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.


9 Questions Every Brand Should Ask Its Customers Regularly

May 18, 2010

In my experience with organizations of various sizes and types, market research is most commonly used when the organization has a specific question to answer.  The specific question can vary significantly, but some of the more common ones deal with the appeal of a new product idea or the interest in a new positioning or in a new creative marketing message.

While it is absolutely correct to field research to help answer these specific questions, organizations would benefit from performing market research on a more regular, ongoing basis to answer some brand questions repeatedly, over time. This would help to monitor customer perceptions and behaviors consistently — not just when a specific marketing project question arises.  If organizations only complete research when they have specific initiative-based questions, they run the risks of missing shifts in customer perceptions of their brand, failing to spot new trends in how their product/service is being used, or even misdiagnosing who their customers really are.

I should note that many organizations do routinely field customer satisfaction or product/service performance surveys, and while these are very important, this isn’t the type of research to which I am referring.  I am suggesting that organizations also implement a program to regularly understand how customers are thinking about the brand, based on the collection of all of their experiences with the brand over time.

The implementation of ongoing brand research does not have to be complex or expensive.  Some organizations make a significant investment in brand tracking, and it becomes a major initiative. However, for most others, it can be as simple as fielding a few customer focus groups or interviews every six months or even distributing an online survey among their customer base regularly.  The method of research can vary depending on the size of the organization, its customer base, and the category/industry of the organization.  Most importantly this research should be done frequently (at the very least annually), consistently, the results should be reviewed and tracked over time, the organization must be willing to adapt its marketing strategies based on the results, and the questions should focus on the target customers and their brand perceptions.

With all of this in mind, for those of you interested in initiating a brand research program for your organization, I’ve developed a general list of questions for you to incorporate into your research among your target customers. Listening to how your customers respond and tracking how these responses change over time will unearth some significant opportunities for better understanding who your customers are and what motivates them, adjusting your marketing messages to your customers, and strengthening your brand in the minds of your customers.

Here is the list of 9 questions that every organization should consistently ask its customers about its brand:

  1. When you think of the brand (insert brand name here), what are the first words that come to mind?
  2. When and why did you first become a customer of the brand?
  3. Why do you continue to be a customer of the brand?
  4. Who do you consider to be competitors of the brand?
  5. How is the brand different from its competitors (in terms of being both better and worse)?
  6. How is the brand the same as its competitors?
  7. How can the customer experience of the brand be improved?
  8. Do you anticipate that you will be a customer of the brand in the future?
  9. If you were describing the brand to others, what would you say, and would you recommend it?

For those of you who already ask your target customers about their perceptions of your organization’s brand regularly, are their other general questions that you always ask?  Let me know!  I’d like to incorporate them into the list.


The Open Chair

May 4, 2010

This past week, I spent a few days meeting with one of my clients to kick off a new project.  My client had hired me to help them develop an organized marketing strategy for the next 18 months, and our meeting was focused on helping me understand their organization’s overarching objectives and goals, as well as their target customer markets.

While the purpose of the kick off sessions was to give me the proper background and understanding of the direction and challenges facing the company, I knew that the sessions would also be very beneficial to my client.  Many of the key organization leaders participated in the meeting, along with their marketing and sales leaders.   All of them were there to explain their visions of the future and where they needed the organization to focus and grow.  Unfortunately, but realistically, the opportunity to have this type of strategic conversation does not happen frequently in their organization (this is probably the case for many organizations), because the teams are typically too consumed by “fire fighting” and reacting quickly to customer needs or market developments.  It was my presence as an educated but objective outsider who was asking the “who, what, why, and how” questions to understand the background and needs to inform the marketing strategy that got the various team members sharing their plans and rationale. It was my asking these questions that helped the organization uncover some conflicting views as to who were its target customers and realize that perhaps some of the marketing activities that it had been doing for quite some time were not targeted to any of its core customers.  I know that if I hadn’t been asking these questions as an outsider, my client would not have recognized and resolved these critical issues.  My presence helped bring these issues to light.

After the sessions, I thought that it was interesting that an outside perspective helped uncover some strategic issues needing to be addressed, but I did not really think about how this could become a formalized practice.  However, later in the week, I met with a woman who has years of experience in brand management and advertising. In our conversation, she happened to mention that she had just started implementing the “open chair” policy with her current agency — a practice that she had used extensively with other companies over the years.  She explained that the open chair policy was the practice of leaving an “open chair” in key strategic meetings.  This chair could be filled with an external subject matter expert or individual who is not directly involved with the project or issue at hand, but has some experience or perspective that enables him or her to ask thoughtful questions or add ideas to the discussion.  The role of the open chair individual is to provide a different perspective from the rest of the group to help the group come to an optimal decision or resolution.

As my acquaintance explained all of this to me, I realized that I had served as the open chair participant in my client’s discussion earlier in the week, and I recognized the value that this brought to my client.  It got me to thinking that this type of practice could be a very useful tool for all sorts of organizations facing many different issues.  Sometimes the day to day pressures and work load  force teams to make assumptions about what everyone knows, or thinks, or agrees on, and it takes an outsider with a slightly different perspective to question these assumptions.  It is when these assumptions are questioned that significant break-throughs can be made.

Is the open chair policy something that you could try to implement as you face your next decision or challenge?  Is it something you are already doing?  Let me know if you are using it and how it is working.


Defining brand and marketing strategy

April 20, 2010

This past week, I attended my local American Marketing Association chapter monthly event, and I was struck by a very simple explanation on how brand and marketing strategy fit together.  The explanation came from Tony Fannin, President of BE Branded.  I thought that Tony’s explanation would be worth repeating in this post, because I know that there are many smart and successful organizations that struggle with the difference between these two concepts.  This could be because traditionally trained marketers sometimes take understanding these concepts for granted and therefore do not always ensure that their audiences know exactly what they mean when they refer to either concept.  As a result, business leaders and managers who might not be as familiar with these concepts could find them to be vague, confusing, or even perhaps interchangeable.  So for any of you who might fall into one of these two camps and who may not be articulating how brand and marketing strategy fit together as eloquently, clearly, or succinctly as you might like, perhaps this explanation is worth a try:

The marketing strategy is the bridge between what the target customers believe and what the organization wants its brand to stand for.

Now to help give more clarity to this explanation, let me provide a few more details.  First of all, at its core, a brand is what your product/service/organization ultimately stands for or means in the minds of the target customers.  It is comprised of the feelings or perceptions that target customers have when they think of or experience a particular product or service.  Organizations typically want the brand to stand for something in particular in the minds of their target customers.  Meanwhile, the target customers may not have these exact perceptions and feelings in mind when they think of the product or service (unfortunately, this is the case most of the time).  The difference between what an organization wants its target customers to think and what the target customers actually think is a gap. Organizations can create and execute a marketing strategy to minimize the gap.  The marketing strategy is the set of planned actions that the organization undertakes to bring the two points closer together. Typically, these actions address one or more of the following:  the product (or service), the pricing, the placement (distribution or channels), and the promotion (including communication/messaging).  A well executed marketing strategy should help to move the perceptions of the target customers closer to what the organization envisions for the brand.  Additionally, it should also help organization’s idea for the brand become more attainable and believable to its target customers.

So what do you think?  Does this explanation help distinguish between the two concepts?   Let me know!  I’d love to hear if this is helpful or if you have other suggestions.



Why Should I Believe You? The case for Reasons to Believe.

April 5, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I received my qualitative research moderator certification from the Burke Institute in Cincinnati.  The Burke Institute is a renowned market research education institution, and its qualitative research certification process includes participating in two week-long intensive (and not inexpensive) courses.

While I enjoyed the courses thoroughly, the primary reason I attended the courses was to be able to say that I am a certified focus group moderator.  Prior to attending the certification courses, I had quite a bit of experience moderating focus groups and using the results from focus groups to inform decisions for my brands, but I did not have very much “proof” of my skill sets outside of some client referrals.  I knew that if I wanted to augment the qualitative research part of my business, I needed to provide my prospective clients with some proof or a “reason to believe” that supported my claim that I could deliver objective and insightful research results.  The fact that I am now a certified qualitative research moderator provides my brand stronger credibility that I can deliver the benefits of well-executed qualitative research.

Just as having a set of compelling brand benefits and a brand character are critical components to a well-defined brand, having reasons for your target customers to believe that your brand can deliver its benefits is equally important.  Reasons to believe are facts that provide credibility to your brand as they explain how or why your brand delivers its benefits.  Therefore, every brand benefit should have a corresponding reason to believe to support it.  Additionally, as with all other brand building components, reasons to believe are strongest when they are relevant to the target customer in some way.  Here is where customer research and understanding continue to be a key input into the brand development process.

Aside from providing believability and authenticity to your brand, reasons to believe differentiate your brand from competitors.  Most brands that have similar benefits do not have the same reasons to believe, and even if they do share some proof points, the total package of reasons to believe for each brand is sure to be unique.

With all of this said, I find it intriguing that many organizations fail to focus on or communicate their reasons to believe to their target customers.  Many brands have strong supporting evidence of their benefits such as a dedicated history in the industry or an unmatched emphasis on quality, but they do not communicate it.  Other brands need to invest in creating proof to support their benefits such as utilizing spokespeople or attaining some form of accreditation/endorsement.  In either case, leaders of brands should spend some time thinking through their brand’s reasons to believe and how to effectively communicate them as emphasizing a brand’s reasons to believe will lead to a more credible and differentiated story for selling the brand’s benefits.


Top 6 marketing articles from the last two weeks (3/7-3/21)

March 22, 2010

It has been a little while since I compiled my list of marketing articles and posts that I have found to be particularly insightful. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve read several articles that I really enjoyed, and I thought I would highlight these, just in case you might have missed them (after all, a lot of people are on spring break these days).  I hope you find a few of these useful or interesting.  Enjoy!

CMOs, Go Beyond a PR Plan to Prepare for an Inevitable Product Crisis (Ad Age).  There have obviously been quite a few branding crises these days — between spokespeople losing their respect and credibility to massive product failures and recalls.  This article provides a great reminder of the plan that every brand leader should have in place before a crisis strikes.  The plan should not just have a well-planned PR component, but it must consider and address every touch point that the brand has with its target customers.  The article raises quite a few issues that might not be top of mind in the heat of the moment, but that are absolutely critical to the crisis management process.

Real-Time Brand Management:  Lessons from Virgin America’s Hellish Flight (Harvard Business Review). Continuing from the theme of the first article, this blog post presents a good miniature case study of how Virgin America quickly managed a perception crisis last week.  While this article does not necessarily highlight the plan that Virgin America had in place to mitigate the crisis, it does illustrate some additional things that brands can do routinely before a crisis occurs so that when it does, the brand can be managed in “real time”.

Wal*Mart, Target, Best Buy Named Most Valuable (Retail) Brands (Brandweek).  While the list of the most valuable retail brands is fairly interesting in itself, this article provides some good commentary regarding the strategies that helped brands grow and the strategies that undermined the value of brands.  One unsuccessful strategy mentioned is the “flight to price” strategy.  The analysis of the strategies is applicable to all types of consumer brands — not just retail brands.

Opinion:  Customer Service is Key Strategy (Brandweek).  Joseph Jaffe, the author of this editorial, writes, “During increasingly confusing, cluttered and complex times, what is it that really separates — or differentiates — one company, product, service or brand from another?”  He answers his own question that customer service or “servicing the customer” is the key differentiator for brands and should be the focal point for the marketing department.

How to Write a Mission Statement that Doesn’t Suck (Fast Company).  The author Dan Heath provides an entertaining yet very accurate assessment of how the mission statement development process can fail.  For anyone who has ever participated in developing a mission statement, this article is worth reading just for its humor and insight, if nothing else.  If you are currently developing or revamping your mission statement, this article provides great inspiration for what you should focus on, and what you should avoid.

Shopping Aisles at Cutting Edge of Consumer Research and Tech (Ad Age).  This article provides some interesting examples of what consumer packaged goods companies are doing to study their consumers during the act of shopping for products (from making the shopping list at home to purchasing in the store).  The emphasis on and investment in shopper marketing in the last few years has grown substantially among CPGs and retailers, and it is fascinating to understand some of the insights that have been uncovered.  If you are in the process of considering investing in or building a shopper marketing research program, this article worth reviewing.