How to Build Lasting Partnerships

When I began my career some time ago, as an eager “go get ‘em” account guy in the world of NYC advertising agencies, building a partnership with my client was the last thing on my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be liked, but describing my interactions with clients as “partnership”? Not so much. Unless, of course, you defined partnership as sitting on two stools side-by-side at the client’s favorite watering hole.

While happy hours still serve a “strategic” purpose, I now realize that having a partnership with a client, especially as a leader of an in-house agency, is of critical importance. And the key to establishing a true partnership is to get on the same page with your clients. (For the remainder of this post I will refer to them as “clients” thus leaving the debate as to whether to call them “clients” or “partners” for another blog.)

Understanding what clients value from a business relationship is critical for a true partnership to root and flourish.

Gather feedback and measure performance.
Successful agency performance hinges on delivering value to your clients. But value is a loaded word. Not all people define it the same way, or want the same things. Is it high-quality work? Brand stewardship? Competitive pricing? Customer insights? Product knowledge? Speed to market? I’m sure the answer is “yes” to all of these (plus many others), but to varying degrees. The fact of the matter is, unless you ask your clients what they value—and have a mechanism for measuring your performance against it—you’ll never know how you’re doing in their eyes. And in not knowing how you are measuring up, a lasting partnership cannot be realized.

Been there. Done that.
I’ve attempted to develop client satisfaction studies designed to understand what clients want as well as gauge how well my internal agency was performing. My early attempts were abject failures. Though there were many reasons why, they essentially boiled down to two:

  1. The surveys were burdensome to administer and results were time consuming to compile (my staff was busy with their “day jobs” and taking on this added project proved too difficult)
  2. The feedback we received wasn’t actionable (i.e., the topics we probed were too limiting)

Ultimately I abandoned the effort and went back to managing our client relationships based on anecdotal evidence and gut assessments. But the thought of developing a comprehensive client satisfaction program, one that wouldn’t crush my team with administrative burdens but would yield the performance metrics essential to deepening our client partnerships, wouldn’t leave me. Quite frankly, I wasn’t comfortable flying blind.

In speaking with a lot of IHAF colleagues, it’s become apparent that many of us share the same desire. We all want a way of measuring our clients’ satisfaction but we don’t have the bandwidth to handle it ourselves, nor the budget to retain outside vendors to do it for us.

Enter the IHAF Performance Evaluator.
A number of years in the making, last fall IHAF introduced a new tool designed specifically for in-house agencies: the IHAF Performance Evaluator. Designed by in-house professionals, it’s a customizable on-line survey that allows in-house agencies to measure performance against a host of categories across all agency functions. It’s completely flexible—you choose the topics that are most relevant to your business, you choose to whom the surveys are sent, you choose when and how often surveys go out and IHAF builds the survey, compiles the results, and delivers the findings to you. You can even benchmark your team against other internal and external agencies using IHAF’s aggregated data. What’s more, the Performance Evaluator is a free benefit of membership with IHAF. (For more on how it works, go to:www.ihaforum.org/resources/assessment.aspx.)

Partnerships are earned. Knowing what your clients want and, just as importantly, hearing what they think, is what you need in order to build on and deepen your partnerships. The IHAF Performance Evaluator is a great place to start.

I welcome your comments. If you’ve tried the Performance Evaluator, how has it worked?  If you haven’t tried it, why not?

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