It isn’t just good to talk. It’s imperative for the future of the agency/client relationship. That was the direction of travel which emerged loud and clear at a recent briefing on client love, led by Question & Retain in collaboration with the PRCA, challenging agencies to ask themselves how well they really know the organisations they are servicing.

Client knowledge is a cumulative resource, constantly shifting and adapting to accommodate new information, to changes in the dynamic of the relationship, to the arrival of new people on both sides of the partnership and to the internal and external influences that buffet any organisation.

It is acquired through constant conversation, live questioning, listening and responding. An agency/client relationship that lives by expectations and KPIs blithely set, as if in stone, at the point of hire, can never hope to thrive. And responsibility for success – and naturally what that looks like will inevitably change as the relationship matures – lies with both parties.

These conclusions were nailed during a discussion that took place in the light of some stark statistics for agencies about client bugbears. A Pulse Check of PRCA in-house members revealed that 13% feel their agency shows a lack of understanding about their business, while 8% suggest their agency doesn’t understand the pressures experienced by the in-house team. An eyebrow-raising 25% are concerned about poor metrics and a general failure by the agency to demonstrate ROI.

Trust and evaluation

“Trust, showing commercial results, and really robust evaluation methods are a huge part of the framework that we develop at the beginning of a client relationship, alongside strong account management processes,” said Natalie Luke, Founder and Managing Director of Aduro Communications.

“That means we can show delivery at every commercial level – they can trust us to deliver, and we can grow alongside their business. We ask a lot of questions so we can understand and get under the skin of their business. If you don’t understand what pressures they’re under, you’ll never be successful because you can’t know what they’re trying to achieve.”

Natalie warned against making assumptions without thorough discussion at the beginning of the relationship. They will be the first things to rear up when crisis hits. Even something as basic as deadlines can quickly expose a lack of understanding: a client’s ‘end of the day’ might be the middle of the afternoon for a junior account executive who lacks that specific knowledge.

Be transparent

For Rachel Gilley, Managing Director of Bite, the solution lies in open communication and anticipation. “Don’t kid a kidder,” she said. “Clients are smart – and they are also people. Build personal relationships, understand the world they inhabit, send account executives in to spend a day at their offices, invite the client to come and see what’s involved on a day-to-day basis from your side. Transparency is everything.”

The importance of individual relationships was a key theme of the discussion. According to Mark Gregory, CEO at the PHA Group, their foundations should be set on day one, especially when it comes to addressing another bugbear for 13% of the Pulse respondents, who said they rarely see senior agency people after the account has been won.

“Be careful who you send to a pitch – you need to get the relationship off to the best start, so make sure these are the faces the client is going to see as the account develops. And get to know the client at every level. One of our junior account executives recently impressed the client because she went to a meeting armed with an industry report that they hadn’t seen – and it completely changed the atmosphere.”

Stay fresh

The constant refreshment of ideas should be the aim of every client meeting, said Mark. Treat each one as if it’s the first. Give them the sense that you’re thinking about them all they time – the fact that you’re actually juggling client requirements is irrelevant to them. Help them to look special by arming them with the latest reports and stats. And don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions about how the relationship is working. Even if you get a discouraging answer, it’s an opportunity to reshape the account and propose a different direction.

The fruits of the constant conversation include a deeper basic understanding from the beginning of the relationship. Carmen Greco, co-founder and CFO of iCoolKid, bringing a valuable client perspective to the discussion, said that clients needed to understand the assets that the agency is bringing to the table, while the agency needs to understand the client’s ‘Why’.

“Treat each other like a stakeholder from day one, and you can go on your journey together,” she says. “If the agency doesn’t know what you value, they can’t establish a ROI. And what you value during the first 30 days of the relationship is not always the same three months later.

Stay in sync

Carmen suggested that agency/client understanding can’t be based on a static 30-page PowerPoint presentation. Its foundations should be an ongoing exchange, small and often, every day, allowing both parties to learn and grow and, where necessary, shift course – and like Mark, she advocates never shying away from the difficult moments. These are where the agency has the opportunity to deliver its value.

“How you handle a great day determines how that day ends,” she says. “How you handle negative situations determines the future of the relationship. So you should put a lot more emphasis on the neutral-to-negative because that’s where you can give and receive the most valuable feedback.”

Too many account executives put their faith in comms technology, says Carmen. But picking up the phone and speaking to your client is supremely important. It’s lovely to talk. And ultimately, talking holds the key to a better client understanding and a knowledge base that is based on real-time realities. That, surely, is what a dynamic agency/client relationship is all about.