In Agency-Client Relationships, What You Don’t Know Can Hurt

At most agencies, step one on the road to a successful campaign is the investment of time and effort to uncover and fully understand what consumers think, say and feel about the client’s brand. It's part of what we in the business call “understanding the customer experience.”

At Hallway Talk, we find it interesting, even ironic, that agencies do very little to understand the customer experience of their own consumers – their clients.

As a result, much of what agency clients are thinking, feeling and saying amongst themselves, in the hallway, goes unheard by the agency. It's no wonder that a recent report on Client/Agency relationships was titled, "From Mad Men to Sad Men: is the Client/Agency Relationship in Crisis?"  The report, commissioned by the IPA and prepared by Hall & Partners, is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding and improving Client/Agency dynamics. (link below)

Through our work we know when there is an agency commitment to truly understand what the client is thinking, feeling and saying, relationships can be saved and strengthened for a longer run. But it all starts with knowing the Truth – our word for the client’s perception of the agency.

The catch? Getting to the truth of what the client thinks is hard. Let me share four factors that put a stress on client-agency relationships.

Do the math: there are a lot of points of contact.
Think about how many people on the agency team, at all levels, communicate with the client. Now, count how many people are involved on the client side.  Multiply that by every interaction-- every hour, day, week, month. It equals a huge number of interactions – each a chance for miscommunication not only in in content but intent as well.

Why don’t they just speak up?
In our work, we find that clients hesitate to share their feelings – especially when it comes to the agency relationship. Believe it or not, it’s because they’re people too. We each have our own personal and professional burdens, communications styles, and perceptions.  We want to be liked and accepted. Face it, it’s tough to address relationship issues face-to-face with people you work with on a daily basis. We’ve also found that sometimes when clients do share concerns, the agency doesn’t take them seriously or act on them—so they stop speaking up.

“You don’t understand what I’m going through.”
When an agency acts and thinks as an extension of the client team and understands the complexity of the client's business, they can truly add value and foster a strong “we’re all in this together” relationship. Somewhat lost in today's agency world is the immersive culture that can foster the agency-client bond.  As was revealed in the IPA study, today clients often feel the agency doesn't understand, or care to understand, the complexities of their business and the demands of their position.  As a result, relationships can start to fracture. 

Fallen and can’t get up.
Anyone who has been in the agency world for long knows that the agency-client relationship can be a slippery slope.  Once the client is unhappy, it seems that little goes right.  In fact, it may seem that they are more likely to criticize and find fault with everything the agency does.  Stopping the slide is critical to maintain the agency-client relationship and requires serious commitment by the agency – starting with finding the truth of what’s on the client’s mind.

The solution:  Let the Truth be told
The client's perception of your business -- justified or not -- is their Truth.  It is critically important that agencies provide a feedback loop where clients can openly express their concerns and agency management can hear the unfiltered Truth.  In our work, at Hallway Talk, we find that a confidential third party is most effective at getting clients to provide insights about their experience with the agency -- things they don't share with the agency.

Think of it as your agency's research into your own client insights and customer experience.  Knowing your client's Truth and acting on it is a big step toward client satisfaction and longer-term retention.

Hallway Talk is a client-retention practice that helps agencies optimize their existing relationships with clients.  By uncovering the Truths that are spoken in the Hallway, they provide agencies business insights that allow them to improve relationships, reputation, grow the business and foster loyalty.  To learn more visit hallwaytalk.com or contact Dory Ford, dory@hallwaytalk.com

Link to "From Mad Men to Sad Men" report by Hall & Partners.