There are two key drivers of success in a service business, in my view – understanding client needs and relationship behaviour. Both appear straightforward, perhaps obvious, but their simplicity is deceptive. They are difficult to execute well and, as the world becomes ever more complex, the bar will continue to be raised.

My current work with both clients and agencies, whether in retained or project-based relationships, indicates that, in a highly competitive climate, the importance of understanding client needs seems to be particularly acute. When this capability is absent or unclear, a client will withhold total commitment to the agency which in turn will struggle to reach the Holy Grail of trusted advisor status. Inevitably, persistent failure by an agency team to understand its clients’ needs will put the liaison at risk.

We have to sympathise with agencies to an extent. Often, access to clients can be limited by punishing schedules, by the removal of what one of my interviewees described as ‘counsel time’ to accommodate the relentless demands of the here and now.

On the other hand, this is an inescapable reality. Corporations are permanently re-structuring, change is the new normal and pressure on the working day will not diminish. Ominously, also, management consultancies are targeting the traditional territory of marketing services agencies, investing heavily in skills and techniques which enable them to get under the skin of their clients.

So what do I think it really means to understand your clients’ needs?

Importantly, it’s not primarily about what they might need from you! That comes at the end of the exercise, not the beginning. You must also contemplate the possibility that, right now, they don’t need anything from you, other than your unceasing attention, energy and curiosity. And don’t get distracted by what clients want. What they really want is for you to understand what they need.

There is no better image for understanding clients’ needs than ‘spending time in their shoes’ and here are my suggested areas of interrogation for making that time well spent:

  • What kind of organisation are they? For example, the motivations and behaviours of public, private and voluntary sector enterprises are different. How are they structured? What’s their business model – how do they make money? What makes them tick – what’s their vision, culture, leadership style, attitude to risk, how are individuals incentivised? While these seem like basic questions, the answers can reveal attitudes, processes, dependencies and pressure points which improve the grasp of your clients’ environment
  • What are your clients’ key challenges? Well-established tools like PESTEL can facilitate internal debate on the overarching market dynamics which your clients are facing. This activity can also deepen your understanding of their competitors and start to illuminate high-level needs and opportunities
  • Where are they heading? One piece of advice. Read your clients’ Annual Reports. Always on the ‘I really should…’ list, they are a pithy and invaluable source of intelligence on client performance and planning
  • What are their priorities? If you can demonstrate an appreciation of the big picture, and its implications, then you significantly increase your chances of gaining access to, if not actually contributing to, your clients’ business/marketing plans. These documents tend to contain the kind of macro analysis we have already outlined but also, significantly, they reflect the critical decisions (in the form of objectives and strategies) which have been taken to help the organisation flourish in its defined marketplace

In short, the key to understanding your clients’ needs lies in understanding their businesses, from the ground up, in their own right and not simply as vehicles for your particular specialism. But, undoubtedly, if you evidence your grasp of and alignment with your clients’ business challenges and desired outcomes, the door to more work will open.

Of course, it helps to understand your clients personally as well as professionally but that introduces the second driver of success in service businesses, namely relationship behaviour (the subject for a future blog).

Finally, don’t overlook the signals transmitted by how well you understand your own business. The ability to speak coherently and persuasively about the commercial levers and ambitions of the agency serves a vital purpose.  It provides reassurance that a cherished brand will be in the hands of someone who is fluent in business as well as competent in relevant craft skills. You may indeed work for ‘an ideas company’ but, through client goggles, this will appear superficial and generic.

To be the best you can be you need to know what your clients need. Ask them, certainly. But do your homework first and then put your questions.