Twelve horrifying words. "This logo looks like something my teenager created. Your agency is fired. "
Coming from the mouth of one a clients at my first agency job, during my first logo development project - it took at least ten seconds to get my heart beating again and pick myself up off the floor. Metaphorically speaking...
When my eyes were able to focus, it was to see the angry client stomp out the door, completely pissed off in her red power suit and Manolos. Then I had to trundle off to the temperamental graphic designer to share what happened, hoping I didn't stumble into the agency owner before the situation was resolved.
This may have happened over a decade ago (eeks!), but it was a valuable lesson.
(Interestingly enough, I freelanced for the same woman about five years ago, only to find out she had burned through every agency in town and was the scourge of creatives across Arizona. Sadly, she had not mellowed with age. Lucky me, landing that one as an ad agency newbie!)
At an agency, working with clients can be incredibly challenging... and insanely rewarding.
It doesn't matter if you work at an advertising, PR or digital agency. It's a balancing act between internal and external communications, juggling multiple clients and projects, constantly learning new products and industries, re-prioritizing on the fly, mastering new skills almost every day, and much more.
So what are a few "must know" skills to be the perfect Account Executive Ninja that can deal with any situation? I reached out to the author of The Art of Client Service, Robert Solomon. Given a past reincarnation of his book by an agency supervisor long ago, Brain Surgery For Suits, the updated version holds many a truism!
Here's what Robert had to say.
Q1: Out of the 58 points you make in your book, are there a few that stand out as most important?
Know how to ask the right question. The right question proves how smart you are, how well you listened, and how clearly you communicate. Above all else, asking the right question leads to formulating a smart answer, and in that answer is the kernel of an idea that addresses a challenge or solves a problem, which will make you a hero in a client or colleague's eyes, and helps build trust, which is at the foundation of every enduring client/agency relationship.
Be voracious consumers of everything, and I mean everything, in both old and new media. Ideas can come from anywhere, and you will find inspiration in the most unlikely of connections. Be open to this and pursue this with passion and dedication.
Be persistent, be persuasive, and above all, be prepared to meet the demands of a less-than-forgiving world. Give yourself permission to fail - this is how you will succeed - but be sure to make that mistake only once. Learn from it, and do not repeat it.
Pay attention to relationships with both clients and colleagues. Ideas will be the currency you trade in, but relationships will be the bank that issues the currency, so attend to them, nurture them and build them over time. You will be richly rewarded for these efforts.
Q2: How can an account executive make a client feel valued?
Be proactive, rather than reactive. Solve problems before they become problems. Present ways to capitalize on opportunities your clients haven't anticipated.
Be an owner when problems do arise, as they surely will, focusing on solutions, without deflecting blame to anyone else.
Be collaborative; bring your clients into the process early, whether it's about forging a strategy or formulating creative.
Q3: What are a few simple tactics to strengthen a client relationship? Where do you draw the line as too personal?
It is amazing to me how many client service people fail to do the simplest things well, like respond promptly to a client email, return a telephone call immediately, or answer a question quickly. They tell you they are too busy, or too stressed, or simply don't have a clue that they need to get back to their clients in a timely manner. By "timely," I mean in minutes or hours, not days or weeks.
This won't help me win a popularity contest, but my reaction to this lack of responsiveness is that it's nonsense. If you want to build a relationship with your client, you need to do these small "housekeeping" things consistently and effectively. You might think that clients don't keep score but, trust me, THEY DO.
If a client emails or calls, don't wait a day to email back. Respond immediately. If you don't have an answer to what is being asked, at least acknowledge your client's issue, commit to a time for a more thoughtful and substantive response, then honor that commitment.
"No matter how many dinners you attend or how friendly you become with a client, NEVER mistake your relationship for personal friendship. Never forget the person sitting across from you is always your client."
When I have forgotten this simple rule, I inevitably lived to regret it. Client service people need to be friendly, personable and accessible - but also vigilant.