Unhappily married couples often try to hide their marital issues from their children. They believe that if they spend lots of time together, or don’t argue in front of the kids, they will never know the marriage is troubled. If you talk to their children, most will say the secret was out. Some heard their parents fighting behind closed doors. Others noticed their parents only spoke to and through the kids and not each other.
Agencies believe this, too. They think if they try to maintain appearances, that clients will not detect any issues, with people or processes that everyone at the agency knows are a problem. Talk to clients and the secret is out. They know whatever we know.
The A-hole: I worked with a strategist who was very smart but lacked people skills. Everyone at the agency avoided working with him. Somehow, we thought clients would feel differently, or that he would be on better behavior. He was not. He was short with clients and argumentative. He was insulting if the client did not agree with or understand his point of view. He didn’t have the emotional intelligence to acknowledge the client’s thinking and effectively present his point of view or make an effort to incorporate the clients’ perspective. Before long, the client indicated this person was no longer welcome on the business.
Warring Agencies: Agencies are often asked to collaborate with other agencies who manage various aspects of the clients’ business. These partnerships can create tension as the agencies compete for resources and attention. Everybody acts like they’re playing nice in the sandbox, but the stress or animosity is often communicated with clients in other ways. We roll our eyes when members of the other agency speak or give knowing looks to our colleagues. We say things like, “Our team prepared our recommendation last week. We are waiting on input from the other team, before sharing with you.” Despite our efforts, we end up short-handing to the client that we can’t work with others on their behalf.
Inefficient processes: Some agencies have processes and procedures that seem to create friction or delay at every turn. Getting a budget to a client for a routine project takes days. Making a small type change can cost thousands. Ask anyone at the agency, and they will say it is impossible to get things done. It’s no surprise that their clients say the same thing—it feels difficult to work with the agency.
Disappearing Staff: Agencies sometimes pull senior staff for new business or to help with peak activity on other accounts, often “juniorizing” with less experienced staff. We include the original team members in the occasional client call or meeting to reinforce their involvement on the business. If the client calls to speak with them, we remind them that there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes and that the person they are asking about is busy taking care of their business. I had an account person who was fully dedicated to a client ask me if he could work on a pitch to give him some variety. The pitch was in one week. I thought the change would be positive, and given the timing, go unnoticed. By the end of that week, the client was calling me and asking about the account person’s whereabouts. They questioned if he was full-time on their business and why he was not attending meetings or calls. They noticed, and fast.
There are no secrets. The client always knows. Clients know when agency people or processes are problematic. They know when staff are not involved in their business or when we are not working well with others.
The truth is that whatever happens inside the agency communicates itself beyond the agency. We can’t avoid it. But what we can do is make sure that we are honest with ourselves about issues and address them quickly so that what is happening inside the agency transmits positive signals to the client.
Stacey Singer is a Client Retention and Growth Specialist. Stacey is available to speak on Behaviors that Fray Client Relationships and How to Avoid Them. You can reach her at (908) 313-6539 or firstname.lastname@example.org.