This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is a weekly newsletter sent on Mondays. In every edition, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Published posts do not include all details shared via email to subscribers. Subscribe here.
"When we survey our clients and ask them to describe [Bridgewater Associates], more than half do not call us a hedge fund or an investment manager; they call us a strategic partner. This is radical in our industry. For the most part, the relationship between investment managers and their clients is more of a quid pro quo relationship. They are out hiring managers, trying to get the best return, trying to negotiate the best fees, and so on. In our industry it is very rarely a deep, trustful relationship."
From "An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization" by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey
Whether an agency has a dedicated Accounts or Client Services team or not, I believe that everyone plays a role in a client's experience. While an Account Director may lead conversations with the client, advise them, and work through challenges, they do not hold the keys to client success on their own. As they say, it takes a village.
From age 15 through college, I worked in a grocery store. Wegmans, to be specific. Looking back, I'm always amazed by what this experience taught me about management, company culture, and customer service. In that way, I see commonalities between customer service at a grocery store and client service at an agency.
When I first started at Wegmans, I worked on the "Front End." I was a part-time cashier and part-time member of "Helping Hands," a name for the crew outside corralling carts. By age 17 or so, I moved on to a Front End Coordinator role where I managed cashier's shifts and assignments. Through college, I only worked on holidays and breaks. During this time, I did a stint as a barista in the coffee shop, and every now and then worked behind the Customer Service desk. Needless to say, I got a well-rounded experience.
In every one of my roles, customer service was critical, especially on the Front End. We were often the first and last touchpoint of a customer's experience. It didn't matter how positive a customer's experience was as if they had an unpleasant experience at checkout - that's what they'd remember.
As a cashier, this meant bagging groceries pleasantly and efficiently. As part of Helping Hands, it meant giving a cart to a customer as they entered the store, providing them with an umbrella on a rainy day, or helping them load their trunk. Side note: I love the intentionality of a name like "Helping Hands," which in and of itself implies customer service AND anchors the outdoor crew to a greater purpose. In essence, it didn't matter what role you played in the store - the customer's needs were always at the forefront.
The Wegmans's customer service desk acted as the customer's guide, not unlike Barrel's Client Services team. When I was behind the desk, I learned to listen and understand customers before jumping to solutions. We solicited feedback and worked with the team to improve. As a store, our goal was to give every customer a great experience, but if things went wrong, we were always there to make it right.
While Client Services remains involved throughout every client's journey with an agency, a customer may never visit the Customer Service desk when shopping. However, the mission is the same; to provide an unparalleled experience and strengthen customer relationships.
Last week, an Account Director, joined our team. As part of their onboarding, I provided an overview of Creative Marketing Services (CMS). CMS group includes the Client Services, Design, CRM, and Growth Marketing teams. I used the Account Director's onboarding as an opportunity to explore the concept of unparalleled service and why it's integral to everyone within CMS.
What does it mean to deliver an unparalleled client experience? What about our relationship would keep our clients coming back for more?
Following the onboarding, I started brainstorming a model for delivering an unparalleled client experience and landed on three key components. As an agency, we must understand our client's priorities, take the appropriate action, and deliver results. If we're successful in this cycle, we can develop trust with the client and create value. Together, this strengthens our partnership and helps keep a client engaged for the long term.
At any point during a project's lifecycle, we can ask ourselves: is the experience up to PAR?
To truly understand our client's priorities and how they fit, we must understand how their business operates. We can immerse ourselves in their industry, do independent research, ask questions, and actively listen to what our clients hope to achieve. We can help our clients get specific on their vision to ensure we know what success looks like down the line.
Once we're clear on priorities, we then hone in on an action plan. As we take action, over-communication, alignment, and collaboration are essential. Equipped with the necessary background on their business, we make recommendations that we know will deliver ROI. We are proactive in providing an approach but invite the client in at every step. Our goal is to break down the barriers of a textbook agency <> client relationship and act as a unified team with the same goals.
We understand that our clients are closer to their business than we are. By working together as a team, we lean on each other for our expertise to deliver results. As we progress, we review our results. We design a new action plan for further improvement, re-align on priorities, and the cycle continues.
We build trust with our clients by making them feel heard and upholding our commitments. We create value as we deliver results, optimize, and continue to take action. The longer this cycle continues, the more we build trust, the more value we create, the stronger our relationship grows.
I'm excited to continue refining this model as I share it with the team. I hope that a visualization like this will click for folks and, at the least, generate some good discussion and keep the client experience top of mind at every level of the agency.
Lesson? Delivering an unparalleled client experience is a shared responsibility; every role plays its part. No matter where we sit, it is up to us to understand priorities, take the appropriate action, and deliver results. As we go, we build trust and create value, keeping the client engaged and eager to grow together.
Am I clear on my client's priorities? Do I know why they're important and how my work will create impact?