As I’ve shared previously on gonzoblog, I’ve worked in advertising agencies and marketing firms since the late 90s. I’ve been involved from many different angles — creative, account management and business ownership.
With that broad perspective, I’d like to share the most important lessons I’ve learned in creating and building successful, long-term client relationships. These lessons fall into two primary categories:
A. The Customer is Always….Right? — managing expectations
B. Results are Relative — defining success
A. The Customer is Always….Right?
1. “The customer’s always right” is irrelevant
Do any of these horror stories sound familiar to you?
The customer (or client) picks the absolute worst possible color combination. They fall in love with the most hackish tagline. Or they insist on using a garish, convoluted logo. And worse yet, you’re forced to work with it.
Then it comes to your creative. The client bastardizes it or dumbs it down in a way that they believe works best for them. Is this triggering painful memories for anyone else out there?
In all of these cases, they’ve made the wrong decision. But right or wrong is irrelevant. It’s their company. It’s their money. It’s their call.
Lesson Learned: As creatives, we need to be able to remove ourselves from our work. Our job isn’t to create showcase pieces for clients, though we love when our best work is showcase quality. Our job is to create products that help them meet their business objectives. In the final analysis, that’s up to them, right or wrong.
2. What “We want it to look like ____” may really mean
This lesson used to really shock me, but it doesn’t any longer. Clients will very often have an idea in their heads of what they want the final result to look or sound like. With design, in particular, when they say, “We want to resemble Company X’s website,” they may mean that more literally than you logically assume.
Earlier in my career, with one of the first integrated marketing campaigns I managed, the company said they wanted their site to look like another company’s. Ok, got it, or so I thought. This was communicated to the creative team as part of the strategic direction of the site.
It was only after future iterations of the comp they chose and an obscenely lengthy and mind-numbing all-hands meeting with the executive team of their very flat organization, that it became abundantly clear how closely they wanted to mirror that other site. They wanted a virtual copy.
While this is an extreme example, I’ve seen this phenomenon again and again.
Lessons Learned: Get clear definitions around what and who they really want to look like or sound like. Are they saying they want a tone that resembles that company, they want to look as big as that company, they like the idea of such bold color contrasts, or are they taking the concept a lot further?
B. Results are Relative
If you’ve been a creative professional for very long, you’ve probably made sacrifices, worked exceptionally hard and turned out products that were so good you even surprised yourself. That’s the good stuff.
The sad part, if you’re in the habit of turning out exceptional work, is that you’ve most certainly had more than a few clients take it for granted. They used the work, but you didn’t receive any accolades. It wasn’t long before they ended up using another designer, writer or agency for future projects.
There can be a number of reasons for this disappointing turn of events. Here are two of the most common:
3. Understand how they define success
Unless you understand how the client defines success, their definition and yours will almost certainly be very different.
In addition to copywriting and strategic marketing, I also do a lot of public relations. I find that for many clients, the metric of public relations success is still the number of press releases they distribute. With these organizations, I explain the real value or PR, and if they don’t agree with me, I default to Lesson 1. It’s their money, their business, their call.
I worked with one client where I repeatedly made the case to them. If they were going to advance their company’s brand and reach strategic thought leaders, it wouldn’t be by knocking out press releases, but by pitching those announcements to the right media. After pleading the case unsuccessfully I had given up and resigned myself to developing high-quality press releases.
My point of contact affirmed that the press release-only method was the approach they sought. Some time later I was contacted by the somewhat confused CEO asking me why I was only putting out releases instead of pitching the company’s great stories. This brings me to the next lesson. . .
4. Remember the decision makers!
If you’re going to build a relationship with a client that leads to both high quality work that they love, and long-term business, it’s essential that you’re getting to the real decision makers.
The example above is what happens when you don’t communicate directly with the real decision makers (despite your best efforts). The people calling the shots don’t know that there’s a communications breakdown between their managers and you. If this course persists, they’ll just assume that you’re not the designer, writer or agency to do the job. They’ll get rid of you and pull someone else in who can they believe can do a better job.
Lesson Learned: Push for meetings with company leadership. If regular meetings are untenable, push for sporadic meetings to keep key people engaged. But never cut your points of contact out. Make them part of those meetings.
What Lessons Have You Learned?
These are some of the most important lessons in client management that I’ve learned over the years. We’d love to hear yours! Feel free to share your comments below.
I’ll blog soon about more of the most important lessons I’ve learned in managing clients. They include the real value of a signed agreement, the importance of negotiating, and knowing when to take a prospect seriously and when to guard your time.