Creating Effective and Lasting Partnerships by Being Human

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I always found the term “partnership” a tad – how shall I put it – trite. It evokes memories of all the exes I’ve wronged or those who have wronged me. But, that’s a whole other article.

Agencies are in the service business. One of us is a client and the other is a provider. And while we all strive for the “kumbaya moment,” where we stand on a stage in an embrace to accept an award, this type of relationship does not develop overnight.  Developing a good alliance first requires both parties to accept their individual roles.  And just like any partnership, this takes trust and good communication.

I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing companies and fantastic leaders across many disciplines.  Over the years I have found that there are always common themes at play, leading collaboration to success and effectiveness.

Be Human.

All partnerships have ups and downs. I’ve upset my clients and they have upset me. We still end up working together time and time again. You know the big secret? Treating people like people.

You know the big secret? Treating people like people.

I know, groundbreaking, right?

But there truly is no better way to get through a difficult moment in a client/agency relationship than just taking a step back, listening, apologizing if needed, and being respectful.

We’ve all been there.  A project can go off the rails for a variety of reasons and there are fingers to be pointed in every direction. The best way to combat this is to pick up the phone, lay out the facts, and come to the table with a few solutions.

One of the most productive conversations I’ve had in my career is when I called a client to say I was disheartened by the way things were going with our working relationship, specifically with constant reprioritization of our efforts and ever-changing deadlines . I gave my POV, asked for hers, and then asked what she thought about my suggestions. While the conversation was not easy, it let us focus on something more productive than ignoring the issues and waiting for the project to conclude.

This type of approach opens the door for honest and constructive communication, and ensures that someone will pick up the phone and call you again – and truthfully it’s these types of partners you want to work with in the future.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes.

 When I’m speaking with a new client, or a legacy partner, and they are looking for counsel, I always take a step back to ask myself “What else is going on here?”

Is it a new CMO looking to make a mark, or tread lightly in a high profile position? Does this person want to hire an agency because they are swamped and needs additional resources, or is this outside of their wheelhouse? What would I want if I were them when it comes to solving this problem?

This exercise is so simple, yet often the most impactful when it comes to client service. It allows you to go beyond simply answering a question by anticipating a client’s deeper needs.

A common theme I’ve noticed is the “selling it in” mentality that happens within organizations. A VP of Marketing is very excited about an initiative. I am too! But there is risk, and buy-in is required.  What better way to be a partner than to help do that job? A simple executive check-in with their boss every few weeks where you show work, address questions, and make your client look good goes a long way. Now you’re a team joined together and it never hurts to have this additional context on the business.

Know What You Suck At

I’m a huge optimist. I think everything is going to be positive and successful, and then, inevitably, reality strikes and my plans go south faster than I ever could have imagined.

How do I combat this? Firstly, I am upfront about my flaws. I think 90% of my conversations go as follows:  “This project sounds great and I’m sure we can do it in three weeks, but, I’m usually overly optimistic with these things so let me check in with the rest of the team to get a read.”

The important thing here is to identify where you fall down, and have your team build you up in those areas. Know where you need to listen, and bring others in for consult to balance you out. Your client will reap the benefit of collaboration, and you will learn a lot along the way.


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