Judy Neer, CEO of the Pile Group, recently asked in AdAge why an industry founded on the principles of good communications is so reluctant to engage in regular professional assessment of its service relationships. Given her own search firm has the most to gain from failed relationships, it’s a remarkably forthright and compelling question.

She suggests the answer lies in clients’ innate belief that a) they “already communicate” with their agencies about issues as they occur; and, b) initiating a formal relationship evaluation is often considered tantamount to staging a full-on agency review—with fairly threatening implications. Neer dismisses both these arguments but I would suggest there is more to the story, especially when viewed from the agency perspective.

As a career agency guy, I have personally invested considerable effort extolling the virtues of a regular client-agency evaluation process, managed by independent professionals, for all key client relationships. These generally consist of long-standing clients whose combined billing accounts for a substantial portion of the agency’s most profitable revenue, in an industry where client loyalty is notoriously fickle at best.

Responsible client management means maintaining an uncompromised view of what your client thinks about the service you’re performing. It seems obvious that identifying issues before they fester and explode makes a lot more sense than blindly assuming everything is copacetic.

To their credit, many clients do conduct annual evaluation processes culminating in formal meetings where both parties review survey findings and discuss ways to build on strengths and address weaknesses. Not surprisingly, these tend to be corporations notable for their buttoned-up professionalism, consistently strong performance… and loyalty to their agencies.
Others, however, are far less rigorous, providing a wonderful opportunity for their agencies to actually seek constructive criticism proactively.

Sadly, it is painfully difficult to muster internal enthusiasm for such initiatives from the agency side. Even when audits are conducted, seldom are they followed by a serious, ongoing process with a realistic action plan addressing specific challenges and opportunities and rational metrics to evaluate progress over time.

Why? There’s always an excuse: tight budgets, lack of manpower, our clients won’t participate, we’ve fixed our problems already, we’ll do it next year.
Invariably, after some dithering and debate, everyone moves on and hopes for the best. Of course, many of those supposedly vital, key accounts are soon out the door and the painful, costly hunt begins to replace them.

There really is no excuse for not implementing a solid service relationship audit process for your most important clients—something that goes beyond, “Would you recommend us?” That’s a nice attaboy for the agency, but doesn’t get close to understanding the underlying dynamics of the relationships—what’s working, what’s not, what do we need more of and from whom, where do we see our biggest future opportunities?

An open, professionally managed dialogue is what great partnerships are built upon. But if you don’t ask your clients, and listen carefully to their answers, it’s likely they won’t tell you—until it really is something you won’t like hearing.