A marketing director at a blue-chip company told me once that he wanted to feel that he was getting some of his agency’s ‘shower time’. In other words, even in the shower, they were still thinking about his business.

Clients actually want more than that, though. The issue that comes up time and time again in our interviews with them is that they want their service providers to understand their business. This is hardly surprising, since a supplier can’t add value without having a clear picture of the business and the client’s position in it.

But it doesn’t stop there. Suppliers have to work hard to keep that understanding fresh. Going by our conversations with clients, this simply doesn’t happen often enough.

The process goes something like this: the service provider wins the job based on a good understanding of the client’s business and culture. But as the supplier moves into what I would call ‘execution mode’ something happens. By the time the project or assignment has been completed the client’s business could have changed profoundly because the pace of change is now so rapid. The supplier is already behind the curve and the client is dissatisfied.

Sadly, too many service providers don’t invest enough time in keeping themselves updated. In my early agency days we used to keep a brand book of every pertinent fact about the client’s business.

One of my jobs was make sure it was so current that if somebody asked me what sales were in Tyne Tees compared to the competitors I had the latest figures.

When I was in South Africa a couple of years ago I came across an agency which, whenever it won a piece of business, would invite the client in on a Thursday at 5pm. All staff, about 80 people, had to be there.

The agency’s chief executive would introduce the client, say thanks for coming, and then invite them to speak for 10-15 minutes about why the agency had been selected, what the company hoped to get out of the relationship and the key issues the business was facing. Then either the account or creative director would stand up and discuss what they would be doing for the client, followed by questions.

But here’s the real point of the story. The chief executive would thank the client for coming, thank the agency teams, and would then say to his staff: I want each and every one of you to come to me with any ideas you have for our new client’s business and we’ll not only take them to the client, but we’ll also pay you a bonus of 500 rand.

Needless to say, the client team loved this. They were deeply impressed that they had not just eight but 80 people focused on their business.

Want to get the most out of your service providers? Why not suggest a checklist:

  • Do they read your annual report – particularly your chairman’s/managing partner’s statement – to get a good picture of where the business is headed?
  • Do they check your website regularly?
  • Do they check out your competitors’ websites?
  • Do they look at any of your blogs, Facebook page or Twitter entries?
  • Do they read the trade press and your press releases?
  • If you sell through outlets, do they go and see how your products are actually sold?

This takes a lot of time and effort. But it’s what suppliers have to do to put themselves in their clients’ shoes. Otherwise they are just showing up.

service provider infographic RAM 1