L-O-V-E: Getting Clients Coming Back for More
Words Doan Thao Vy
I like to think of the partnership between the client and the agency as a romantic relationship. Like most relationships, certain client-agency relationships would come to an end, making agency’s client retention as a business strategy rather formidable in this day and age of towering competitiveness. Thus, I began my investigation of client retention, of ways that communication agencies employ to keep up their source of revenues.
I met Ms. Tam Tran, a 26-year-old Client Manager at AVC Edelman, on one lovely Thursday afternoon. She was impressive. Insightful, sharp, bubbly. She holds a Bachelor of Marketing degree and recently got her Master of Marketing degree. She has been working at AVC Edelman for 5 years, before the early-2012 merge between AVC, established local PR agency, and Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm (Edelman 2013a). As Head of the Technology Department, Ms. Tam is currently working with 10 retention-based clients. I hit the jackpot. She was the perfect choice for my little quest: she had the knowledge, the skills, the experience.
Our 45-minute conversation went by like a breeze. Not only was it especially enjoyable, it was enlightening. And as I pondered over our talk, connections between what she said and a certain Nat King Cole’s tune* kept springing up in my mind…
“L is for the way you look at me”: Treat your client like the love of your life
“First things first, in Vietnam, relationships matter!” she exclaimed. Treat them well, bond with them. Ms Tam’s examples of this are her occasional hang-outs with clients and the pictures she happily obliged to take of their kids (she was a skilled photographer). She also told me of AVC Edelman’s Return: a client’s phone call is to be returned in half a day’s time, a client’s email is to be replied in a day’s time. As littlest acts make up one’s servicing intentions (Solomon 2008), the “personal side of business relationship” must be paid attention to. Also, regular interactions are necessary for keeping the connections alive (Richardson 1995). I like the fact that Ms Tam concluded this point with “Come to them with genuine care.” Only sincerity can transcend well.
“O is for the only one I see”: Act towards clear mutual goals
The next step to be taken is get in the mind of the client and figure out what they want. “Everything I do, I do it for client’s need. When they ask me to write a report, I ask them why they need it and how. If they want it concise, I make it concise. If they want it thorough, I make it thorough,” she said.
Work satisfaction decides client’s staying intentions. Client’s satisfaction is determined by how expectations are met. Expectations are built on goals. Goals differ for the client (ROI and tangible results) and the agency (PR outcomes). Therefore, getting inside the mind of the clients is key (Casul 2013a). The agency must identify the project’s scope and feasibility (Kelleron 2012), the client’s needs, specific roles taken by each party (Hotz, Ryans & Shanklin 1982), and the mutually expected results. As said by Horowitz (2012, p. 7), “it’s not all about you doing the right thing; the client needs realistic expectations,” by building mutual understanding, the agency could avert conflict as both sides go for realistic, clearly defined expectation set (Hotz, Ryans & Shanklin 1982).
Communication agencies should take a leaf out of Ms Tam’s book: ask for purpose, establish common grounds, and work towards those mutual agreements.
“V is very very extraordinary”: Bring your expertise to the table
“Expertise matters. One, we perform well. Two, we educate the client,” she said, laughing, “”Educate” sounds patronizing, sorry. But we gotta evolve our role: we don’t just cater to needs, we shape them.”
She explained that with expertise on agency side, agency’s actual (and perceived) work becomes better and more solid. With expertise on client side (“educated” by agency), client would hold realistic expectations and/or be more appreciative of agency’s work: “Public Relations practitioners have to do as much Public Relations on the client as they do for the client” (Carrington 1992, p. 11). “Be more than a servant, be a consultant,” she said, reflecting Lace (1998) in that consultant is the function every agency should serve.
“E is even more than anyone that you adore”: Exceed expectations
“Always deliver beyond commitment! Client set out Friday as our deadline. I said make it Monday please. They agreed. I delivered the work on Friday.”
“Friday before that. Of course,” she added with a laugh.
I went on to ask her about her workplace. Does AVC Edelman have a magic potion for smooth dealing with clients? What about that Edelman Excellence** thing I saw mentioned on their website?
“Oh we’re very, very proud of that! Please put that in your article haha,” smiled Ms. Tam. Edelman Excellence, or EE, is Edelman’s trademark invention. It’s a survey given out to their clients all around the world to assess clients’ satisfaction, what they did right/wrong, what needed improvements (Edelman 2013b).
“Edelman does better ourselves the way clients want us to (and we see fit). Clients love to have that power over us…” said Ms. Tam, mildly shaking her head. We laughed again…
Were I Edelman’s client, I’d find it quite flattering my opinion is held in such high regard. And that’s not just me (Richardson 1995). In my opinion, Edelman Excellence is a very nice, very effective way to distinguish Edelman’s service from that of others: Edelman constantly strives for the client-focused better.
Ms. Tam’s concluding note to me was “We purposefully exceed what is expected of us.”
Was EE really “Edelman Excellence”? Or was it their way of subtly reminding themselves to constantly Exceed Expectations?
I also find this practice – seeking client’s feedback and act on it – resonating with Davies & Prince’s Performance Theory of Account Longevity (1999). This theory proposes that long-term client-agency relationship happens through these stages: Client-agency Match, Collaboration and Performance, and Trust and Commitment. Along the way, Adaptation/Maladaptation will occur – if the agency cannot adapt well to the client’s way of working and vice versa at any given stage, the relationship is bound to fail. Edelman Excellence is the “smoke detector” that points agency’s attention to problems and issues, prompts timely corrective actions, and helps with the Adaptation process.
Also, what other Vietnamese communications agencies, particularly small ones without a strong retention-based clientele, can learn from this is: pull out all the stops and go client-centric. First, find out why clients stay or leave. Second, develop profiles of these relationships, work out patterns, figure out how to enhance strengths and improve weaknesses. Third, devise your own client servicing model for client retention (Richardson 1995).
“… Take my heart and please don’t break it”: Bring trust
I don’t think that the fact that Ms. Tam did not mention Trust – the most important factor in a long-term relationship (Lace 1998) – means she thought it was unnecessary. Successful delivery of the previous four immediately and automatically manifests trustworthiness in client’s eyes.
The longer your efforts, the longer the relationship
Much as I agree with the above-mentioned tactics, I have to add Consistency to the list. Nurturing a relationship should be an ongoing process (Richardson 1995). One can’t go from the first step to the last step and expect an unchanging chemistry with client. Always treat them right, always deliver, always exceed expectations. Even when you’ve done doing business with them, keep the relationship.
All in all: Service Excellence
It dawned on me later on that every point Ms. Tam Tran made about client retention was the very manifestation of Value Added Service. Every point was concerned with CRM’s end goal: Client Retention by Service Excellence – Deep knowledge of what clients value, attention to client’s needs, expertise, and unexpected service (Casul 2013b).
In a competitive industry, the organization with distinctive client management wins. L-O-V-E blooms with understanding, mutual growth, trust, and that special little spice of total devotion to one another’s happiness.
♫ “Love was made for me and you…” ♫
Word count: 1209
* L-O-V-E: a 1965 hit by Nat King Cole
** Edelman Excellence (EE):
- A global survey issued to clients of Edelman. Serve to cement long-term partnerships with clients, ensuring their business and communications objectives are met
- Five areas of assessment are: Quality of Performance, Quality of Thinking, Quality of Service, Quality of People, and Quality of Relationship.
- Open up opportunities for changes and improvement as client needs and industry trends evolve
- Feedbacks from Edelman’s worldwide, regional, and local offices are processed at Edelman’s US Headquarter then distributed back to offices.
- Edelman’s global client satisfaction rating has been a strong and consistent 8.4/10.
Carrinton, J 1992, ‘The PR Agency and the Client: How to Improve the Uneasy Partnership’, Public Relations Quarterly, Fall, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 11-14.
Casul, M 2013a, ‘Customer Relationship Management’, course notes for COMM2384 Client Management, RMIT University, Ho Chi Minh City, viewed 21 April 2013, Blackboard@RMIT.
Casul, M 2013b, ‘Service Excellence’, course notes for COMM2384 Client Management, RMIT University, Ho Chi Minh City, viewed 21 April 2013, Blackboard@RMIT.
Cole, NK 1965, ‘L-O-V-E’, L-O-V-E, audio CD, Capitol Studios, California, US.
Davies, M & Prince, M 1999, ‘Examining the Longevity of New Agency Accounts: A Comparative Study of US and UK Advertising Experiences’, Journal of Advertising, Winter, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 75-89.
Edelman 2013a, ‘About Us – The Details’, Edelman, viewed 12 May 2013, <http://www.edelman.com/who-we-are/about-edelman/the-details/>.
Edelman 2013b, ‘About Us – Quality’, Edelman, viewed 12 May 2013, <http://www.edelman.com/who-we-are/about-edelman/quality/>.
Horowitz, A 2012, ‘Managing clients expectations’, Journal of Financial Planning, January-February, pp. 6-7.
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Kelleron, B 2012, ‘Tips for managing your client’s expectations’, Kitchen & Bath Design News, March, vol. 30, no. 3, p. 30.
Lace, JM 1998, ‘Evaluating advertising agency performance: Actions to enhance the client/agency relationship’, Management Research News, vol. 21, no. 7, pp. 47-59.
Richardson, MK 1995, ‘Four steps to better client retention’, The CPA Journal, February, vol 65, no. 2, p. 67.
Solomon, R 2008, The Art of Client Service, Kaplan Publishing, New York.
Tran, T 2013, conversation, 25 April.