I have been thinking lately about our industry's evergreen focus on the most typical ways agencies can find themselves suddenly out in the cold. The usual crimes are the most blatant:
- Falling short of objectives and goals
- Failing to deliver the "Big Idea"
- Inaccurate or sloppy reporting
- Inability to grasp a client's business or marketplace
- Making a client look incapable or ridiculous for hiring you, internally
- Inept client service or erratic support on the day-to-day
This is outright bad stuff. But, while collaborating with agency client services teams during the past quarter, I've been mulling quieter, gentler crimes. Not that those agencies are guilty of any sins. But I've realized that even within the most professional, capable client services situation, things can still go off the tracks -- passively.
Is it possible to bore your clients right out the door? The answer is yes. In these highly accountable times, no matter how buttoned-up you are, falling down on a
certain je ne sais quoi can have a deadly effect. And other kindred failings can have irreparable cumulative impact.
Boring Your Clients. You say all the right things. You get their business; you've been there and done that. Your ideas are sound and your execution is flawless. The team is pro-active, dutiful and by the book. Your work fulfills on the original promise of the engagement day in and day out, to the T.
But, nothing more. You don't exude conviction or break a sweat over ideas that excite you. You don't provoke anyone, not even your team, to think beyond standard ideas or break into new territory. You cringe at controversy. The problem is, over time, no matter how passionate your client is -- if she doesn't see a spark in your eye and an occasional swerve in your step, you may not be connecting in a sustainable way. Rote, bookish performance is replaceable. Live imagination paired with aptitude -- less so.
Channel Myopism: Whether your roots are traditional, or you are a digital wunderkind, you stay in your area of comfort, never engaging the client and the team in cross-channel potential. Taking pride in knowing a lone channel like the back of your hand, you expect this concentrated expertise to speak for itself. The problem is, this bias may blind you to a client's broader curiosity and a program's bigger picture. If you're truly blind to this issue, you'll also fail to notice a client's venturing elsewhere to fulfill cross-channel needs -- or holding back from giving you greater access.
Mistaking Socializing for a Relationship: Long lunches, dinner, drinks, box seats, baby gifts and the occasional "What's UP, man?!" on a client call -- do these things count? If so, how much? Debatable.
Most of us understand that leading a client relationship means numerous things. Today, there's no longer room for the version of client services that is nothing more than order-taking and mechanical account management. Strategic stewardship is now key. Then, there's client business and marketplace knowledge; account and program orchestration; ongoing business development; and a certain social factor. It's not one, but all of these things.
But, behold, there is the agency or client services organization that mistakes a client's enthusiasm about socializing for a relationship -- and thus, for stability. A great lunch says no more about how the relationship is going than saying "good job" does about performance, on any deep level.
There is an art to giving the social stuff its place in the relationship. But unless we develop business rapport and a real sense of what it takes to deliver for one another -- no matter how much bread is broken and inside jokes bandied about, we are just not tuned to the relationship. And, in so many ways, tuning is key.
While there are many concrete ways to explicitly fail a client, passive crimes, in aggregate, can do just as much damage. Perhaps even more important: Actively exploring mastery of these intangibles is what brings you to the soul of the engagement. And, while steady delivery and an able hand can aid an agency's business growth, it's that glimpse of the soul that makes client services, for some of the best in the business, their life's work.