Being Indispensable to Clients
Krista Bowman has always been one of the most sought-after marketing talents in my world. I know more than a few people who wanted to hire her or work for her.
She’s currently Director of Client Services at LBi Health, where she leads the health client services and marketing capability. In this role, Krista hops nimbly between her duties as strategic partner for the Agency’s largest client portfolio, and accessible leader who holds regular kumbaya and learning sessions with her account team.
If I had to open a School of Account Management, I’d hire Krista to run it, which is exactly why I sought her out to speak on the topic of being indispensable to clients. I wanted to observe her in action and ask about the skills she considers critical to building successful client relationships.
This is Krista in action: She walks and talks quickly, with a purpose. She scribbles ideas into a little notepad she carries everywhere. She tells a great story: “So then I brought Bloody Marys to the pre-pro meeting the next day.” It’s apparent she’s very committed and passionate about her work. In fact, she make it seems like it’s not work at all.
Here are her five commandments for delivering excellent client service:
1. Make friends with your clients.
It’s easy to demonize them. Instead, make an effort to understand the pressure they’re getting, who they are as people, what’s important to them, etc. Reconcile that with what you’re being asked to do and what the agency can handle and try to achieve a balance.
When you’re friends with your clients, you can pick up the phone and say “Hey, guess what, this went wrong. Here’s how we’re going to fix it.” It’s a lot harder to get down to brass tacks with an unknown or hostile client. Agencies are always taking a hit for not being transparent. Clients equate transparency with quality. The best way to build credibility is by being straightforward and sincere.
And what if you inherit a client relationship that’s already damaged?
Be watchful for an opportunity to turn things around. Most importantly, acknowledge there have been some challenges. Like any relationship, when confronted with bad situation, there are three choices: Fix it, get over it or end it. Sometimes the biggest challenge is understanding where a particular client falls within those options. Don’t get emotional about it. Just figure out a course of action and know that expediency is critical.
2. Listen to your intuition.
Your instincts are your most powerful tool. If you perceive something to be a certain way – say, you read the room during a creative presentation and there is a specific, nagging feeling that something isn’t right – there’s usually some truth in there.
If you sense there’s an unspoken story, just ask for the rest of it. Most clients are open to providing additional feedback. If they’re not, keep your eyes open and look for a way to ask without an audience. When you ask the tough questions, you expose yourself to possible criticism. More times than not, clients will acknowledge that vulnerability and respond to it in a kind, collaborative way.
3. Be curious.
I read somewhere that preschool-age kids ask 300 questions per day. Why don’t we question things more often as adults? A former boss of mine used to say: “Keep yourself in a thoughtful space. Keep asking questions every day.” Bloomberg is known for it. “It’s intuitive that people who are not ashamed to ask questions invariably wind up knowing more, and there is a high degree of correlation between knowledge and the ability to make good decisions. There is also a high degree of correlation between people who have the information and people who succeed.”
LBi Health fosters a really great culture of intellectual hunger. We are encouraged to exercise curiosity… not to accept things at face value. Especially early in your career, you’re often afraid to ask questions because you think you should know the answer. I’ve gotten more comfortable over the years with asking the questions that no one else will. I feel comfortable being the first to say, “Ok, am I the only person in the room who doesn’t know this?” Nine times out of ten, you are one of many. This often leads to more questions in the room. Once you break free from a more formal approach to a knowledge-sharing dialogue; it’s a totally different experience.
4. There is always a way.
The answer is never “No.” That’s unimaginative—and a little drone-like. It should be, “What are our options?” Brainstorm all the possible options and evaluate which will lead to the most desirable outcome. A little creative, out-of-the-box thinking can generate surprising ideas.
Accepting status quo is the first step on the road to mediocrity. Clients are paying agencies to be creative thinkers… to present unconventional and original ideas that actually test the boundaries of the organization, the category and even the industry on a good day. They value resourcefulness and ingenuity. By demanding fresh thinking from yourself and your team – keeping yourself in a thoughtful space – you’re able to push past the accepted… and maybe even create a space that didn’t exist before.
5. Sometimes, you just have to laugh.
Humor has saved me on more than one occasion. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Once I worked an all-nighter with just enough time to shower before the 8 AM presentation. In the elevator on the way up, I realized my shirt was on backwards. I was so tired that morning, I apparently couldn’t dress without assistance. My creative team and I laughed until we cried. It could have been just one more exasperating thing in a long list of challenges. Instead, it was a bonding moment.
This is true of clients, too. I was going to dinner with clients after a long day at a conference with a driver that clearly had no clue where we were going. While we were trying to reconcile our directions with the nearby street signs, a particular street sign name caught our attention causing us all to giggle. It completely changed the mood of the car. We were on the brink of starvation when we finally located the address, but we were in good spirits and ultimately had a great time. That was a year and a half ago and I still laugh when I think of it.