Rediscovering The Dying Art of Client Service

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There’s a perfect moment in TV series Mad Men when Roger Sterling lets his less experienced colleague Lane Pryce in on some advice about meeting a new client over dinner; “You just let them talk. Somewhere in the middle of the entree, they’ll throw out something revealing, and you want to wait until the dessert to pounce on it. Let him know you’ve got the same problem he has, whatever it is. Then you’re in a conspiracy – the basis of a ‘friendship.’”

Old-school client servicing at its best was never about the copious amounts of alcohol that oiled the relationship. It was about what this Mad Men scene highlighted – the ability to put yourself in the client’s shoes, to be given the time to truly empathize with his or her problems and priorities. There is no shortcut to getting these kinds of insights, and how you respond to them highlights the value of an outside agency. Ultimately, they represent the golden ticket to business success for the client and a long-term partnership for the successful agency.

The problem for a lot of agency-client relationships in 2020 is that they have been reduced to the transactional. Many agencies have stripped back their client service function to the bare minimum, believing that project managers can be a sufficient liaison with clients. But all this has done is result in a commodification of agency services.

Meanwhile (or perhaps as a result), clients have been steadily pulling work back into in-house marketing teams and ‘agencies’. But costs haven’t been the only thing to be cut. Brand teams are now starting to understand that in-house units often can’t access the same degree of creativity that agency staff can or the discipline of the process that the agency model provides.

I believe that a return to the best of traditional client servicing could help solve this impasse. Clients would return to feeling that their business needs are met, while agencies would find a route to sustainable profitability.

So, what are the essential characteristics and objectives of a great client services manager? If we are to focus on building this function back up within agencies, we need to understand the essential elements of what they bring to the table.

  • It’s all about empathy: Good client services people are sensitive to others. They are naturally curious and ask intelligent questions to get to the heart of the client’s issues. But most crucially, as the Mad Men scene illustrates, they are great listeners. All these qualities help them understand how the agency can best address the clients’ needs – over the long term.
  • Natural diplomats: Client service people are able to smooth over agency challenges and re-direct energy when things are getting to the sharp end of delivery. Like civil service diplomats, they have a unique two-way role. Within the agency they represent the interests of the client, pushing for progress on creative work, overseeing quality control on work, emphasizing the right team casting and communicating to management the need for new skills and services. Conversely, when they are with clients, they are representing the agency – defending strategic creative directions that go beyond the brief, building a common language and alignment between frustrated Creative Directors and marketeers, mitigating risks in poor delivery and ensuring deadlines can flex to allow agency teams to create the best work, not just on-time work.
  • Beyond the deliverables: The goal of the client services leader is to grow the total value of the business over the longer term, whereas project managers might be too focused on the finite deliverables in a contract. Client services managers are looking beyond the immediate priorities, always with one eye on how the agency can aid the client in the future, which can only happen through regular conversations with the client about more than just this week’s deliverables.
  • Big-picture thinking: Client services are often the only team in an agency that regularly interacts across all disciplines and actively recommends new services to clients. It’s another aspect of truly representing the client – being able to keep them always in mind while in conversations with agency colleagues.

Like any human connection, great agency-client relationships are about far more than just the tangible results of the union. I would argue that the current disconnect between both parties is because clients have lost an on-going sense that agencies really understand them. Agencies have focused more on projects, often because clients have taken the locus of planning back in-house and only offered discrete short-term creative work to agencies.

What we now need is for both agencies and clients to start to realize the value of long-term committed relationships. An upscaling of agencies’ client services function is a great place to begin this process.

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