continually remind me that good listening is not just about collecting data. Good listening earns you the right to be right. To put it another way, clients don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Problems are often caused when the consultancy is so intent upon their solution winning the day that they seem deaf to the client’s view. There is a fine line between pride in a creative concept, and being perceived as stubborn or blinkered. Listening, and being seen to listen, is a far better way of achieving the right objective.
Secondly, ‘Be more proactive.’ This can be proactivity within the project: better communication, honesty about problems, flagging up budget issues earlier, seeing a problem from another perspective, being more self-critical. Then there is proactivity about the broader client business: sharing knowledge, staying close to clients during quiet periods, added value ideas.
Additionally, clients frequently want their consultancy to be more proactive about merchandising success and explaining their full skill set. Interestingly, a higher agency profile at a senior client level can be beneficial for the client, not just for the consultancy. As one marketing director said, ‘If an agency has the confidence of the Board, it makes all our jobs easier.’
Thirdly, ‘Be braver.’ Experienced consultancies can become creatively restrained. They know what designs will or won’t work in the real world, so then tend not to push the boundaries. However, on most large projects clients are looking for at least one option that demonstrates ‘unhindered creativity.’ More clients are saying, ‘Don’t just tell me what they think I want to hear.’ This may reflect the fact that it’s a buyer’s market and easy for consultancies to fall into a ‘yes, yes’ position, too eager to please. A typical client comment is, ‘I want the consultancy to lead meetings, challenge me, tell me a better way of doing something, we’re paying for expert advice.’
‘Listen harder, be more proactive, be braver’ are core ingredients of effective client/consultancy partnerships. Speaking of which, another question I’ve asked hundreds of clients is, ‘Do you consider the consultancy to be a partner or a supplier?’ Whilst 67% answer ‘partner’, a sizeable 33% still consider their consultancy to be a ‘supplier.’ Food for thought, I think.
Jonathan Kirk is founder of Up to the Light.