5 Principles For Managing Client Relationships
Peter Panda

Managing relationships with clients on behalf of a marketing agency can be absolute insanity. Every client comes with unique issues that need addressing immediately. There are dozens of players — CMOs or VPs of corporate communications, PR managers, creatives, brand managers, junior brand managers —  all constantly looking to you for direction and updates.

There’s the ever-looming deadline that’s always arriving too soon. And as the client relationship manager, you’re the person mostly likely to take the blame when something fails and the least likeliest person to get credit when a project succeeds.

True story: I once had a boss question why he even needed an account manager. I pointed to our most introverted copywriter and replied, “OK. Have him go sell the idea to the client.” I won that argument.

Yes, account services can be maddening and occasionally thankless work, but it’s also a thrill (and incredibly addictive) for all the reasons cited above — the rush, the collaboration, the diversity of clients and challenges. It’s also can be a little less insane if you follow these five principles that I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) in my 14 years in account services:

  1. Make client lives easier, not harder: Sounds simple, right? In theory it is, but in practice it can be difficult to grasp. When I first got into this field I thought I was doing a superb job by responding and helping clients when they reached out to me for something. In reality, I was only half doing my job. Effective account service reps don’t wait around for their clients to call. They’re anticipating what their clients need and coming to them with proactive solutions and ideas. Let’s face it, marketing departments at most companies are understaffed, under-financed and have the biggest goal of all: increasing sales. My job is to alleviate that stress and help them accomplish their goals. That may be offering clients fresh and innovative ways to communicate their message, identifying trends in their consumers behaviors or just easing and remedying any hiccups that occur along the way. For instance, I don’t need to tell them that it took me 25 emails to get the information I needed from their R&D department or that the vendor they’re wanting me to work with doesn’t know what an EPS file is. No. My job is to take those frustrations out of their hands and ensure we achieve the stated goal.

 

  1. Be honest: Everyone thinks account services is about strategy and ideas. It’s not. It’s really about trust. Trust is the currency of this business. If you’re not willing to trust me to spend the time and resources required to run your advertising and oversee your media, then we’re not going to have a productive relationship. And at the core of trust is honesty. All types of things can go wrong in advertising: a campaign can fall flat, you can get bad press for something outside of your control, sales can drop, customers can rebell. None of this is easy. Yet as much as you might hate being the bearer of bad news (I know I do!), it’s the account rep’s job to be upfront with the client when something fails. If the agency is at fault, then you need to admit that — and you better have a solution, too. The same goes if the client is, say, pushing an unreasonable deadline for a project. An account rep needs to be honest about that otherwise you’re going to frustrate your own creative team. You don’t want to automatically agree to something, such as rushing a project, that ultimately won’t serve the best interests of the client.

 

  1. Immerse Yourself In Their Industry: Plastic balls. Itsy bitsy plastic balls. I never dreamed I’d be an expert in pebble-size polymers, but an expert I became when an ad agency I worked for landed a client that took big pieces of plastic and broke them down into pellets for recycling. Sure, this line of business isn’t as sexy as, say, liquor or cars or designer clothes, but the more I learned, the more interested in it I became. Not that my enjoyment mattered. My objective was solely in serving the client. Good account reps immerse themselves in their clients’ businesses and industries. If you don’t have that expertise, you’re not going to be of any value. So how do you do this? You start with the company and learn everything about it —  its key people, products and services. Next you immerse yourself in its brand — its prior promotions, marketing, and historical data. From that you will have identified the competition and you do the same thing for its competitors. Then you look at the industry as a whole and how it is segmented. Is it by age, gender, ethnicity? What is unique? Finally, you look at trends and news in that space and all of a sudden it is part of your daily routine. Boom! You’re now getting Google Alerts at 3 a.m. on plastic balls. You’ve arrived.

 

  1. Think Holistically: Most companies and brands have channels beyond advertising and marketing that can be used to connect and engage with an audience. It’s the role of account services to make sure those channels are being utilized and working in alignment. For example, are the company’s employees aware of the marketing initiatives and are they being leveraged to promote the brand? Conversely, if something is running counter to the marketing efforts, what can you do to mitigate that? I once worked with a client whose conservative website was a complete mismatch with its in-your-face marketing efforts. With this knowledge, we were able to work around the website with a microsite developed for our campaign. I’d like to say I was able to convince the client to change their website, but they were in love with it and, well, my failure to persuade the client ties in well to the final principle below.

 

  1. Let Go Of Your Ego: I learned this from a former boss,  an executive creative director at a previous ad agency. As anyone who’s worked in this business knows, creative directors are often the most passionate (dare I say temperamental) people in the office. This guy was too, but he was also an exception. He was a gifted artist and wordsmith, the best I’ve worked with, but he also had this calm about him. We could spend weeks working on a concept or idea, and if the client disagreed with it (and made a good case as to why it didn’t fit), he would calmly say, “OK. I see your point. We’ll go back and do something different.” This just floored me. The way he was able to let go of these setbacks saved him and the team several days of wasted time that might otherwise have been spent licking wounds and stewing on rejection.

 

In account services you bridge the gap between the client and the agency. As a result, you’re often caught in the middle — dealing with demands and emotions on both sides. This is especially acute as deadlines near. That’s why it’s important for account services to have as close to a zen-like calmness as possible. Of course, this is easier said than done. But at its core, it’s really about respect. You’re job is to demand respect for the client, foster respect for your team and keep everyone’s focus on accomplishing the goal.

These are five principles that I try to live by in my day-to-day work. If you have your own mantras for building client relationships, I’d love to hear them.

Peter Panda

Pioneering social media panda bear Tagawa “Peter” Panda was born on a Chinese game reserve in 1969. He emigrated to the United States in 1987 speaking no English, with only the fur on his back and $97 stored in a Jansport fanny-pack wrapped around his waist.

In 2003 while searching for food on the campus of Washington University, he discovered a computer lab where he would ultimately teach himself web development, graphic design, and immerse himself into the growing digital media evolution that was erupting at the time.

With his trademark surly demeanor developed during beatings on his boat ride from China to the U.S., as well as having a penchant for eating vast quantities of bamboo, and enjoying Scotch and cigars, Peter is broadly recognized for coining the phrase “social media” in 2004. He joined Elasticity in late 2009 as the agency’s director of social media strategy and wildlife relations. Friend him on Facebook here.

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