In last month’s blog I wrote about the importance of understanding client needs in determining the success of a service business. The essential companion to spending quality time in your clients’ shoes is relationship behaviour, the ability to establish rapport, maintain trust and credibly behave in your clients’ best interests. Again, this second pillar of trusted advisor status on a client’s roster is easy to describe but hard to execute well.

This is partly because relationships are often victims of their own accessibility. It’s a seductive belief that because everyone has relationships, they can manage them effectively. This reminds me of the familiar assertion ‘we all have a book in us’. We all certainly have a tale to tell. But writing a noteworthy book is a different story, and so it is with nurturing a fully-functioning relationship. In a business liaison the difference is between client satisfaction (no major negatives) and client commitment where the benefits of ardent support help propel the relationship to a higher level of mutual regard and benefit.

To add to the complexity, relationships can be delicate and elusive. For example, they are disproportionately influenced by small acts of kindness or neglect. Without constant vigilance, like the best guitars, they are prone to slip imperceptibly out of tune until, one day, the disharmony becomes apparent.

Of course, this is why it makes commercial sense, formally and independently, to evaluate client/agency relationships at least once a year, employing in the mix, where the stakes are highest, qualitative methodology. This both explores present performance and, significantly, embraces more discursive future-facing topics which help prime relationships for the challenges ahead. There is a role for scores and benchmarks but, with today’s workplace so pressurised, understanding the nuances, the volume levels, the how and the why have never been more important.

So, how do agencies display the kind of relationship behaviour which stimulates client commitment? Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Focus on your clients’ business outcomes. This overlaps with my previous blog on understanding client needs but the imperative here is behaviour. Overtly reference what you are doing to your clients’ overarching goals, especially in providing solutions which work across multiple channels; work in adaptive ways which fit with clients’ structures and processes; have an interesting point of view on their market, competition and ambitions
  • Be continuously present. Even if your assignment is project-based, do not let the rhythm of the work dictate the rhythm of the relationship. Clearly there will be times which are more or less busy but clients want their truly trusted advisors to be permanently thinking about their business, always ready to engage, regularly in touch with relevant input. Understand the dynamics within your clients’ organisations and do keep their perceptions of the agency current. Your competitors will be bombarding them with their latest marketing material
  • Deliver added value. Regularly subject your client engagement to a ‘Must Do, Should Do, Could Do’ analysis. It’s easy to become comfortable with the ‘compulsory figures’ and forget the ‘freestyle’ (historical ice skating references, if you were wondering!). Clients love agencies which give them ideas without being asked, which uncover new consumer intelligence, which leverage learning from across their whole business. I also advise agencies to keep a value diary in order that, when the time is right or the question raised, their contribution can be readily recalled and acknowledged
  • Work collaboratively. Agency people are fierce competitors by nature. In reaching for the stars, that’s a good thing. However, if clients sense that this powerful instinct is in fact preventing the best ideas from emerging and surviving then the tables turn dramatically. It drives clients mad to witness the distracting and damaging impact of turf wars within a roster. This is where the involvement of senior agency personnel (increasingly insisted upon by their client counterparts) can be helpful. And if the agency responsibilities are too ill-defined, ask the clients for clarification
  • Lead the relationship. Don’t just let it happen. The relationship, like the business problem, must be actively cracked. In this endeavour, ensure that you know all of the clients you need to know. Create a relationship footprint for the agency which is not restricted to the people with whom you work directly. Include their Procurement team. Get to know your main clients personally as well as professionally. What kind of marketers are they? What do they read for inspiration? What incentivises them? Where are their red lines, what are their hot buttons? In short, what are they like?

In the end, successful relationship behaviour comes down to trust. With a foundation of empathy, respect, candour and positive, shared intent, clients will do their best to support the agency team to do its best.

Relationship behaviour is a daily activity, however, requiring unstinting attention. Quoting Mark Carney’s updated version of a line from a 19th century Dutch politician: “Trust arrives on foot but leaves in a Ferrari”.

Keep your business relationships away from fast cars and, to be sure, consult an expert.