Tuesday, May 26, 2009

7 Steps for Building Stronger Client Relationships.

Many business development strategies focus on tactics for prospecting and gaining new business from outside sources, but often neglect to stress the importance of maintaining and building your relationship with current clients. Keeping a strong and healthy relationship with your current base is particularly important in a recession when budget cuts and loss leader offers from competitive suppliers make your agency more vulnerable.

Another point to keep in mind is that when looking to gain new business, you should not forget that the low-hanging fruit if often already on your client list. A recent study for the CMO Council found that 92% of respondents did not feel they had maximized the potential of their current client list. So here are seven important steps you should take to build your relationship with your current clients.

Step #1 - Identify your most important clients to prioritize your efforts.
You have limited time and resources, so it is important for you to focus your efforts where they will be most valuable to your agency. As a general rule, your largest client(s) should head this list, but not always. A detailed cost accounting analysis may reveal that our number two or number three clients are more profitable based on work load requirements and the type/quality of work you do for them. You should also make an objective evaluation of the strength of your relationship and the potential for growth. You may find some surprising insights on where and how to focus your client nurture efforts.

Step #2 - Develop a marketing plan for each client.
How many times do we stress the importance of developing a plan to our clients but fail to write one for ourselves. Take the time to develop customized objectives and strategies for each client and share the responsibility by giving specific assignments to senior members of your organization. Strengthening and growing your current clients is too important a task to rely solely on lower level account managers to do the job.

Step #3 - Get visible at multiple layers of client management.
If your primary contact and exposure is limited to only one level of line management, you are much more exposed than if you have a working relationship at the EVP or C-level. Most budget directives and hire-fire decisions are top-down, not bottom-up. We all know this, but the lackadaisical approach many agency heads take to keeping a high top-of-mind awareness and appreciation with client senior executives never ceases to amaze me. Many times the direct client contact discourages multiple contacts, but this is something you must not allow to happen. Don't go over your direct contact's head without his knowledge, but find ways to get others involved or face the consequences.

Step #4 - Promote yourself to your clients to reinforce your value and ROI.
Don't assume that the client recognizes and acknowledges your value just because the program is working. Do you think the marketing director is giving your agency all the credit? You should regularly look for ways to promote the quality of your agency and how your programs are adding value to the client's business and marketing goals. In today's soft economy, a focus on how your work is helping your client weather the recession is a good place to start.

One strategy that is helpful to many agencies is to generate a regular flow of program analyses, competitive and category updates, relevant articles and white papers on current or future areas of interest for the company. I always encouraged my account managers to read and search industry publications and websites for articles to forward to the clients, and to regularly screen competitor websites for new items that the client may have missed. This simple act can often make your direct contact a hero in the organization by keeping him informed and demonstrates the commitment you have to their business.

I also recommend that agencies develop two versions of press releases -- one to distribute to the media and a second version for clients and friends. The clients and friends version can go beyond the "just the facts" approach desired by reporters to include more acknowledgment and praise for the agency.

Step #5 - Conduct a Client Satisfaction Survey to identify opportunity areas and uncover potential problem areas.
If you aren't asking your clients regularly and formally if you are meeting or exceeding their expectations, now is the time to begin that process. Client needs are constantly changing, and a formal survey provides a platform for the agency to make changes and recommendations to meet those needs. Take the opportunity to talk about the economy and ask if there is any more you can do to help them in these difficult economic circumstances. Become part of the solution to the recession in their mind, not part of the problem. This is also an excellent way to build your knowledge and relationship with multiple levels of client management.

In some cases, it may help to outsource the survey to an independent party in order to gain the most candid feedback. But even if you take that route, there is an opportunity for senior management to meet with the client to confirm what you heard and how you plan to respond to that information.

Step #6 - Take your client to lunch.
As simple as that sounds, I see too many agencies that fail to appreciate the value of face-to-face contact in building a professional and personal relationship. As business has evolved in our 24/7, on demand world, many business relationships have become too impersonal. While voice mail, e-mail and text messaging are certainly more time efficient, they can never replace the value of reading the client's body language and visceral reaction to a recommendation. And you should never forget that it is more difficult to fire a friend than a vendor.

Step #7 - Offer a steady stream of insights and recommendations on ways to grow their business or improve their profitability.
The need for proactive thought-leadership as a relationship tool cannot be stressed enough. Your agency must be seen as more than a vendor of ads to have a long-term client relationship.

An obvious area to explore is the fact that many clients are simply overwhelmed by the complexity and pace of change and need guidance on how to take advantage of new media alternatives and technology tools. But keep in mind that the ultimate need is not just how to effectively use email, blogs, podcasts, mobile marketing, viral marketing, pay-per-click, user-generated content, Twitter, etc., but how to mix them with traditional media to create the most impact.

Clients also need help in understanding how their target audience attitudes, needs and motivations are changing as they adapt to new economic and social conditions. The Internet doesn't just change how we communicate with each other. It is having a profound impact on our shopping and buying habits, as well as our understanding of the world around us and how we relate to each other. The more real insight and information you can provide the client for his unique business situation and needs, the better your chances to be seen as an invaluable asset to their business.

In a recent post, I referenced a study by Rain Today that found only 42% of clients said they were "very satisfied" with their marketing/advertising/PR agency. Only 42%! That means that over half are not satisfied and are vulnerable to leaving their agency. The time to act is now! Building a stronger relationship with your current clients may be your best chance to avoid becoming a casualty of the recession.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree that building current client relationships is just as important, if not more so, than gaining new clients? I would love your feedback to this post.

Monday, May 18, 2009

7 Ways To Piss Off A Client

In a recent study by Rain Today, 42% of clients said they were "very satisfied" with their marketing/advertising/PR agency. Only 42%! That means that more than half are not satisfied, and are vulnerable to leaving their agency. Most of the talk about how to survive this recession has focused on gaining new clients, but it is just as important to keep your current clients (and income).

A few years ago, I gave a speech to an AAF regional meeting on "7 Ways To Piss Off A Client". My talk was based on actual quotes from clients on why they had recently fired their agency. Word about the speech spread, and I eventually gave that same talk to over 30 local ad clubs and business organizations. When I read the report referenced above, it reminded me of that speech and a quick review convinced me it is still valid today.

All of these "seven ways" are what I call BGO's (i.e. blinding glimpses of the obvious). But the sad fact is that even though agencies know these actions break down the relationship, many still commit these basic relationship mistakes every day. I could have titled my speech "7 Ways To Keep A Client Happy", but doing everything right doesn't always translate into keeping a client happy and loyal. I gave my audience the assurance that following my advice was guaranteed to upset their client-agency relationship. Here are my key points, followed by actual quotes on why that made them angry enough to look for a new agency supplier.

1. Don't listen.
"Agencies have all the answers. They think they know more about my business than I do. Or worse, they are only thinking about winning awards and not what sells."
2. Miss deadlines without warning the client.
"Agencies will tell you anything to get you to approve a job, but when the pressure's on, they're always late."
3. Be over-budget.
"All agency people are overpaid and under-worked. No wonder they're so careless with my money."
4. Be intractable. Argue about everything.
"Agencies argue about periods versus exclamation points. They try so hard to be right all the time, they lose sight of what they should be doing."
5. Be greedy.
"Agencies think that advertising is the only way to sell products are are always recommending ways to increase their billings, not increase my sales."
6. Don't support your client's products.
"Agencies are whores. They don't really have a commitment to my business."
7. Be preoccupied with new business or other business.
"After the honeymoon, the agency just didn't give me the service they had promised. They never seemed to be there when I called."

Do any of these seven ways sound familiar? If they do, maybe you should re-think your business development strategy.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Fishing for new business.

Trout season opened last week, and I had a very successful fishing trip this past weekend. It occurred to me on my way home yesterday that most of the principles for good fishing apply directly to best practices for new business. And even though I've been fishing (and prospecting for new business) for many years, it never hurts to take a few minutes before you pack your gear to remember the basics. If you want to be catch the limit every time, you need to follow a few guidelines:

1. Know which fish are biting before you get in the boat.
A good fisherman needs to study the fishing reports before he leaves the house so that he can know which lake or stream offers the best opportunity. An essential part of successful new business prospecting is to know all you can about general marketplace trends and the business category or niche in which you are competing. You need to keep a close watch on which companies and industries are growing and which are stagnant. Both offer opportunities for new business growth, but must be approached from a different perspective and with a different promise.

2. Have the right equipment within easy reach.
I always carry extra rods and reels, along with my tackle box to make adjustments if something breaks or if I need different equipment without having to return to the dock and missing an opportunity. Successful agencies make sure they have a variety of creative samples, a strong website that shows their versatility and capability to good advantage, and a library of case studies and client testimonials that can be used to adjust their sales story as they learn more about their prospect's needs. And they need to have the flexibility to incorporate new strategies as the sales cycle advances or changes.

3. When you find the right bait stick with it.
On Friday afternoon, my boat partner and I caught over 50 trout (it was a catch-and-release lake, so we didn't worry about over-fishing the area). On Saturday, he decided to try a different lure, while I stuck with the same basic set-up as the previous day. I caught 3x more fish than he did. Every client prospect and situation must be treated as a unique opportunity, but if you find a winning strategy stick with it. I don't mean that you should use a cookie-cutter approach, as that seldom works. But if you find something that works, don't abandon it just to try something different.

4. Compare notes with others on the best places to fish.
Before we leave the dock, I always ask around to see if I can pick up any tips to improve my fishing success. I've found that the real pros don't mind sharing advice on the hot lures and flies, or the best depth or locations to find the most fish. The same kinds of information can be found when new business prospecting by joining professional associations, reading blogs and hiring new business consultants. That last point may sound self-serving coming from a new business consultant, but I truly believe that independent, experienced counsel from an unbiased perspective can dramatically improve your success rate.

5. New technology tools can help your success rate, but only if you know how to use them correctly.
A fishfinder can be an invaluable asset to improve your odds for success. But you must know how to properly mount the transducer, tune and adjust the sonar settings, and correctly read the screen to use it to your best advantage. In new business today, social media marketing is the hottest topic around, and can be used to increase your new business success. Agencies can use blogs and social networking sites to broaden their awareness and build their reputation. They can also use these tools as a part of their sales strategy as many clients need help in understanding how their business can take advantage of new media alternatives. But their ultimate need is not just how to effectively use email, blogs, podcasts, mobile marketing, viral marketing, pay-per-click, user-generated content, Twitter, etc., but how to mix them with traditional media to create the most impact. Be careful not to jump on the social media marketing bandwagon without knowing how to use it properly.

6. Be prepared for changes in the weather, but don't change your tactics too rapidly or drastically.
Every fisherman knows that the weather can change in a hurry, so they should be prepared to adjust their strategy, their gear and their clothing to match new conditions as they arise. But if they spend all of their time setting up their new gear or putting on their rain outfit, they might miss a fish or find that the conditions have already changed again by the time they finish their adjustments. The same can be true for new business prospecting. Some agencies are constantly looking for the next, new thing and thus are always making adjustments in their prospecting approach, their presentation techniques and their materials. My advice is to be careful not to move away from what you know or do best just to have something new. A smart strategy and good insights to help the prospect grow their business don't have to be presented in a fancy high tech video or Powerpoint presentation to win a client's trust (and business). I've had just as much success with hand-drawn flip charts and ideas that were scribbled on the back of a napkin as I have with a fancy presentation. Be prepared to make adjustments when needed, but never forget that good ideas trump everything else.

Good fishing!