We’ve all had tough projects and by the time they’re completed, neither client nor agency wants to see each other again. And while it feels like it was great to get out alive, the reality is that a bigger opportunity has been wasted.
Sure, you were paid for this work (hopefully it wasn’t so awful you’re in jeopardy of losing part of your fee), but let’s acknowledge that one and done isn’t a successful model for any agency. Your goal going into a new project is to perform at a level that ensures you’ll get the next one. And the one after that. And more.
Successful agencies have learned how to navigate challenging projects and relationships, and how to come out on the other side with a long-term client. They understand that in addition to what they’ve been hired to create and produce, a critical component of what they’re producing is a successful work process for the client. Many clients will accept a B-level creative firm if they’re A-level in process. Success at the end may cure many ills, but it won’t eliminate the bad taste left from a rocky process filled with frustration, anxiety and perhaps even anger. A challenging process destroys any positive relationship with the client, and as we all know, relationships are the reason agencies are successful.
So, what do you do if the team you’re leading finds themselves off-balance and reacting to the client instead of leading them, if everything they do is suspect and they’re always playing catch up, just hoping to turn a corner while the project happens?
In our experience (and we’ve seen this movie many times) at the point where it feels you’re headed for a train wreck, you have a couple of options that may allow you to keep, and grow, the account:
1. Increase client communications
The most critical thing that any agency is responsible for is communication, and when things are going bad, one of the best solutions is to communicate more. We’ve seen some project teams “hunker down” and simply shut off communication so they can get the work done, hoping a good result will cure the delays and arguments that a bad process has brought.
Our recommendation is to do the opposite: increase the communication with the client. Have the team meet with the client every day for 30 minutes. Coach them to listen carefully to the client needs and direct them to tell the client what they’re doing to answer those needs. This type of “hand-holding” often results in a much stronger bond between client and project team as they’ve gone “through the war together.”
We’ve seen this work, particularly with clients who are virtually abusive in their attitude to the agency team. Care and attention can turn the orneriest client into a partner.
2. Increase your leadership presence within your team
Your leadership is now needed with your team. You should meet with them and ask direct questions about how things are going – what’s standing in their way of success? Do they need more resources? Are they cutting too much to save budget? Have the client’s expectations changed?
There could be any number of roadblocks – team dysfunction, lack of confidence, being over-committed on other clients, or simply just not making a connection with the client. Being outside of the team allows you to hear disconnects they can’t, to provide perspective they’re missing and point them towards a reset.
While you’re at it, check the team’s documentation. Is there a clear project record? Are updates and changes being approved by the client. Now’s the chance to ensure your business process is in order so there isn’t a disagreement at the end.
3. Increase your leadership presence with the client
This action requires that you do everything we just outlined, but also requires what some may feel is risky: you schedule a mid-point meeting with your client. This is a check in, by either agency leadership and/or account leadership depending on the seriousness, to assess the project and suggesting, in the way you feel is appropriate, that something may be amiss. This can be a game changer.
It’s uncomfortable to tell a client that something’s wrong - you don’t want them to question your abilities. Agencies seem wired to keep things moving and not to admit missteps, or to let their clients know when the client isn’t at their best. But, as we’ve said, good communication is a relationship cornerstone. If you really want to be a partner and an asset, you’re going to need to act like one, and that means being comfortable having candid conversations.
Again, we’re speaking from firsthand experience, having seen mid-point meetings:
Course correct an engagement where the client was about to fire the agency;
Help a client understand how following “their process” was creating significant out of scope work on a multi-million-dollar program (and thus the benefit of letting the agency lead);
Create trust and candor with a new client after an honest (but 6 figure!) budget error because the RFP specs could be, and were, interpreted differently.
Over time, we’ve come to believe that while an internal reset is important for the team and agency, a mid-point conversation with your client is essential if you want a relationship. It’s the fastest way to rebuilding trust, and it’s a surefire way to prevent needing lawyers to settle a dispute at the end of the work.
If you need a resource, these books are worth considering:
· Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson
· Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone
And there’s an additional benefit: if you can successfully hold challenging conversations with your clients, you can certainly do it within your agency to create a high functioning team.
Tonic Consulting Group works with live event agencies and related companies providing the insights, expertise and direction necessary to create enduring competitive advantage. We work with leaders to build new pathways to growth, create high-performing operations and develop companies people love working for.
© Tonic Consulting Group, 2021