Take it from a couples counselor and client relationship consultant: it’s always tempting to compare your relationship with your client to a marriage. It’s also true that the agency-client relationship, whether it’s marketing, advertising, or any other service, is far more complex. It involves the pressure of high-stakes objectives and more often than not, didn’t start in the context of a love match. It started as a transaction and a business arrangement.
But in the Venn diagram of love and business relationships, there are some key similarities. Addressing a rift in the agency-client relationship can prompt that same “I don’t know why this happened” bafflement as can happen in our personal lives. Just as a seemingly minor problem in a marriage can escalate into something far more serious, so can an agency-client issue. So here’s how to fix the agency-client relationship — and prevent a potential divorce — in 5 steps:
- Realize there are two sets of problems. In any relationship, there are two levels of problems, those related to tasks and those related to the underlying relationship. We can call a transactional issue Problem A, and call an issue related to the underlying relationship Problem B. For instance: contract signed, your agency gets to work fulfilling its obligations, task by task, for your client. Deliverables have to be met. Milestone deadlines have to be reached. If something goes wrong, it’s a problem A.
- Don’t just focus on solving the Problem As. Often, an agency measures its success by whether or not it’s hitting these marks and solving all the Problem As. Teams focus nearly all their time, energy and attention on tasks, which are at times accomplished with a no-holds barred, by-any-means-necessary approach, navigated at a frenetic pace — because delivering great work on time will keep the client happy, right?
- Consider if you’re really facing a problem A. What if your client isn’t happy? What I’ve seen time and again is that as the agency gains momentum checking off each task, it loses sight of the critical relationship dynamic with the client. In some cases, an agency may feel it knows better than the client does — that’s why the client hired them, after all. But meanwhile, the client feels like they are not being listened to and their requests are being ignored. And that’s a bigger problem than not making Friday’s deadline.
- Dig to find the Problem B. Often when a client expresses unhappiness but every task is getting accomplished in the allotted time and according to schedule, the agency is blindsided. The agency’s perspective is this: We’re getting everything done. So what’s the problem? The problem is all in the relationship itself, and how the client feels they are being treated. Time to adjust the approach — stop pushing on task and start tending to the client. Listen to their concerns. Find out how they’re feeling about the relationship, no matter how successful the team has been on getting the work done. Is the client losing confidence, or feeling patronized, unimportant or disrespected?
- Work on solving those underlyingproblems. It may seem counterproductive to spend time and energy and time focusing on underlying dynamics and feelings — you can’t keep delivering that great work if you’re talking about how you’re getting along. But unexpressed, unresolved tension between a client and agency can have a major impact.
If a client feels the agency cares, listens, and makes an effort to understand the client’s perspective, chances are they will be more likely to feel that they can trust and rely on the agency. But the opposite is just as true. The client’s experience and perception of how the agency handles Problem A is always influenced by their experience of how the agency handles Problem B. In other words, if you aren’t listening to them, they will generally feel less good about the work you do. In other words, if there are Problem Bs that are unresolved they will feel less good about the work you do and more likely to reject your ideas and proposals.
As a counselor as well as a consultant, I’ve seen this happen: One partner may think it’s about their not doing the dinner dishes, but the other partner is talking about a general pattern of not sharing the workload or respecting their wishes. It’s going to take a lot more than washing a few pots and pans to close that wound. Emotions aside, as an agency you can likely be a bit more objective about your blind spots. Take care to make sure you’re paying attention to your client’s state of mind, tend to Problem B — the relationship — and the outcome will be far more successful.