Measuring a good client/agency relationship

June 15, 2010

Most people would agree that building relationships takes work.  We know from our personal experiences that identifying with whom we want to have relationships, building these relationships, and then maintaining them over time takes consideration, effort, and communication (among other things).

While we acknowledge and accept this for our personal relationships, I think it is very interesting that many of us can forget about these requirements when it comes to professional relationships, and more specifically the client/marketing agency relationships.  When it comes to these relationships, many of us on the client side assume that because a project request for proposal is issued and responded to and a scope of work is submitted and signed, these act as sufficient substitutes for the effort required to build an effective relationship with our agency partners.  My experience as a marketing/brand manager for many years, as well as my observations of my clients’ experiences with agency relationships indicate that these are not adequate substitutes and that client/agency relationships take as much work to build, if not more, than our personal relationships.  The amount of trust, collaboration, and reconciliation of ideas that is required in a very short period of time requires more effort initially than many other relationships.

To help build and navigate this type of challenging relationship, as a client, I started using a tool with each of my agencies.  I now recommend it to many of my clients to help them manage their own agency relationships. It is an agency scorecard.  This is typically a document that clearly states the client’s expectations for what the agency will deliver (the work), how the agency will deliver the work (timing, collaboration process, team members responsible, etc.), a set of grades or metrics that the client will use to assess the agency’s performance on each expectation, and clear definitions for each grade level.  Some scorecards also include a ‘weighting’ system — to give performance on certain expectations more weight than others for an overall agency ranking.

There are three areas in the client/agency relationship when I have found the scorecard to be particularly useful:

  1. Identifying the right agency with whom to build a relationship. The agency scorecard is a terrific tool for aligning the members of the client team who are responsible for choosing the agency.  The scorecard should be constructed by the team before the agency evaluation process occurs, and the team should use this scorecard to select its agency. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for team members to be swayed by factors that are not critical to the project or selection process, and a less than optimal agency can be selected for irrelevant reasons — simply because a team member was vocal and forceful in his opinion.  With a scorecard, this is much less likely to happen.  The team as a group decides what should be considered in the overall process and the selection of an agency can only be made based on the objective factors.  Each agency is evaluated in the same way, so that the agency that best fits the expectations of the team is identified.
  2. Holding the agency accountable. Once an agency is selected, the scorecard can be used as a checklist or guide to ensure that everything the agency included in its proposal or plan is executed.  It helps the client manage the project and the agency to meet its expectations and needs.  There are situations when timelines and budgets are tight, and agencies may unintentionally focus on certain aspects of an engagement while becoming distracted from fulfilling all of the expectations that they initially set.  The scorecard is an excellent reference point for the client to ensure that the agency delivers on each commitment made during the evaluation and proposal process.
  3. Improving the relationship. The scorecard can serve as an ongoing communication tool between the client and the agency.  Agencies want to maintain relationships with their clients, and they want to ensure that their clients are pleased with what they deliver.  The scorecard can provide agencies with much desired feedback on their performance so that they can improve the relationship in the future.  The client should share the scorecard with the agency at the beginning of the relationship, and then schedule feedback sessions periodically using the scorecard.  The client scores the agency on each of the key areas of focus (expectations/needs) and then has a face to face meeting with the agency to explain each grade and the rationale behind it.  The candid feedback enabled by the scorecard is generally much appreciated by the agencies and leads to much stronger, better relationships in the future.

Are there other tools that you have used to manage and improve your relationships with your clients or agency partners?  If so, please share them.  If you would like to find out more about constructing a scorecard for your relationships, feel free to send me a note.  I’d be happy to share some examples and more specific guidance.

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How to help your customer really “see” you

June 3, 2010

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a major industry tradeshow for one of my clients.  The purpose of my attendance was to review my client’s overall tradeshow presence versus its competition.  As I surveyed the displays of my client and the other vendors, one particular point of differentiation became very clear to me.  A handful of vendors demonstrated through their displays, messaging, and selling approach that they not only knew who their target customers were, but they also knew how to let their target customers know that their business was specifically focused on meeting their target customers’ unique set of needs.

Most of the other vendors may have known who their target customers were, but they didn’t give their target customers the visual or messaging cues that indicated “We understand your business, and we are specifically here and focused to address your unique needs.”  These vendors may have offered all of the products and services that their customers sought. However without the cues of displaying the products in familiar and applicable environments or without mentioning the specific challenges that their target customers face, the customers might have assumed that the products were not exactly appropriate in meeting their needs.  As a result, they may have not noticed or engaged with the vendors to find out more.

This is a challenge that faces many organizations and brands – in business to business industries, but also in business to consumer and non-profit areas.  It seems that some organizations think that their strategic marketing work is done when they have identified their specific target customer markets.  While identifying key target customers is a critical and important step in marketing and brand-building, it is only half the battle.  The other half is appropriately signaling to your target customers that you understand, serve, and are targeting them.

The keys to successfully signaling to target customers are:

  1. Truly understanding the situations and challenges that they face when they are using your product/service (you can get this understanding through various forms of research)
  2. Reflecting your understanding of their needs and perspectives in all of your customer touch points – your messaging, your product offerings, your website, your tradeshow booth, your customer service processes, your packaging, your physical location, etc.

By understanding that “cues” are meaningful to your target customers and communicating these cues to the customers consistently, your target customers have a better shot of really seeing you and understanding how you fit into their lives.  The more that your customers see how you understand them and are dedicated to them, the more differentiated and persuasive you become to them.

While I know that the point I am making is a relatively basic one – one that we as marketers should already know and be doing, I thought it was worth raising, given my experience at the tradeshow last week.  There were many companies with sophisticated marketing who did not clearly demonstrate their knowledge of who they were targeting.  With that in mind, I suggest we all review how the customer touch points throughout our organizations signal our understanding and focus on our particular target customers.  We might find some opportunities where we can help our customers see us more clearly.