Five Tips to building strong client relationships - a beginner's guide
Client relationships have become all the more important for communications and marketing agencies keen to retain every piece of work they can possibly lay their hands on. As a result, Simon Cotterrell, founder and strategic partner at Goosebumps Brand Consultancy, offer fives pieces of advice on mainataining client relationships.
There's no question that when an agency is able to build an open and trusted relationship with their client that the quality of work, along with the quality of life, gets a whole lot better. But there does seem to be some question about how to develop such relationships.
As a brand consultancy whose client relationships are spearheaded by strategists, understanding the fine art of client relationships was something we at Goosebumps knew we had to especially focus on when we set-up shop. But, four years in and several long term relationships in the bag, I have to say that, for us, the best approach to client relationships is far from what we read in any text book.
So here's five lessons from the fresh faced and bushy tailed way we approached our inaugural client, Global Blue: an approach that resulted in a four year relationship and a list of job numbers extending well into the hundreds.
Global Refund, as Global Blue were called when they first came to us, wanted our advice on how best to protect their market share from aggressive competitors in the tax free shopping sector.
As our client said when he walked in for our first strategy debrief "I'm looking forward to this as there’s lots to do, as long as you don't suggest we change the name". Oops, because a name like Global Refund shackled them into a very limited b2b offer and allowed no means of paving the way for them to become a b2c brand, which was what we strongly believed they needed to do, a name change was our headline recommendation. But far from being annoyed, when he got over the shock, our client was seduced by the logic.
So, the first of the lessons the text books never tell you: strong relationships are based on strong convictions and not trying to come up with things you think your client wants to hear.
Now, even though our immediate client might have been impressed, it's fair to say that the rest of the board needed a bit more convincing. Nine months more convincing as it turned out, a succession of presentations at each and every monthly board meeting, making the same case in many different ways.
So our second lesson in strong client relationships: if you believe in something don't let a "no" stop you. Have patience, have tenacity, and remember that different people take in information and make decisions about things in very different ways. So present, present and present again making sure you bring in the cynics by delivering the argument emotionally, functionally and most of all, commercially.
This point about creating a commercial empathy is something that I've read time and again from gurus of client relationships, but I've always found it hard to show the pounds and pence behind decisions that will always contain an element of subjective risk. But, our experience with Global Blue taught me that talking business with clients is by far the most important contributor to trust. Lesson three; don’t be afraid to tell them how to run their business. We told them that their core offer, tax free shopping, which was totally anonymous at that point, would become completely commoditised if they didn’t take the expensive leap to establish a consumer brand that would create preference for their specific service.
One of the toughest things about being a brand consultancy is that most of your work is on a project basis – we go in, we consult, we create recommendations, we implement some initiatives and we get out. This ‘in-and-out’ nature of our work breeds a professional, focused approach to client relationships. But that efficiency can be our downfall. Working with Global Blue, we trained ourselves to stop thinking about the here and now and to cast our eyes over the horizon. We stopped worrying about our precious project fee and started to act like we were worthy long-term companions of this client, just like their accounting firm or lawyers would behave. And it totally changed the way they viewed us. The old adage “dress for the job you want to have” was very much the order of the day. So lesson four, do away with the anxiety of being a project by project business, that’s only the way you perceive yourself not necessarily the way your client wants to see you.
Our fifth and final lesson that’s definitely not in any text book we’ve read: don’t love your client too much. What we learned working with Global Blue is that if we have a brilliant relationship just with the client who hired us, you start to get labelled as the marketing director’s “boys” and your role in the wider organisation gets marginalised. Right now we have relationships with around thirty people from Global Blue, right across the organisation, right across their footprint. Of course, we aim to have a brilliant meeting of minds with the man who hired us, but it was actually him pushing us away, so that we could widen our reach, that gave us the confidence to branch out.
Signing off with one sneaky extra lesson – you can’t choose your family but you can choose your clients. Sometimes the chemistry is just never going to work and it’s better for everyone to walk away. We were fortunate that our main client at Global Blue is just about the nicest person to walk the face of the earth and at the end of the day being nice is about the biggest lesson of all.