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Secret Sauce of Client Service
I have been in client service in agency land for most of my 20-year career in marketing. I love it, but it is not without its challenges.
Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I’m pretty good at it. I’ve almost always grown my client accounts and often held on to them for a long time, too – my current record client tenure is 13 years and counting.
Sure, it’s a stressful line of work.
In my mid-thirties and running my agency, I made the mistake of asking a chirpy account exec how old she thought I was.
“As old as my dad,” she said.
“Christ, how old’s he?” I said.
“He’s 55,” she said.
“F*cking hell”. I said.
So, if you want to look 20 years older than you are read on for my top 5 tips on delivering excellent client service.
Tip 1: Get a Tight Scope of Work in Place
I bet you thought I was going to say good communications first.
Now obviously that’s important. If you’re in marketing the chances are good you can string a sentence together, and you know how to listen. If not, I hear accountancy is an exciting line of work.
We need to look beyond this essential human skill, and you can find the magic in a proper scope of work, often referred to as scope.
In the scope of work, you need to detail precisely what you will do for your client and, importantly, what you are not going to do too. Don’t shy away from the detail and forecast every last billing segment.
Planning to run a weekly client call? Put in your scope enough time to organise it, host it and provide a contact report afterwards. Are you doing site visits with your client for their next event series? Allocate enough time to get around all the venues.
Crucially, you need to make sure you have checked your client understands your scope too. They must sign-off on it.
The scope is a crucial document for budgeting, allocating resource and crucially billing too. Even if you are charging on value rather than time, it will help you to forecast how long a campaign or project is going to take. You can then calculate your “value-based” pricing and see whether it stacks up to the time you are going to invest.
OK, now that both the client and agency are on the same page, you can move on.
Tip 2: Project Management Infrastructure
It’s all too easy in an agency to get on with the business of doing stuff. Writing that press release, putting your research brief together, building that website, and so on.
When you’re a small agency or team working closely together, it’s easy to manage, and you can update your clients whenever they want.
But as you grow, as you build a team and bring in external talent, you need to have the resilience to deliver, whatever happens. That means proper project management and infrastructure to support it.
These days that means getting the right suite of apps in place and sticking to them, rigidly. Whether you use Synergist, Asana, Todoist, Smartsheet, Monday.com or even good old Microsoft Project, make sure your team gets it. Crucially, make sure your client gets good at it too.
Want to get fancy? Get yourself Prince2 certified. That’s the British standard for project management and well worth exploring.
Tip 3: Act with Integrity
I promise you something is going to go wrong with a client account.
As sure as there is grey hair on my head (see the note above about looking 55), you or someone in your team will cock something up.
You’ll send some artwork off to print with a low res graphic. Or you’ll set a client’s website live with some “free” stock images and get pursued by Getty. Maybe your account manager will bin a whole day of leads from a trade show you’re running for a client that cost over £80k to attend.
Tick, tick and tick in my case by the way.
The only way around these mistakes is to hold your hand up and accept responsibility.
You may get fired, but equally, your client will appreciate the honesty, especially if you have a plan to fix the mistake or you cover the costs to rectify the issue.
Have a plan in place before you call your client by the way,
Tip 4: Execute without Fault and Manage the Over-servicing
A well-run agency is a beautiful and profitable thing, but only if you deliver on your promises. This delivery requires excellent strategy and faultless execution. Say what you do and do what you say. Always.
Now, this inevitably means there’ll be some overserving. The dreaded scope creep comes into the picture here.
Over servicing is the bane of many agency owners’ lives. You forecast 100 hours for a project, the scope changes halfway through, and it takes you 125 hours, but the budget remains the same.
Now you’ve got a decision to make. Do you have that awkward conversation and ask for more money, or do you take it on the chin?
And of course, the answer is, it depends.
If you have a client with a one-off project, then you must get paid for the extra work. If it’s a long term or repeat client that always pays on time, write off the overserving as an investment.
The cost to your agency is likely to be significantly less than for finding a new long term client.
Next time get your scope of work and project management process tightened up so you can have the conversation early on when the brief changes. Oh and execute faultlessly.
Tip 5: Get a Backbone
In-house marketers are under pressure too. It might be different from the stresses of agency life, but it’s no cakewalk on the other side of the fence you know. The grass is not always greener.
Don’t be afraid to have the difficult conversations about f*ck ups, over-servicing, changing account teams, re-billing expenses, flagging up unreasonable client behaviour – this will definitely happen by the way.
You have to be courageous to be a good client service lead.
This courage not only means dealing with day to day issues of account management but also having the guts to say when you don’t believe your client’s strategy or approach is sound.
They’ll thank you for it, but make sure you can validate your ideas. Opinions are OK, but fact-based consultancy, that’s where the real value is.
It’s also how to elevate your agency from the execution dogs body competing on price, to the strategic partner billing on value. Don’t be an agency full of yes men and women.
So there you have it, my top 5 tips for successful client service for agency pros.
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