Client service is not servicing today’s client needs
Is the entire client service function superfluous? Journey Further’s US chief exec Duncan Smith thinks so – that’s why the agency has no client service team at all.
Is it time to cut the client service function entirely? / Markus Winkler via Unsplash
As both complexity in the media landscape and the automation of how that media is activated grow at speed, clients’ demands on agencies are outpacing an antiquated agency model.
At the heart of this is the client service function. Is it fit for purpose today (let alone the future)?
A desire for change, across the aisle
Pressure on client service is coming from both sides. Clients have been demanding their agencies help them cut through the complexity for some time, providing a more holistic and strategic point of view across the entirety of their business, brands, and channels – paid, owned or otherwise.
This is a perspective that the traditional client service function is ill-equipped to provide, especially in the digital and performance world. There, those in client service have either grown out of a single channel with little experience across others, or have excelled in account management and business growth without ever planning or managing the channels their agency has been appointed to handle. Savvy clients will quickly start to ask what value those individuals are bringing to their business, and at what cost.
On the other side, within agencies, clients’ in-housing of activation (enabled by data, algorithms and automation) and the squeeze placed on pricing and fees by procurement-led pitching have led to decreasing margins. The result is a need to reduce cost and increase value.
Clients and agencies are after the same things, and client service finds itself in the crosshairs. Its potential salvation (if not that of agencies) is that it remains a key source of revenue to agencies that cannot be quickly replaced.
Shape up or ship out
With the need for every client contact to deliver greater value to clients and agencies, the days of the bag-carrying, glad-handing, middlemen and -women of client service are numbered. The challenge is on organizations to find a new solution that works for them and helps to retain and win new clients.
The answer is twofold. First, we must develop a stronger, broader, and deeper strategic function that serves as the bridgehead into clients. Acting as the architects of agencies’ services, they take the brief, understand the challenges on the client side, and deliver a vision to pull together relevant elements from within their agency into a cohesive blueprint for communications success.
Second, we’ve got to provide a direct line for clients into truly expert channel activation which goes beyond the capability that inhousing can develop. While it’s understandable that no one person will ever have all the answers, paying for a resource to ‘phone a friend’ every time a slightly more technical question is asked is at best inefficient and at worst raises questions about the competency of the agency and its personnel.
By giving clients access to the folks most deeply immersed in the daily craft of the agency, driving the latest developments and able to provide in-the-moment advice based on real discipline expertise, agencies would be delivering the highest levels of consultation, both tactically and strategically, and without the mushy middle. At Journey Further, we call this ‘clarity at speed’; it’s the guiding principle around which the entire agency is built.
Client service as a behavior, not a department
Achieving this may sound straightforward. In practice, legacy financial and functional structures of agencies, especially the most well-established, may prove close to insurmountable when trying to change at the speed required.
Moving from charging for hours spent to outcomes achieved, recalibrating the value the agency can offer and the margins able to be delivered: these are not overnight tasks. Nor is retraining, upskilling or rotating out longstanding personnel from a discipline that most agencies revolve around.
That’s why at Journey Further, we have never had client service, a decision that has greatly benefited our clients and our agency. It has helped us retain business and staff at far higher levels than the industry norms; led to us becoming the fastest-growing agency in Europe; and won us a collection of awards that stretch from company culture to client success to channel expertise.
The knowledge that there is a better way to deliver for clients is why we have taken the business to the US this year. If ever there were some outdated agency practices that need a bit of clarity at speed they’re to be found over here.
But none of the above is to say that providing a great service to clients is something that should be lost. The arts of nurturing relationships and growing trust are as vital to the agency-client dynamic as the work. It’s just that those are behaviors that everyone in an agency should exhibit, not a function unto itself that is arguably superfluous today.
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Journey Further is a performance marketing agency based in Leeds, Manchester, London and New York.Find out more