Telling Clients They Have – Gasp! – a Weakness or Two.

When you’re a position to have to tell a client that they have a weakness or two or seventeen, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. Someone asked me that recently: “So, um, what do you do when you have to tell a client that, uh, a few things they’re doing aren’t…quite…good?”

“You’re asking me how do I tell someone their baby is ugly?”

“Well, I’ve never heard it said that way.”

“It’s exactly like that. Because when someone is close to their brand, it’s their baby. Some people know that deep down, their baby isn’t perfect even when they talk about it to other people. And they’re right. After all, a baby is a human being and humans are far from perfect.”

Brands are far from perfect too. Yet we see cases all the time of when CEOs and aspiring entrepreneurs have fallen in love with their own product far too quickly.

They haven’t asked the tough questions.
They haven’t talked to their potential prospects and gotten their take.
They think they don’t have competition when the reality is they haven’t looked hard enough.
They think areas like sales and marketing will just develop with time and besides, this will just ‘sell itself,’ right?”

“So…you don’t hold back?”

“Not really. And I don’t feel bad about it one bit because I’m coming into it objectively. They’re not. If they want to disagree with me, I’ll live with that and respect their point of view, but I can’t live with sugarcoating it for someone who wants to believe it’s all sunshine and rainbows just because their new product is on the market or that they’ve got 32 locations or $X million in revenue or they’ve been in business for 25 years. These are all admirable things. But just looking at the positives is not strategizing. That’s blowing smoke up their you-know-what. I’ve tried to prevent myself from doing that as I’ve gotten more experienced and wiser.”

“But do you say that in a diplomatic way or do you say it harshly?”

“I try not to be mean in any way, really. Everyone has flaws, myself very much included. But the funny thing is that when I start to say, ‘OK, now that we’re going to talk about your weaknesses, I’ll try to be as kind as I can…’ Do you know what they say in response?”

“Don’t pussyfoot around. Give it to me straight.” 

If you’re genuinely about client service, you don’t hide what they need to know for their own good from them. Unfortunately, there are some cheesy, service-with-a-smile-client-is-always-right people out there who don’t know how to do this because they’re too afraid. Plain and simple. No matter what they portray on the exterior, they’re just too afraid to offend, too afraid to lose their jobs, too afraid to lose the client, too afraid to do anything wrong. They don’t trust themselves and their experience to say what’s in the best interests of a brand. And not only will that fear hurt themselves, but ironically, it will actually hurt the very clients they claim to serve.

Need an extra incentive? If you don’t tell them their weaknesses, their competition will find those weaknesses and exploit them.

Better relationships are built on true honesty. That means delivering all of the news – the good, the bad and yes, the ugly. And then showing them how to turn that something ugly into something far prettier.

Do You Have Enough Beer-Worthy Clients?

The other day I had a client meeting not in a conference room or a Starbucks but the local establishment down the street serving cold frosty ones. It’s not mandatory by any means that my clients go out for a beer with me…but there’s an interesting pattern I’ve seen emerge over the years with the ones that do.

The ones who do seem to open up a little more about what’s on their mind, where they want to take their brand and the greater vision for what they want to achieve will invariably find themselves talking about it to me outside of their walls. And when they do that, they tend to say, “C’mon. Let’s go have a few beers. I want to pick your brain about…” 

It’s not about the alcohol, really.
This is a magical moment. What I’m talking about is an extra level beyond the “satisfied client.” I’m talking about the client that sees you as not just a supplier of services but an advisor. A confidant. A consigliere. It’s not just about a conversation about ads or social media or marketing.

It’s a business conversation. A product development conversation. A cultural conversation.

This is rarified ground. Not every client is comfortable taking it here. They have their barriers they want to leave up. For now, anyway.

The ones that don’t have such barriers, however, will often not see themselves in that higher ground of respect they deserve because they’ll think it’s all about the billing that determines their place on the totem pole. Ah, but how wrong these humble souls are.

In truth, they’re giving you access to a deeper level of communication that you won’t get just anywhere. Seize it. These are the ways great relationship stories are told. These people can be your best advocates to others. These are the people who let you in so you can become more than a “writer” or “designer” or whatever you put in your job description.

This is one of the great things I like about calling myself a consultant because I feel the business of helping clients communicate internally and externally could be more consultative than a typical “vendor-client” relationship.

We could all use at least one “beer-worthy” client. Or at least the kind of client you could easily visualize having a few beers with. It doesn’t make it less serious business or that we’re about to get tipsy. Just the opposite. It means a bond is about to be strengthened.

Some will blow this opportunity with schmoozing and sales-ish butt kissing. Please. Don’t be that cheeseball stereotype. Laugh and let your guard down a little. As long as you keep it real about the purpose of why you’re there and stay on point. And above all, use the two devices that so many people neglect – those things on the sides of your head called ears. It is at this moment when they’re opening up even more than usual that intense listening would not be a bad thing.

Just a couple of beers? I call it something more – an opportunity for relationship building on tap. And it’s amazing how it works out that way time and time again with some of the best clients I’ve had and cherish.


You can’t pay for a taco when you ordered the filet mignon.

It sounds hilarious. Ridiculous. Insane. Because the reason so many of us can relate to this funny but painfully true video is that we have heard such things prospective clients have said in order to get out of paying nearly as much money. In addition to these, I have echoes of phrases like “sweat equity,” and “if you do this for me, I know a lot of people…” embedded in my brain.

So if you’re a purchaser of services and believe you’re being slick and savvy in wanting to pay for a taco when you ordered the filet mignon, you’re not. When you’re purposefully trying to screw the other party, that’s crossing a line from good faith negotiation into being less than professional and respectful.

And if you’re a provider of quality services, stand up for yourself. I know you’ve got bills to pay right in front of you. But if you’re striving for better relationships and in turn, greater fulfillment in what you do for a living, you can’t get bullied into someone telling you that you’re worth less.

Because in the end, all you’ll feel is worthless.

12 service questions that might be worth $400 million to answer.

The relationship and chemistry side of our business is routinely undervalued for its role in how companies make decisions to stay with an agency. Here’s the truth: Yes, companies choose agencies and stay with them because they produce results. But also because…they like them.

Oh, but nobody could ever say that. Everyone has to appear emotionally impartial and objective. Anything otherwise wouldn’t be proper.

Of course we know that’s not true. When a winning agency presents, it’s hard if not impossible to show emotion on the client side. A curl of a smile. A chuckle. A gasp or even a tear. This is what we’re going for. It’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Because we know if we elicit that response in you, we have an excellent chance of winning that business because it shows a rapport with you, the immediate audience at hand and ultimately, your target audience.

So why isn’t it just as crucial after we win that business to build these types of positive emotional responses in client service? 

In the wake of SC Johnson’s mammoth defection of $400 million in business away from Draft FCB, I believe there’s more to the story here than merely dollars, cents and creative. Here too, it’s about relationships. Internal relationships within the agency that seemed to go haywire, resulting in longtime departures. Around the same time, new blood that came in from the client side. What it sounds like to me from the report in Crain’s is that what occurred was a perfect storm of personalities internally and externally that couldn’t quite mesh. And that makes it very, very challenging for the rest of an agency to overcome.

Relationships matter hugely on the way in and they matter just as much on the way out.

Let’s see. DraftFCB lost its long-time North American President, CFO and Chief of Staff within the last year – rumored to be due to internal politics. So no lack of gigantic transition there. You can put out all the agency memos you want about people seeking new adventures to minimize it, but there’s no mistaking these kinds of changes on one side are huge. And of course, the clients notice. Hello, new Chief Creative Officer.

Then, SC Johnson undergoes a bunch of changes in management too on their side. Big ones at the top. Hello, new Chief Operating Officer.

And it’s not like this new blood comes from within. Much of it came from the outside, which typically means people with their own agendas rather than trying to maintain continuity and cultural status quo. I’m not saying that’s a wrong move, but these types of transitions aren’t always smooth as silk. And when they happen on BOTH sides of the table around the same period of time? Forget about it.

Before we even talk about the quality of brand strategy, creative and results, can you see where this relationship would be behind the 8 Ball?

Let’s say it once and for all. No agency should feel that just because they have a client for 100 years that they should expect to have that client for Year 101 if the business isn’t cared for and nurtured as if it was won yesterday.

With this in mind, here are 12 service questions to ask yourself that are relevant to many in professional services, not just advertising and marketing:
1. Do you keep your contact aware of new trends affecting their industry regularly?
2.  Did you talk to them on the phone today (not e-mail – you have a voice. Use it.)?
3. How many people outside of your daily contact do you know there? How many of those people are outside of the department of your daily contact?
4. Conversely, how many people have they met from your company besides you? Why not?
5. When was the last time you took a tour of your client’s facility and other locations? 
6. When was the last time you just simply thanked them for their business? 
7. Have they ever referred a piece of business to you from another company? Why not?
8. How many other ways can they reach you besides phone and e-mail? Skype? LinkedIn? Twitter? 
9. Do you have regularly scheduled meetings so the both of you put it on your calendars or are you just waiting for them to call you if they need anything?
10. Have they ever invited you to a luncheon/networking event for an association or cause outside of work? Have you done the same for them?
11. Do you understand their goals not only in terms of “ROI in the next 6 months” but what makes them tick personally and professionally?
If you offer to take them to a Cubs game, are they going to be put off because they grew up on the South Side and are rabid Sox fans? What music do they like? Do they play golf? Have kids? These aren’t trivial things to know.
12. Outside of what they need for you to provide for them, how well do you understand all the other factors and forces internally that this person needs to navigate to do their job? When you’re not only someone they can confide in but someone they turn to as a person who helps them brainstorm solutions for greater workplace productivity – and that has NOTHING to do with your actual day-to-day job for them – you’ve hit pay dirt.

Some of those may seem like “no brainers” but you would be shocked how many high-ranking management types don’t do them and think they are small in the big picture.

To which my reply is: How many millions would you like to bet on that?

If you have a great example of a way you’ve extended yourself to clients (preferably not just one-time actions, but regular instances that show how you’ve built trust), let’s hear them in your comments so you can inspire others.