The Five Cardinal Sins of Client Relationships
by Joe Grant

How many of these excuses have you heard or used to explain why an account was lost?

  • The client constantly changed course and wouldn't stay with one strategy
  • Their competition spent more money
  • The client brought in a new marketing manager who hired his brother-in-law
  • The guy was simply a (insert expletive here)

On the other hand, have you ever heard these reasons?

  • We didn't listen carefully
  • We never clarified how we'd work together
  • Our internal screw-ups killed us
  • We didn't staff right
  • We were out of their league
  • It got stale - we took them for granted

You could probably add similar phrases, but the point is for most of us it's easier to blame things outside the agency than do the hard interior work of assessing what really caused a relationship to sour.

In the agency/client world there's remarkable consistency about why accounts are lost regardless of how the explanations are framed. We'd like to share five major factors we see for agency account turnover which if avoided will separate your firm from the also-rans so you will experience continuous and predictable growth instead of sudden account losses.

1. Unclear Relationship Expectations

It's interesting how the human mind works. As soon as we think about doing something we create an expectation about how it's going to turn out. We expect to have a good time at a party, we don't expect to have much fun at the dentist, we expect our new job to be the best we've ever had, and so on.

Expectations are at the center of all relationships but they're especially important when it comes to agencies and their clients. Because if you don't know exactly what your client is expecting - or worse, assume you do - you could be on the road to disappointment, and perhaps someday find a Dear John letter (or e-mail) in your mailbox.

That's why you first need to understand the Law of Expectations.

The Law of Expectations

Unexpressed expectations are planned resentments

The primary reason agencies and clients get into trouble is they don't take the time to clearly spell out what they expect from each other. Especially roles and responsibilities. To avoid this problem both the client and the agency must have a sparkling clear understanding of what each other's expectations are right from the start. Both must know the other's expectations; you can't guess at what they are or assume them - when they're not on the table resentment's sure to follow.

For instance, you may think you know your role but just exactly how deep does the agency go in the development of the client's marketing strategy? Or whose responsibility is it to pick the colors or craft the words? You or the client may feel the answers are obvious but conflict is inevitable when the agency thinks it has responsibility for things the client doesn't think they have, or visa versa.

One way to avoid these problems from the start is to craft a Relationship Mission Statement.

Don't be put off by the word 'mission.' It's become a cliché, for sure, but it's used here to mean something which clearly describes what the relationship is designed to accomplish and how. In other words, what exactly the expectations are.

Write it out in plain English so anybody who reads it understands. You and the client must collaborate on this. . . and it's the very first thing to do when a new agency/client relationship begins.

Because as you certainly know, just saying, "Agency will produce commercials and do ad layouts" or "Client will approve copy" won't cut it. You've got to hammer out exactly what the agency expects from the client and what the client expects from the agency. Then review it on a regular schedule, yearly at least, and you'll have a way to measure and validate how the relationship is going.

To craft the Mission Statement, here are some questions you and your clients can cooperate on answering:

  • What is the collaborative purpose of our relationship? In the end, what should our efforts together yield?

  • What does the client value in the relationship? What's most important to them? Why is it important?

  • What does the agency value? Why?

  • How exactly will we work together? What's the relationship look like when it's functioning optimally?

  • What are our respective roles? What are the reasons for these roles? Define them clearly!

  • How, specifically, will we know if the relationship is working - how will we measure our success?

  • What will we do together to ensure that the relationship is continually improving?

  • What will we do if it starts to falter? What are the "deal-breakers"?

  • How often will we review our relationship and how?

If you can describe the relationship dynamics (perhaps with some bullet points and sub paragraphs) on one piece of paper, you'll have a written "constitution" for the account that will serve for years to come to keep those pernicious 'resentments' at bay.

Now take a look at that last bullet above, How often will we review our relationship and how? That brings us to the second big mistakes agencies make.

2. Ineffectual Client Reviews

You could argue that you're constantly reviewing your accounts, assessing daily how things are going and always trying to improve. But at best an agency reviewing its own accounts - no matter how it's done - is similar to trying to read the label when you're inside the bottle. You get some information, sure, but it's bound to be distorted by your perspective.

There are other problems with agency self-assessment of client rapport. If you have a particularly close relationship your clients may be unwilling to provide candid feedback for the same reason that a close friend purposely overlooks your foibles. Or a client may simply be the non-confrontational type who's unwilling to have difficult conversations. If you rely on your account people to provide an honest read on the relationship, you'll need to carefully filter their assessment. After all, their role includes a vested interest - keeping their job.

So you see this review business isn't all that easy even though it certainly is essential. That being said, a bigger mistake is having no review process at all. The ostrich is not a good archetype for our deadline-driven, high-intensity business. Fearing and avoiding the unknown when you could easily discover the facts is flat-out foolhardy.

So we offer:

The Law of Undeniable Truth

The facts are the facts And they're always friendly

You're always better off knowing the truth than imagining the worst when it comes to your clients. The facts and only the facts will allow you to make intelligent decisions and allay paranoia; they're your friends no matter how scared you are of learning them. Smart agencies review with their clients regularly to get the straight dope then, based on the facts, tweak the relationship for maximum performance and, more importantly, longevity. Anything you can do to improve the "lifetime value" of an account is well worth it.

There are four common ways to review an agency/client relationship. Each has pros and cons.

Written surveys - Conducted by the agency, they are easy to administer but success depends on how well they're designed and answered. Interpretation of results may be difficult, too. For example, what does it really mean when the score for 'Agency understands client needs well' drops from 4.3 to 4.2?

Review meetings - These can be a safety-valve for open dialogue if they are held regularly and participants are willing to confront issues honestly and courageously. They require discipline for improvement, and if the same mistakes are repeated or left unresolved the relationship will surely deteriorate.

Outside research - Client interviews conducted by third party by phone or in person are more likely to yield objective results than self-administered instruments. Occasionally some interviewees may not wish to express issues to an outsider.

Rumor & Hearsay - Yes, this is a ringer, but it's startling how many agencies substitute gossip for getting the facts. Guessing how things are going or believing the latest gossip is an unhealthy and dangerous way to manage a business relationship.

You and your client will need to decide while you're working on the Relationship Mission what will work best in your situation. What's important is to set up a system and stick with it. Do it at regular intervals and establish improvement milestones. If you don't it's like driving your car and never looking at the gas gauge.

No matter what method you choose, we recommend asking probing questions that will give you solid information about how things are going. A good place to start is asking about trust, communications, and commitment.

  • Do you trust us to get the work done to your expectations and standards? To make sound judgments about spending your money? To do what we say we will do? To live up to our Relationship Mission? And if we've faltered in any way, how can we rebuild the trust between us?

  • Are we communicating effectively? Do we keep you well enough informed or do you sometimes wonder where things stand? Are we forthright and square with you when it comes to the tough issues? Are we proactive enough?

  • Is the level of commitment what you expect it should be? Do you feel you're getting our best all the time? Are we keeping all those promises we made when we were soliciting your business? Is there tangible dedication to ongoing improvement, even when there are no apparent problems?

Ask, too, how together you can improve things (it's a relationship, not a one-way street).

  • How well do you think we synergistically respond to marketing opportunities?

  • When we begin a project, do you feel we both have a clear understanding of who will do what, what's expected, and what the terms and conditions are?

  • What's your sense of our collaborative business judgment when we're working together?

  • How good a job do we do together identifying critical issues?

  • Is our relationship functioning as good as it could to accomplish our Relationship Mission?

  • What can each of us do better to make sure we always achieve the best possible results?

  • Is the relationship improving, deteriorating, or staying about the same?

  • As candidly as we can, let's discuss how comfortable or uncomfortable we are with things at this point.

  • What are the biggest obstacles you feel we must overcome together?

  • If you could immediately change one thing about our relationship, what would it be?

  • When our conversations reveal that there are ways to get better, do we improve when we say we will?

That last one ("Do we improve when we say we will?") is especially important because dissatisfied clients tell us they often have earnest chats with their agencies about changes to which their agencies wholeheartedly subscribe, yet nothing actually happens! The polite term for this is "lip service." It rapidly erodes trust and soon things really start going down hill.

So make sure you design and use a mechanism to implement the changes you agree to. One easy way is to compose a "contract memo" spelling out deadlines and accountabilities. Write it together then set an immutable date to reconvene for a progress check.

3. Not Fixing the Fixable

You probably know what to do to run your agency right - it's the getting it done that's so hard, right? I'm talking here about fixing the problems you know you have inside the agency, the ones that affect your client relationships, but you never seem to lick.

The agencies that grow and leave a mark are the ones continually striving to make not just their creative output better but attending to their own housekeeping - working on the business and not just in it.

Think of it this way. There's so much you have no control over - goofy client behavior, unforeseen mergers, economic vacillations are all outside your purview - but there are so many things you can control inside. And you better fix them now because if you think today's infrastructure problems will fade when you have, say, 25 or 50 people or when you bill $50 million, you're only kidding yourself. As your business machine grows and becomes more complex, unsnarling those knotty inside problems will be much more difficult and considerably more costly.

If you're a principal or owner, this is your job. Larry Bossidy, chairman and former CEO of Honeywell and co-author Ram Charan, write this in their book, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done: "People think of execution as the tactical side of business, something leaders delegate while they focus on the perceived 'bigger' issues. This idea is completely wrong. Execution has to be built into a company's strategy, its goals, and its culture. And the leader of the organization must be deeply engaged in it."

Here's a suggestion: write Our internal problems will not hold us hostage on a card and put it where you'll see it daily. Stay focused on knocking off those pesky internal snafus or they'll drive you crazy like ducks pecking at your ankles. We know one agency that created all sorts of task forces to list the agency's operational problems and it took them six months just to agree on the issues. Nothing was addressed during that time, and sadly, not much has been solved since. Not to mention all the unbilled time.

You may need help analyzing, prioritizing and eliminating your issues once and for all. Here's a technique that sounds too simple to work, but it's moved mountains.

Get your key folks to decide on the areas needing improvement, and have them do it in an hour or less. Next, rank them in priority order based on which issue, if fixed permanently, would have the most impact on the company. Then marshal your resources to fix the #1 priority on the list first.

Now here's the important part: do not try to fix the others until that first one is completely solved. Truth is, most companies are incapable of simultaneously solving manifold internal problems. You'll begin to reap multiple benefits by resolving just one important issue at a time. It works.

Finally, here's one more thought on curing internal snarls. Always remember when you're problem solving that it's results not effort that matter. If your people say things like, "We're working on it," don't be afraid to see red and demand again that the effort comes to a true solution. Your agency will be judged on the external results - and that's how you should operate internally.

4. Hiring at the Wrong Level

The team with the best talent usually wins.

In fact, in our business everyone knows it's all about the people. Leo Burnett was right when he said his inventory goes out the door every night at quitting time. It should be obvious that the better equipped your agency is the more likely it is to succeed.

The Law of Asset Appeal

If you want more sophisticated accounts hire more sophisticated people

Do everything you can to hire the best people. Though no company has unlimited budgets, saving $5,000 or $10,000 by hiring someone for an important role who's essentially a trainee can easily cost you much more in the long run. Bad judgment, ignored opportunities, upset clients or (gulp) a lost account will make your savings look silly. If you're a principal, the single most important thing you do - this just can't be emphasized enough - is hiring right. Acquire the best you can.

Then after they're aboard, don't settle for status quo. Yes, people grow on the job but unless you have a systematic way to enhance their skills and capitalize on their strengths they'll be stuck for years at the same level you hired them. That means your agency will plateau. Can you afford that?

In the end it's about your commitment to learning. If you don't learn to do new things you keep doing the old things and getting the same results. In a nutshell, that's why so many agencies are pretty much flat - they haven't committed to constantly upgrading their product (i.e. their people) with solid skill enhancement. I tell agency owners that unless they're just starting out, one-half of their time should be spent teaching, training, mentoring, and coaching their people and this applies especially to those who are immediate direct reports. Unless of course they're convinced that everyone's already at peak performance. Share what you've learned about business life with your charges and you'll build their future and yours.

5. Letting Accounts Get Stale

Oh how exciting it is when you begin to pursue a new client. The thrill of the chase! You lie awake rhapsodizing about how great it will be, you woo them with dinners and surprises, and no effort is too much to show your commitment.

But as in any romance, things can easily get boring fast. You become "account waiters" dozing by the phone waiting for the client to call in an order. This year's media plan is a duplicate of last year's; the creative is tired. Your best people somehow migrate to the more exciting business which only compounds the problem. What happened to all those exciting initial meetings and the promises made in the pitch? This is not unusual. Every account of every size at every agency goes through similar troughs, but the smart agencies do all they can to rejuvenate waning accounts. Some of the things they do:

Capabilities Presentations - A lot has probably changed since you started working together so at least once a year invite the client over to remind them of your abilities and competence. Include a summary of the work you've done together and critique it. Perhaps you have new people (or they do) or new services. Ask the client for a little song and dance about themselves, too - including market trends, new products in the pipeline, and organizational changes. Just getting ready for this meeting will be energizing and in the afterglow everyone will be pumped.

Freshening Exercises - Get some different points of view by asking staffers who don't work on the account to review it. Have them each write a 1-page suggestion plan to improve things. Or hold a brainstorm session, again with people not normally assigned to the business, to solve problems and look for opportunities. Ours is a creative business and good ideas about a client's business aren't just the province of the daily team. Open it up so you generate contributions from everyone.

Switching teams - Why not? Nowhere is it written that you can't occasionally change personnel on an account, though you've got to make sure there's continuity and the client doesn't feel like s/he's starting from scratch. Big agencies do this all the time to keep things fresh. After all, for the client it's like getting a new agency without the added aggravation and cost. And you get to keep the client.

Sounding retreat - Go offsite with your client and refocus on the important things. Maybe you host a strategic planning session for the coming year or just time away from the office to take stock (you can make this part of your review protocol). Revisit the Relationship Mission, tackle some of the issues there never seems to be time for during the daily crunch, and perhaps including some time to just relax and bond. Make it an occasion to have fun again.

Why did you get into this business in the first place? It was to have fun, right?

But it's not much fun being burdened by the constant threat of accounts walking out the door, yet there are things you can do to lessen that happening. The first is reaching an honest conclusion about why you've lost an account. Few leave because of "bad luck."

In our work helping agencies reach their potential, time and again the same handful of issues holds agencies back from what they might become, or worse, sinks them all together. What separates the real performers from the also-rans is the ability to recognize detrimental behaviors and eliminate them. So don't delude yourself with lame excuses like the ones at the beginning of this article.

There's a Chinese saying that sums it up well: "The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their correct names."

Joe Grant is President of Grant Consulting Associates - a firm focused on helping marketing agencies and service-oriented companies grow. Since 1992 he has helped dozens of mid-sized companies sharpen management team focus, improve client services, develop better new business approaches, intensify employee commitment and tighten organizational efficiency and profitability. He has personally interviewed over 1700 agency clients about their expectations, and is the author of Understanding and Protecting Agency/Client Relationships, in association with the American Association of Advertising Agencies. You can subscribe to his monthly e-newsletter - Grant's Client Brief - by visiting the website at or by calling Grant Consulting at (239) 394-8220.

Many more articles in Sales & Marketing in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2005 by Joe Grant. All rights reserved.

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