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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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.