BL&T No. 068: Client Services Foundations, Tough Convos, Taking Action

Agency Leadership

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"One of the main responsibilities of a leader is to confront difficult, awkward issues quickly and with clarity, charity, and resolve."

From "The Motive: Why So Many Leaders Abdicate Their Most Important Responsibilities" by Patrick M. Lencioni [Book]


I hope you enjoyed some time off with family and friends. Sadly, our holiday plans got upended by a couple of positive COVID cases in the family. Fortunately, everyone is doing fine, so I'm just staying positive and hoping we can get together soon. Christmas in July?

In the land of Barrel, I'm glad to report that last week ended strong with exciting deals closing for next year. After a big push these last few weeks, it felt good to see these come through.

A couple of the deals I worked closely on were with existing clients. In both scenarios, the client specifically cited our relationship as the reason for continuing our work together. I found this to be as rewarding as the win itself. Of course, one would hope this would be the case, but I've learned that nothing is ever a done deal — especially when the client relationship has had its ups and downs.

There's a lot to be proud of when I reflect on these relationships. I thought I'd take some time to do that reflection out loud.

Account Directors

This past year, we divided our Production team into two teams: Client Services and Project Management. Previously, a Producer would manage the project from front to back while also trying to have strategic convos with clients and scope out new work. You guessed it — many of these activities fell by the wayside.

Our goal for the split was for each team to go deeper in their respective areas. For Client Services, the goal is in the name: upholding a high level of service for clients, adding value, and growing accounts. On the Project Management side, we saw an opportunity to spotlight the technical aspects of our work. With that, Project Managers' primary goal is to deliver a quality build, on spec, on time.

At this point, both of these teams are still in their infancy, but last week's wins show that we're heading in the right direction. Having Account Directors leading conversations with the client has opened a dialogue outside of the day-to-day work while also creating a new channel for feedback (more on that soon). Not to mention, I continue to hear positive feedback about Account Directors from select clients.

While this new model is starting to click, there's plenty to build, refine, and evolve. For example, I see remnants of the producer role still alive and well in some projects. I believe some of this has to do with a lack of documentation within Client Services. We've been full steam ahead and haven't stopped to say, "Hey, this is how we do X." These gaps can make it hard to collaborate, maintain consistency, and worse yet - train new hires. Looking ahead, I think my mantra will be something like this: a house with no foundation will crumble.

I look at it this way — we've been eager to build the house, scrambling to get the work done. We haven't spent enough time capturing the foundational processes along the way. Once they're in place, we can see what's working, what's not, refining as we go, but the mere fact that they exist will make building the house that much easier.

Tough Conversations

I learned a powerful lesson this year: it's not enough to welcome tough client conversations; you have to be the one to initiate them. In essence, proactively seeking out feedback from a client can mean the difference between continuing and ending work together. From this perspective, it's a positive sign to have ups and downs with a client, not just ups and one down.

My last client call of the year was on Thursday where we found out that we won work for their new initiative, beating out three other agency bids. As I said, nothing is ever a done deal. The client shared how appreciative they've been of the work we've done for them over the last two years and how we always take the time to listen. Then, they highlighted feedback areas to keep top of mind for future work.

A few months ago, I reached out to the key stakeholder to gauge how they felt about our collaboration. I knew there had been some recent hiccups. Luckily, I hadn't heard from the client, so I figured I should reach out. Like a good workout on a Friday night, I wasn't particularly excited to begin, but once it was over, I couldn't be happier it happened. I left with a list of insights and some clear action items to address.

I'm not saying that this conversation is the reason we won the work, but there's no doubt that these types of conversations build trust. It shows that we value our relationship and are not afraid of feedback to make it stronger. Hearing the client's list of feedback was a sign that the feeling is mutual. What better way to open a new chapter together?

Action Over Words

Someone once told me that it doesn't matter how bad you screw up; what matters is what you do about it. When it comes to client feedback, you can be the first to initiate a call and take detailed notes, but if nothing changes, what's the point?

In some cases, this has required me to get hands-on with the team to help guide them in the right direction. In other cases, like Thursday, there were clear items to address in our scope of work. The next step will be working with the team to ensure we deliver on our commitments next year.

If there are several ways to handle a situation, I've found a good practice is to use the time with the client to align on the best next step. In a recent project, the client was unhappy with an aspect of our work. Rather than jumping to redo work at no charge, I asked questions about the impact on the client's team. I then gave the client three options to move forward. In the end, we helped them by taking on tasks that their team was struggling to manage.

Last week, we signed new work for 2022. Funny enough, the client shared feedback on how they'd like to see our collaboration evolve next year. Win-win.

On My Mind for Q1

I'll be honest - there's a ton on my mind as we head into Q1. But if I had to simplify, some areas I'll be focusing on are:

Client Services: Support the team in building and documenting processes while leveling up client service. This work also includes refining the collaboration between Client Services, Project Management, and the rest of the team.

Service Design: We can sell new services and packages, but what happens when the client buys them? In the past, this is where we've run into issues. I'm excited to spend more time here — brainstorming other areas to support our clients and how to get the work done efficiently.

Client Collaboration: Create more collaborative ways to work with our clients. No matter how intimately we learn about our clients' business, there's no arguing that they know it the best. What are the opportunities to invite them into the process and co-create the work at every step?

Thought Starter

What client conversation am I avoiding?

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