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How to keep clients in tough times

Keep clients in tough times. Nine ways to keep your company innovative—and essential

Keep clients in tough times. Nine ways to keep your company innovative—and essential

In tough economic times, company budgets for advertising, market research, design and other business services are usually the first to suffer. Paradoxically, innovation in these very same areas is crucial to ensure survival and a dominant market position when the upturn comes.

As a result, businesses may reconsider their existing agency relationships in the hopes of getting ‘more for less’.

Even agencies with a track record of quality work and client satisfaction can be cut. These agencies often complain: “We did everything we were asked and never had any complaints. What else do we have to do to keep clients happy?” The solution lies in being cleverly proactive.

Why proactive? Clients value agencies that are heavily involved in their business rather than those that just respond to requests, offer new insights only when they have to (such as formal review periods), and work strictly to contractual requirements. Although responding to clients’ needs decreases their dissatisfaction within the relationship, such actions don’t result in satisfaction and contract renewal. In effect, responsiveness is a hygiene factor, while proactivity is a motivator to renew.

Why clever? Because being proactive costs time and money. Proactivity within relationships involves similar risks to innovation—you must commit time and resources with no guarantee of success. Worse, proactivity can easily be seen as little more than agency self-interest, especially when agencies pitch ideas and so-called solutions that have little to do with the client’s business context.

What does proactivity involve, and how do you enhance the chances of success? Here are nine ideas.

1 First, clients expect agencies to put new and even fuzzy or speculative ideas on the agenda. This goes beyond suggestions for current campaigns or projects and means responding to new trends in customer expectations, technology, competitive threats, and general societal changes.

2 These new ideas should endeavour to expand the client’s horizon. They could identify new product ideas, new brand or line extensions, new segments to target or markets to enter, or new business models. Clients often wonder where their brand will be, or should be, in five or ten years, and expect their agencies to take an active part in this conversation. Clients are often so bogged down in day-to-day management that they can fail to pick up on left-of-centre threats or trends that may render them obsolete or provide the basis for tomorrow’s returns.

3 As these agency-inspired ideas aim to expand horizons, of necessity they must focus on strategic rather than tactical issues. Although clients are interested in tweaking current ad campaigns, making minor changes to packaging and hearing the results of the latest tracking survey, they will renew relationships with those agencies that also focus on the big-picture strategic issues facing the firm.

4 The net effect is a signal to the client that you are interested in their long-term success. One benefit of proactivity is that even cash-strapped clients can be willing to entertain budget increases for agencies with ideas that create future value. In fact, they often express a desire for proactive agencies to push them for more money to do so.

5 How do agencies increase the success rate of these proactivity strategies? Not all of your suggestions will fly, and proactivity requires investment (which not every client may deserve). There is also a fine line between proactivity and naked agency self-interest—avoid the temptation to push your latest syndicated solution regardless of whether or not it fits the client’s context.

6 Make credible suggestions. Agencies can’t force clients to adopt their ideas, so they must make a convincing case. Get in tune with their business. This may sometimes mean scaling back proposals with conservative clients (focusing on small wins): the need to achieve ‘fit’ between new ideas and the client’s ability to support them financially is important. Clients need well-researched ideas that ground the suggestion in market realities.

7 Build credibility by constantly suggesting ideas over the course of the relationship, rather than throwing in few disconnected ideas at random—this is viewed as insincere. Clients have pointed out the dangers of agencies relying on formal review periods to suggest new ideas. Clients need ideas in real time. To increase the chances of adoption, agencies need to use all the communication channels at their disposal—from formal review periods to emails, social events and water-cooler conversations. This use of formal and informal channels reinforces in the mind of the client that your agency is particularly proactive and forward-thinking.

8 Proactivity can only be achieved within a trusting relationship, which often starts with listening carefully to client needs. By developing credible suggestions, agencies also avoid perceptions of distrust and self-interest; opening up sceptical clients to the idea that proactivity is the norm.

9 Finally, proactivity costs. It is common for proactive agencies to invest in research of the client’s business (above and beyond their contractual obligations) to build credibility. Such investments can explain why not every agency is repositioning itself as a ‘solutions provider’.

Tough times require even greater levels of entrepreneurial activity. By taking a more proactive stance, and being clever about it, agencies are more likely to weather the current storm because they can provide the services their clients so desperately need.