Sunday, June 17, 2007

Prospects and Clients and References

It’s not unusual for a prospective client to ask an agency for some references. But how frequently does an agency ask a prospective client for references? Probably not very often.

Are we afraid to offend a prospect by implying that we want to know more about them before we enter into a business relationship? Perhaps. But are we offended when they ask us for references? Of course not. In fact, we often suggest it. It’s just good business sense.

Before a client wants to trust us with their budget, their marketing success and their reputation, they’d like to have some confidence in us. In our creativity, our reliability, accountability and our personalities. Fair enough.

So it seems to make sense for an agency to want to know something about a client’s business manners, ethics, reliability and personality before we trust them with our reputations, our future and our talents.

One reason this can be difficult is that although any given agency has several clients, any given client will have only one agency, often while they are in the process of interviewing the successor. And that incumbent agency may or may not know that a change is about to happen. That means the one agency in the very best position to speak to a working relationship with a particular client is the only one you simply cannot ask.

What to do? All of us in the agency business have had a bad experience with a new client. One that could have been avoided if we’d just had a chance to chat with a previous agency or some sort of creative vendor who felt comfortable speaking freely. Sometimes, any particular agency/client relationship isn’t a match, for all sorts of good reasons. But a lot of time and money gets wasted – and feelings get hardened – because nobody knew it ahead of time. Both client and agency want a good working relationship.

Here’s what I think. For our part, we should be willing to ask a prospect to give us a few names we can talk to before we commit to the relationship. We should also be willing to be honest if called by someone about a former client of ours. “Honest” as in candid and forthcoming, but not taking the opportunity to go for any paybacks for any perceived bad treatment. We’ll tell it straight. Promise.

For any prospects who may be reading this, don’t be offended if we ask you for some names who can give us some background on you, even as we understand you can’t very well ask us to call your current agency. But maybe it’s a former employee, or a trusted media rep or designer you use outside of your agency relationship. Even your accounting firm can tell us what you’re like to work with.

At our place, we’re all about relationships. The agency business has to be. So it’s important to us that any relationship we enter into, we enter into with our eyes wide open. And with as much background as we can get. It just seems like before going into business with someone it’s important for all parties to be as informed as possible as to what could lie ahead.

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