In recent months a stimulating portion of my working diet has come from freelancing with The Client Relationship Consultancy (CRC). As a global business, primarily partnering communications agency networks, CRC has access to extensive data on client/agency relationships.  Its triannual client survey, built upon the tried and tested ‘Would you recommend…?’ question, has become an industry standard.

A trend observed by CRC, and reflected in my own relationship optimisation projects, has surfaced as client dissatisfaction with the current weight of their agencies’ contributions. Specifically, business grip, strategic input and innovation have attracted criticism over the last year.

Undoubtedly financial pressure upon clients has encouraged them to demand more from agency partners. And in turn agencies have seen their resources stretched more thinly in a post-COVID environment.

Sadly, however, when this kind of mismatch occurs between expectation and delivery, the biggest casualty is shared understanding with its knock-on effect upon rapport and trust.

It is widely acknowledged that mutual comprehension is crucial to creating high-performing teams, to nurturing fully functioning commercial relationships, especially in testing times. Alignment on direction, purpose, values, responsibilities, and success criteria helps maximise the impact of often multi-faceted, time-pressured collaboration.

Generating and maintaining shared understanding is a key challenge for leaders. And while leadership in any era has always been difficult, the shift to remote and hybrid working has added another layer of complexity to relationship management.

More important than ever, therefore, to prioritise behaviours that enhance the quality of understanding shared by client and agency. This is particularly pressing where, as above, the areas of perceived under-performance are so open to interpretation.

Commercial grasp, strategy and innovation are all elusive. A room full of people might come up with a room full of definitions. Differences are inevitable. Like when the eager to please brand manager concluded an agency briefing with ‘I want great work’. The creative director leapt to ‘something that has never been done before’. The client’s real ask was for ‘something slightly better than last year’.

In this situation, an intervention that can help enormously is ‘What do you mean?’ (by strategic input, for example), with an accompanying request to describe/show some examples. Illustrations of ‘great’ would certainly have spared the brand manager’s blushes a few weeks later at the creative presentation.

Haste and fear of embarrassment can often prevent us asking basic questions that expose clarity and lead to understanding.

In a world where we share physical space less frequently, taking time to rehearse what is meant when deliverables are set and accepted can materially help drive the shared understanding from which anything is possible, including client approbation.