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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