Saturday, December 10, 2011

Culture Eats Client Relationships for Lunch

One of my favorite business expressions is, “culture eats strategy for lunch.” The meaning here is, of course, that the power of an organization’s culture can block or foster strategy implementation. The statement connotes a visceral image, with culture chomping down on strategy and by doing do saying, “no way buddy, you don’t have a chance without me."
So it goes for client relationships. Adapting to a client’s culture is absolutely essential for success. Not prayer in the world will help if an agency or firm doesn’t understand the client’s culture and morph how they work to fit those dynamics. If you want to retain and grow client relationships, you must truly understand what the client values and the behaviors that result from those beliefs.

I can hear it now, “but we have a process and unless it's followed the results won’t happen, the creative will be lousy and the implementation won’t work.” Wrong. You can change and you must.

Here’s a quick story. During interviews for a client evaluation I heard that my client, the marketing agency, followed an elaborate and formal process for brand strategy and web development work. Not a bad process but one that had many steps and required many meetings. The client’s culture though was fast paced, “get it done by yesterday” and had little tolerance for lengthy deliberations. The ultimate product delivered was good but the manner of delivery was not. Turns out the agency won’t be doing much more work in the future.

What can be done? First, before you barge into a project, assess the client’s organization and culture. Ask the right questions. Find out, what do they believe? How do they work and communicate? Then look at your processes and people and decide what needs to change to ensure success. You don’t have to throw out the way you work, but you might make a few shortcuts or communicate in a way that will be received best.

Culture is powerful stuff. Best to respect and use it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Where Are The Court Jesters?

We may look condescendingly back at the organizations of Middle Ages regarding things like efficiency and effectiveness, and the other desired traits of businesses today. Yet, the royal courts and their leaders  had one asset modern bureaucracies lack: the court jester.

Think of having a trusted lieutenant whose fun to be around, smart, critical, supportive, political (in a good way) and entertaining.  Like  a mash up of Robin Roberts, David Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld and Madonna at your beckon call.

While jesters entertained by joking, juggling, singing and dancing, they also made sure an outsider’s view was heard.  They knew what mattered on the street. Jesters courageously assessed and criticized leaders' behavior, offered contrarian views and kept egos in check.  They spoke truth to power.

As an insider with an outsider’s senses, Jesters created a balance of thought and action in what were highly authoritarian and fractured organizations.  They were change agents but not revolutionaries. They kept rulers in check for the benefit of ruled.

What company executive wouldn’t benefit from a court jester at her board meeting?  What about a few jesters dancing in the halls of US Capitol? Juggling at the White House? Singing in Brussels?

Where are the court jesters now that we need them?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Use Fresh Eyes To Assess Your Client

In the past several posts I’ve shared some tools to help assess your clients’ organizations. These allow you to expand your knowledge of the clients’ 3P’s  - Principles, People and Processes - and adjust what and how you deliver. This results in increased client retention, improved relationships and enhanced performance.

The Observational Survey is another tool in that will help you gather critical information.  This approach relies on your senses to develop valuable insights from the client’s environment.

Think about the first time you enter the client’s offices. What do you see, hear and feel? What ‘s on the walls? How are people talking to one another?  What does your client’s workspace look like? How are you treated?

Armed with this information you can make some judgments about the client’s 3P’s, the Principles, People and Processes, and make sure your work – whether it’s delivering a proposal or presenting a design concept – fits with how the client operates.

So, what to look for?

  • What is on the walls?  Is the client trying to tell its story?  
  • Are they creating a stimulating workplace?
  • Where do people work? Are there private offices? Collaborative spaces for people to gather?
  • How are you greeted when you arrived?  Did you feel welcome or in the way?
  • What did your client’s workspace look like? Well organized or messy? Filled with trinkets or pictures of family.
  • How are people’s dressed? Jeans or suits? All the same or diverse?
  • What about forms and other documents you receive from the client?  Are they clear or confusing? Do they communicate the brand?
  • How are meetings run? On time? Open or dominated by certain individuals. 

Based on what you observe, you can make some judgments that will impact your work. For example,

  • A work environment with few private offices and many collaborative spaces suggests that you’re dealing with flatter organization where power and decision-making is dispersed. This requires good relationships with all those who have a vote or influence.  Also you should develop and present your ideas in a way that addresses a wider audience.
  • A client’s no frills building with very little on the walls and sparse common areas is a clue that this organization is all about the bottom line. This could mean a cultural emphasis on efficiency and process.  In that case, keep presentations minimal and avoid creative that could be perceived as flashy or unnecessary.
  • An office that’s filled with doodads, mementos and other fun decorations could mean your client appreciates a more casual approach and likes to spend some time talking about the weekend’s parties before you get down to business.

The next time you visit the client’s office look around with fresh eyes. Jot a few notes about what you see and feel. Think about what the environment is telling you and how that impacts your work. What do you need to change or reinforce?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Know The Process - Know The Client

The better we know the client's organization, the more successful marketing and design firms can serve them, including better client relationships and increased client retention. Some integral parts of the client's organization, or any organization, are the methods and tools it uses for getting things done. These are processes. 

Now "process" is a dirty word for some, since it can smell of rigidity, formalism and the like. But whether you want to accept it or not, all work consists of processes and they can be elegantly designed or left to develop on their own (usually a problem with the latter). The idea here is that if that firms can understand some of  the clients' key processes, ones for which they serve as suppliers and/or customers, they will ultimately achieve better results.

Processes can be best understood by dividing them into five components: suppliers, inputs, the process flow, outputs and customers, as shown in the diagram below. Let's see how looking the client's process that governs how an agency gets hired, for example, might help.

The suppliers and inputs to this process follow: the marketing department who provides the requirements and a list of agencies to be considered;  agencies who deliver information about themselves and the project, which could be in the form of an RFI or RFP response; the procurement department who creates standards or language that become an RFP document. The finance folks who probably calculate a budget. And senior executives who provide the go ahead decision and expectations about firms and desired results.

The process section is really about the flow of activity, step by step actions taken by those involved in the hiring the  agency or design firm.

The outputs are those things produced by the process and received by the customers. In this case, the hired agency is a customer who receives the contract as an output. The rejected firms also receive something, in this case a rejection letter and maybe feedback on why they didn't win. The marketing department is a customer who receives the go ahead for the project and a firm to work with. 

So why does this matter? What if and agencies or design firms could know about what was important to procurement or the executive group who are suppling inputs to the process? Would it be valuable to know the budget for the project and where it ranks in priority to others? And wouldn't it be helpful to know the actual steps and decision points in the process flow itself?

The answer, of course, is yes to all these points and it takes a smart firm with good investigative skills to map and analyze this information so it can deliver better products and build better client relationships.

So, knowing a client's processes helps firms to understand their clients better, which ultimately leads to better performance, higher client retention and better client relationships.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Who Has Power? A Tool to Assess Client Organizations.

In a previous post I discussed the importance of assessing a client’s organization, specifically its 3P’s – Principles, People and Processes.  Some of this information comes through regular interactions, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. It takes more intentional efforts to dig deeper and uncover what really makes an organization tick. This will help improve client retention and build stronger client relationships with the right people.

The Relationship Diagram
In addition to the client interview, which I described in my last post, I want to share a different tool that focuses mostly on the “People P.” The Relationship Diagram helps identify key influencers, those with the real power to make things happen, or not. It’s similar to the diagrams a smart detective will draw to figure out relationships and power in the Mafia organization. 

How to Build It
First, identify the issue at hand like, “which clients do we need to influence to make this project a success." Then list the key players on a sheet everyone can see. Start with your client and ask, "does my client influence X or does X influence my client?"  Depending on the strength of the influence, draw a solid or dashed line in the direction of the influence. Now, we know that influence goes both ways and if it’s equal between the parties, then draw two solid lines going in opposite directions. But be careful here, that should be an exception rather than a rule. Someone usually has more influence in a relationship.

Complete the diagram by going around to all the individuals and asking that same question. You’ll end up with something like you see above (simplified here for explanation purposes):

Influencer Analysis
When complete, stand back and ask, who has the most arrows going out? These are the big influencers in the organization for your particular project. In the example here, Sara, the CFO, has more arrows going out than anyone else and therefore has significant influence. Then the question is, do we have a relationship with her? If not, who will develop one and how do we build it?  What’s her profile? What does she care about?

Bottleneck Analysis
Then, look at who has most arrows going in. These folks are key because they represent a decision junction, which are often bottlenecks. It’s critical to know these people as well. In the case shown here, Paul, the CMO, has more inward arrows than anyone else. Better make sure he is on board with whatever you are trying to achieve.

The Relationship Diagram helps identify key influencers and relationships that are important for project success. It should be a working document since more information about clients may change the direction of an arrow or add a new player to the mix. It’s also a very helpful tool to orient new team members on a project.

Try it out! This is more art than science and practice will make it, maybe not perfect, but better pictures of your client's organization.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tools for Understanding the Client’s Organization: The Client Interview

In my previous post I discussed the importance of understanding your client’s organization, specifically its 3P’s – principles, people and processes.  Some of this information comes just from interacting with the client both during pursuit and project work. Much of it lies deeper though, and unless you are intentional about finding it, problems with client retention and relationships can result.

One great tool for uncovering information about the 3P’s is a client interview. This is a face-to-face meeting, preferably not connected to the status of a specific project. Rather it should be set up as, “if you have a few minutes, I’d like spend some time learning more about your organization and how things work there. This will help us meet your needs better.” Making it casual, over lunch or dinner for example, is a great idea.

Below are sample questions that should reveal critical information about the 3P’s. It’s important to probe on those questions that are most important.  For example, after an initial response, you could ask, “Tell me more about that,” or “what did you mean about that?”
  • What do you like most about working here? (principles, people, process)
  • What do you like least? (principles, people, process)
  • If there was one thing that could be improved here, what would that be? (principles, people, process)
  • How do you get recognized, move up here? (people)
  • What are key challenges facing your company? (principles, people, process)
  • What is most important to the leaders? (principles, people)
  • How do decisions get made? (people, process)
  • If your company was a person, how would describe its personality? (principles, people)
  • How do things get done around here: budgeting, purchasing, product development, etc. (process)
You get the idea. I’m sure there are more you can fashion depending on the situation.

An important aspect of the interview is how to share the information you just collected. Make sure to write up notes quickly after the meeting. Then share at the next team meeting. File where other project and client information is kept for future reference and for new team members.

More tools to come!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Know the Client - Know the Organization

Has a client ever said to you, "great proposal, this is what I want," only to learn later that your client wasn't making the decision? (And whoever was, you had no contact.) Result?  We know.

How could we not know the way decisions get made?

Unfortunately, it happens all the time. Because decision making, like all organizational functions, integrates three foundational areas that we rarely get a good handle on: an organization's principles, people and processes. So we end up making assumptions,  developing solutions and delivering presentations that miss the mark.

We can do better. A system exits to assess the organization's 3P's - the principles, people and processes - and use that information to improve performance.

Consider these actions:
  • Understand the Organization's Principles: These are the guiding ideas and values that impact the organization. Some are stated, like "collaboration" might be in a mission statement; others may not be, like "risk-taking" or "fiscal conservatism." Some are positive and some not, but all drive organization culture. Knowing these principles and how they impact organizational behavior will improve solution development and client relationships.
  • Assess the Organization's People: This may seem obvious but the importance of the human dynamic cannot be overstated. Sure, we get to know our clients kids' names, but are we aware of the web of relationships that affect our client? Can we be sure who really has power? Who are the "informal" leaders. Do we know who likes whom, who likes to work together?  Who has the knowledge, the history? 
  • Know the Organization's Processes: To know how an organization operates, the totality of all its processes, is a daunting task. But there are some key processes that we should be very familiar with. Decision making is a big hairy one.  Purchasing is obvious, but how about career development? Knowing what your client needs to do to advance her career might be very helpful information. Planning, budgeting, technology implementation, customer feedback, sales - all critical processes to know. 
Armed with this information, we can design productive and fun client interactions. We can deliver better services and products. We can reduce errors and time to cover mistakes. Improve client retention. Make more money.

So, how do you access and apply this information? You know a bunch already.  Stay post will serve up some tools all can use.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Four Steps To Improve Client Relationships and Interactions

In the Diving Journal's last post I explored the components of client interactions,  the building blocks of a client relationship. Below is a method that can help improve client relationships and their interactions in a systematic way.

It's called the Client Relationship Improvement Process (CRIP) and serves as a four-step cycle focused on improving interactions and their component parts. 
The goal: increase client retention and grow revenue.

  • What is the context of the client relationship? Assess the organizational culture, structure, decision-making processes, internal relationships, etc.
  • What are the client’s desires, expectations, needs and skills (both stated and unstated) related to interactions? What is the client’s readiness to engage in the interaction? Ask, listen and observe. Focus on the message, medium and style.
  • Define which interactions to improve. Prioritize based on impact of change and ease of implementation.
  • Design and deliver the best interactions for the client and situation, based on the assessment.
  • Evaluate the interactions by capturing feedback about performance and value.
  • Determine what’s worked and what hasn’t.
  • Document, share, practice those interactions that work best.
  • Prepare to cycle through again.

The CRIP focuses on improving  interactions, those "hows" of a of client relationship that are too often ignored or, at best, dealt with on a crisis basis. With a little practice, account and project leaders can learn to lead clients, not just react to them.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Bumper Car World of Client Relationships

Most approaches to improving client relationships are like bumper car rides: you scream, hit and move on. I believe there is a better way.

But first, what is a client relationship? It’s really the sum of all interactions (physical, verbal, virtual) between a firm/agency and a client. Interactions include a purpose or “what” is to be accomplished, like approval of a design concept. They also consist of the manner or “how” the interaction occurs, like showing a video of a concept at a meeting. The ultimate purpose of an interaction is for two parties to get something done.

Client relationships and their interactions are valued and measured on both the “what” and the “how.” Unfortunately, most clients and their agencies/firms pay a lot of attention to the “what” and not to the “how.” Failing at either gets you fired.

What’s in the “how?” It’s all the interactions with a client, each comprised of a message, medium and style. The message includes the ideas and concepts about the actual thing or product, like a design or a plan. Medium is about the vehicle used to deliver a message, like email or an in-person conversation. Style refers to the manner or way you deliver the message:  the appearance, emotion, volume and frequency. 

In the end, you have an interaction formula that looks like this: 


Creating better client relationships is about working this formula and focusing on the messages, mediums and styles in interactions. 

My next post will explain a simple method for improving these interactions. Stay tuned by signing up for Diving Journal email updates above.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

It's True! Design Does Matter...for Everyone.

Note: this post has little to do with client retention or client relationships but has a lot to do with leadership: creating conditions for creativity to blossom so people's lives improve. Something every client, agency and design firm wishes for itself.

I recently attended a family reunion in Bloomington, Indiana. The host cousins planned a field trip to Columbus, Indiana, a town of 40,000. I’d never heard of Columbus but probably should have. Why? Because it's ranked sixth in the nation by the American Institute of Architects for its innovative building designs. Only Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington D.C. rank higher.  Architects like I.M. Pei, Richard Meir, Harry Weese, Robert Venturi, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Deborah Burke and others have designed fabulous buildings there – including corporate, religious and civic.

But all this is a small town in southern Indiana!

How did it happen?

The buildings are one thing. But the real story here is about the leaders and community members who created a vision of Columbus as a design showcase, a city that believes great design matters. A consensus developed that attention to design makes better lives…for everyone.

Even more amazing is that the community has sustained this value for over 70 years.

Apparently, the design-minded leaders of Cummins Diesel, which is headquartered in Columbus, proposed a deal to the community back in the early 1940’s. Cummins would pay the architect fees for public buildings if the company could select the architect. This led to commissions with the world’s leading designers to strut their stuff in Columbus. Over the years, community leaders followed suit with both religious and private buildings. The community saw the impact of great design in people's lives and design thinking became a community standard.

For those even modestly interested in architecture and design, don’t miss a visit to Columbus, Indiana.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Digital Client Relationships?

Are relationships with clients becoming more digital? Of course they are. Because all relationships are founded on communication, and, as we know, communication has become more digital.

Are relationships suffering as a result? You bet. Recently, a chief marketing officer I interviewed complained of a lack of direct communication with an agency regarding a project budget. Yet, agency staff said they made many efforts to connect in-person or by phone but the CMO was always unavailable. They went digital and suffered as a result. The CMO ranked the agency poorly about the budget interactions and gave new work to a competing agency. No way to improve client retention.

When building a relationship, like anything else, firms and their partners need define what that is, how it will work, what expectations are. Get answers to questions like,

“How do you prefer to communicate and how often?”
"Do you prefer to access files in PDF through email or use our website?"
“Are you open to a monthly in-person touch base meeting? I think it would really help.”
“Who else should we be directly communicating with?”

Don’t rush into the project with a new client without a half-hour conversation focused just on these matters.  Push hard for some direct contact. Conduct occasional check-ins to assess how things are going.

Client relationships are complex interactions that require a sophisticated balance of diplomacy and doggedness. They need to be purposefully designed and not left to develop unattended, especially in the digital environment.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Leadership Styles That Improve Client Relationships

In previous posts I discussed the importance of assessing client readiness to perform tasks and leading clients with the right style to achieve successful outcomes. Readiness varies by client and by task, so good account and project managers are flexible and use several styles to lead clients. As a result,  they increase client retention and improve client relationships.

Why style matters. There are hundreds of tasks clients need to perform in any project and unless you help in the right way, with the right style, you’ll under deliver and disappoint, or over deliver and waste time and budget. Client tasks include such activities as delivering a creative brief, making a design decision, managing a project, developing a budget, gathering feedback, etc.

Four leadership styles that match client readiness. For an example of how leadership styles and task readiness work together, let’s use gathering design feedback from colleagues as the task a client needs to perform. There a four scenarios below that match client readiness to the appropriate leadership style.

      The Novice Client
  • Task readiness: low will/low skill. The client has never gathered feedback from others or has done it poorly in the past.  She doesn’t really know what to gather or how to go about doing it.
  • Matching style: directing.  You meet with the client and provide them with explicit instructions and tell them, “here is how I’ve seen it done for two other projects. Try this questionnaire template and follow these steps. Why don’t I call you in a few days to see if you need more help. “
      The Eager Client
  • Task readiness: high will/low skill. The client thinks they’re proficient but they are not.  They are know-it-all types or just too confident.
  • Matching style: explaining.  You meet with the client and ask them how they think they the feedback should be gathered, offer suggestions and develop a mutual plan.  “I’ve seen this done many times and I know you have some great ideas too. Let’s meet and plan this together if you want.”
     The Tired or Bored Client
  • Task readiness: low will/high skill. The client has gathered feedback before but isn’t into it and/or they don’t like the project or their work.
  • Matching style: supporting. Here is where you need to massage the client, understand their pain, yet, get them to act for the benefit of the overall project. “I know it’s a drag to gather the feedback again. But if we don’t, you know someone is going to raise an objection and we’ll have to start all over again. I think you just need to do it. Right?” 
      The Competent Client
  • Task readiness: high will/high skill. The client has been successful gathering feedback before and knows it’s important to do for the project. 
  • Matching style: delegating. This is what we all desire, a client who knows how to accomplish a task and understands why it’s important. They just get it done. “Yep, that time again to gather the feedback. A couple days makes sense. Holler if you want some help.”
Leadership that improves client relationships. If you get in the habit of assessing client readiness and then adapting your style to match, you’ll find that client relationships improve, deliverables meet expectations and your team doing less rework.  This is the essence of leading clients, not managing them.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Client Feedback Directs Growth Strategy.

A client retention case study.

Diver’s client, a medium-sized digital marketing agency, let’s call it “Cool Firm,” won several projects to reinvigorate three websites for a national retail chain, “Big Box.” Not a huge contract but one that required working across multiple divisions and held the promise of additional work should things go well.

The project goals were to bring energy and life to the Big Box brand online and highlight new products lines. Cool Firm was one of many agencies working for the Big Box and they saw this as a key opportunity to capture more share of customer. For over a year or so Cool Firm worked diligently on the Big Box account and while there were some bumps along the road, they achieved what they thought were good results. But there were questions….

Diver was hired to uncover perceptions of Cool Firm’s performance and develop recommendations for improving the relationship with Big Box.

After a thorough briefing from the project team, Diver conducted six, one-on-one interviews with Big Box marketing leaders, each one-half hour in length.

The findings were enlightening. Cool Firm was perceived as fun to work with, responsive and talented. Yet, there were some major concerns.  Compared to other agencies, Cool Firm was viewed as less innovative and offering fewer ideas for digital and social media marketing. On an administrative level, estimating and budgeting were so frustrating for Big Box staff that additional work Cool Firm should have earned went to another firm. One key Big Box leader felt that dialog about fees was so insufficient that it made her question the overall relationship.

After an initial report with findings and recommendations, Diver and Cool Firm leaders met to discuss both strategic and tactical implications for the Big Box client relationship. Based on the report and the discussion, Diver created a Roadmap that provided clear direction on how to improve the client retention and grow sales. The Roadmap included an overall vision of the Big Box relationship as an anchor account that could be realized with four strategies:

  • Demonstrate Cool Firm’s expertise as the one-stop, go to digital shop.
  • Showcase Cool Firm’s innovative practices and results from other client work.
  • Invest in research and thought leadership and bring that to Big Box marketers in a variety of ways.
  • Engage the Cool Firm’s partners in more relationship building efforts with key Big Box leaders.

Diver then worked with Cool Firm’s account leaders to develop a tactical plan to implement the four strategies above.

While it’s still early in the Roadmap execution there have been some positive signs:

  • Big Box has engaged Cool Firm with several new, high profile projects.
  • Communication between Big Box marketing leaders Cool Firm partners has reach new levels of intimacy and frequency.
  • Cool Firm has reinvigorated its research function and has delivered several studies on the integration of social media retail marketing. Feedback from Big Box has been excellent. 
  • The Big Box team is reenergized and feels confident of its plan to win more work.

Diver will monitor the implementation of the Roadmap and will conduct client evaluations again in a year to assess progress.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Curse of Knowledge: Client Retention Obstacle 4

Experience and knowledge, tied to success, come with price. They can carve a deep rut that’s hard to climb out of. It’s called the “Curse of Knowledge” and it can impact client retention and client relationships.

Experience vs. "wow." I was evaluating a client for a design firm who was working for a Dean at a prestigious university. The Dean wanted an architect with significant experience to conduct a planning study and create preliminary designs. He also wanted a “wow” factor for the building. Ultimately, he desired to build something unique that other universities didn’t have.

They hired my client and thought they got both – experience and the the ability to create a “wow.” But the "Curse" was in play. Designs and plans came through that were tested and proven. They’d certainly work well. But it was a struggle to get something new, something that hadn’t been done before.

"I like them but..."
In the interview the feedback came like this:

"I really liked the firm. They are organized, responsive, good people, fun to work with. Very knowledgeable.  Creative? Well not as much as we wanted. They know an awful lot but I expected more creativity and innovation."

The feedback was unanimous: knowledgeable, experienced, responsive, smart – absolutely. Creative – not enough. They knew too much.

The “Curse of Knowledge” struck again. What’s the future like for growing this client relationship? Up a steep hill for sure.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Assessment - The Key to Client Retention

In a previous post I suggested that account and project leaders lead their clients. And that clients will follow only if the leaders possess credibility, which is composed of the conviction, courage, care, competence and composure. By demonstrating these traits, account and project leaders can influence their clients to follow their direction and make the right decision.

The weak links – care and competence. Many studies have shown that leaders are weakest in two traits  - care and the softer side of competence: communication, teaching and facilitation. A leader can strengthen those areas by applying the right style of leadership. To know what style is best, the client’s readiness must be assessed.  Since readiness is a function of will and skill, asking the right questions about those is core to the assessment.

Assessment questions about skill. Here are some examples of questions to assess how skilled a client is at a task, whether that is gathering needed information, putting together a plan, making a design decision, getting her boss to approve a budget, etc.
  • How many times have you been through this before?
  • Did you get training at some point for this?
  • Help educate me…how do you actually go about doing this?
  • What do you need to get this done?

Assessment questions about will.
  • What has your experience been like when you did this before?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • Were you successful in accomplishing this before?
  • How do you like doing this?

Apply the right style. Once an account or project manager understands the client’s readiness, they can apply the right leadership style. For example, if a client has not made many design decisions or recommendations before, they could apply a style that is very directive by providing a list of criteria to make decisions. They could also practice the design review with the client ahead of time.  

Using the most effective style will ensure a successful client relationship and improve client retention. More on defining various leadership styles will be offered in subsequent posts. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Client Retention Obstacle 3: Failing to Listen

It’s hard to ask for feedback from a client. And it’s even harder to listen to it. Really listen, absorb and act. Why?

Client retention at risk.  Failing to listen to clear and unambiguous feedback, or not knowing about a bad situation in plain sight seems incredible. Yet too many account and project managers fail to heed the obvious warning signs that a client relationship is sinking and that client retention is at risk.

Clear message but no action. Here’s a good example of this dilemma. A former investment banking friend of mine was hired by a private equity firm to assess the problems at a software firm they purchased several years ago. It took him just several days to figure it out. The leadership installed by the private equity firm did not match with company culture and the troops were in a passive mutiny. Sales were plummeting and staff leaving.

His message to the owners was clear: management at the software firm was failing and they better do something about it, and do it fast.  Yet, he couldn’t get the PE firm’s attention and no action was taken. There was a crisis plain and simple but no one would listen and act. Why?

It’s hard to hear bad news.  Why is it hard for us to pay attention to bad news? Well, as humans we might be hard wired to not to listen. In a book entitled, Willful Blindness (, author Margaret Heffernan argues that our brains have evolved in a way that rejects conflicting, anxious and complicated situations. We just don’t process that kind of information well.  So seemingly critical and obvious problems go unnoticed and unaddressed.

This happens all the time in the client relationship world. The client stops returning calls. The VP is suddenly not available and now you have to talk to a manager. You find out you haven’t been invited to a new office opening. Budgets are in tatters. A new project was given to a competitor. Even with all that facing you,  you ignore the situation or don’t take action because you tell yourself it's not that serious. Maybe you’re just too busy to follow up. Or you don’t see the problem at all.

Bring in the outsider. One tactic Heffernan suggests is to engage someone outside the organization who can see situations in a new ways and counteract complacency and group think. This helps bring new understandings to life. Our brains may like routine but they are also open to change. And, if clarity improves and actions occur as a result of that outsider input,  your client may stay around a little longer.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Client Retention Strategy: Care for the Client (Talk Money)

Caring? OK, I can hear it already. This guy has been sucked in by the the dark side.

You ask, how much more can I do for the client? I do care. I give them my all my energy and creativity all day. I care enough already about this client relationship.

Sure, client facing staff do give it all to their clients. Account and project managers are no doubt some of  the toughest, emotional jobs that exist. The question I pose is, are you giving the right stuff, caring the right way?

Talkin' Money. Money is one area that you probably don't give enough. Not the amount of money. I'm sure you've shaved budgets to the bone to get the work.

But have you talked about money with the client in the right way? Have you shared what your firm needs to make on a project and why? Have you laid on the table the profit  needed  to survive, to keep the doors open to serve them?

At a recent client interview a CMO told me plain and simple that if the agency has shared WHY they needed a higher budget, she probably would have agreed. But there wasn't the frank, open discussion about money she wanted.

Courage and Openness. Now, every client doesn't want to talk openly about money or anything else. I get that. But for ones that do, and there are plenty out there, have the courage to be open and talk about mark-ups, multipliers, gross margins, etc. Assess whether they are ones that want a great client relationship. Because if they want a partner for the long-term, they will be OK paying what you need. Otherwise, you probably don't need them.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Client Retention Strategy: Be The Leader

As I was interviewing some marketing folks at the headquarters of a national retail chain, it became clear what they really wanted from their agency. Not just super creative, insightful analysis or smart strategies. They wanted to be led through the uncertainties of a new business and marketing landscape.

Client retention at risk. As marketers and their agencies dive into digital and social media there is both excitement and fear about new ways to connect and influence customers. Many possibilities and unknowns yet no stomach for uncertainty. The social and digital worlds are shaking client relationships. 

Leaders needed. Clients want certainty but there is no clear roadmap. No proof. No worn Harvard Business Review case studies.  Competitors are doing it and executives don't know what it is. This is an emotional condition and clients need guidance on many fronts. 

To be effective, account and project managers not only need the practical knowledge about the new social strategies and technology. They need a more comprehensive leadership approach to strengthen strained client relationships, an approach focused on credibility.

The Five C’s of Credibility.  This is a leadership philosophy that simply defines leaders as those with followers who find them credible. Followers who will be influenced to take action the leaders think best. Clients today need to be (and want to be - even if they won't admit it) followers. Not in a subservient way, but as one follows their partner in a mature relationship. 

What does it take to have clients follow account and project managers? They need evidence of credibility.  Credibility that can be earned through demonstrating the following:

1.     Competence: the leader knows the strategy, tactics, methods and technology, as well as the softer skills  - teaching, facilitation and communication
2.     Conviction: the leader possesses and communicates a compelling vision for the project and the relationship
3.     Courage: the leader will make the tough calls, confront conflict, voice an unpopular but correct position
4.     Care: the leader demonstrates genuine concern for the client’s personal and professional life
5.     Composure: the leader keeps cool and collected in difficult client situations and is not afraid to demonstrate emotions appropriately

Whether it’s delivering social marketing strategy, presenting innovative designs or explaining budgets, when account and project managers demonstrate the 5C’s of Credibility, clients will follow their direction. And in doing so will help relieve uncertainty, produce needed results and build strong client relationships. 

Note: Thanks to Tony Smith and Steve Williams of the Leadership Research Institute ( for teaching the 5C’s of Credibility and sharing a wealth of experience.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Client Retention Obstacle 2: It’s All About Me.

We always complain about clients. They demand, they question, they change their minds. All the while we're trying to build great client relationships and improve client retention. What's the rub?

Look in the mirror.
Let’s start with us. Look at the ideal we’ve created in our mind about the client relationship.  It’s a client who appreciates everything we do:  the fire drill follow-ups, the head-butting with designers, the internal budget negotiations, the hand-wringing during presentations, the late nights and weekends making deadlines. We even wish they knew about the bonus we’re going to get if things go well.  Essentially, we want the client to focus on us, on our world, on our stuff.

It's not about us.
Who are we kidding? Why do we focus inwardly?  Partly, it’s the self-centered nature of our big egos. And many of our reward and recognition systems emphasize self-importance. Yet, this focus on "me"causes the anguish.

It’s about them.
The problem is we forget to balance the “me” with the “you.” Providing service is inherently selfless. The better you understand the other, the better you serve. So try to be the client. Know their world, the internal politics, the pressure for profits, that fact that your client’s boss is on your client’s case. Heads are on the chopping block. Be in that world.  Feel their pain.

Stop complaining and start knowing.
We need to face this squarely. For whatever reason, you got in the service business. So for a moment stop pulling your hair and complaining to your colleagues. Know what your client is faced with, really dealing with. And if you don’t know, find out. And once you develop a true appreciation for that world you’ll find your pain recedes and the client relationship improves. And so does client retention.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Client Retention Obstacle #1: Not Knowing the Client

How well do you know your clients? Most account and project leaders do a good job focusing on the plans to be made, objectives to be accomplished, deadlines to be met and the like. Not enough, however, pay attention to the client relationship, the personal dynamic with those who ultimately judge success or failure.
The anxious client.
I was hired to conduct a client evaluation for an architecture firm whose client was a regional hospital. An interview with the VP of Patient Care Services revealed a gap in the engagement process. When posed with the first question, “Overall how is the experience working with (my client),” the VP responded with one word, “anxious.”

Understand the client’s needs.
When I probed further, I discovered that this was the first major construction project for the VP and she was very concerned about not knowing her role and responsibilities. The VP, a very buttoned up and conscientious person, knew she was a key to success but felt lost about what she should be doing. And her pride kept her from disclosing this to the project lead, who was in the dark about her concerns.

Low Readiness.
This is not an isolated incident.  Many clients do not possess the experience or knowledge to contribute at a high level as effective partners. Organizations today are short staffed and place people in roles outside their capability. It’s no wonder that that anxiety abounds in the workplace and that client retention suffers.

Assessment is key.
Assessing a client’s readiness to lead or contribute to a project should be integrated into the project initiation process.  When done properly, an assessment will tell you the skill and will levels of the client to accomplish the tasks they need to own for a successful project. That, in turn, should guide your efforts to lead the client in the best way, and get the best results.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Exploring Client Relationships

Hello everyone.  This is my first blog post. Kind of scary and exciting at the same time.  I get encouragement from a little abstract  piece of art hanging in my home showing a butterfly floating softly alongside a tree . The caption reads:

“Sometimes you must leap, she said gently, and grow your wings on the way down (Kristen Jongen -”

I guess now’s the time. That’s what everyone is telling me. They’re right, of course.

Anyway, I want to use this space to explore the complex world of client relationships, client retention, client turnover. What makes a great relationship? Why do they fail? What can you do about it?

I will draw on my many years serving clients and helping others do the same. I will share both my experiences and those of colleagues.  

I look forward to exercising my wings here.