The agency business is in a near-constant state of change. Browse through half a dozen agency websites and odds are you’ll see adjectives such as “nimble” and “agile” used on almost every one. Change and its close cousin disruption are now embraced as positives attributes by clients.
And indeed, in today's agency-client world, change is good ... until it isn't.
On the surface, clients are eager to work with agencies that position themselves as change agents and masters of change. But we’ve found through our studies of agency-client relationships at Hallway Talk that clients can react to agency-driven changes in unexpected ways.
Agency changes due to mergers and acquisitions, account wins, account losses, and staff turnovers have a direct impact on the clients’ day-to-day experience of working with an agency. Overlay that with changes driven by the advances of technology both in media and in processes. It’s easy for agency leadership to become so focused on managing what’s happening within the agency that they overlook how their clients may perceive the changes. Before you know it, the stage is set for serious client relationship problems.
During Hallway Talk interviews conducted with agency clients, we often hear the client perceptions of agency change. Here are some examples delivered through the voice of those clients:
When agencies merge ...
“They’ve promised us all kinds of new capabilities and services with the combined teams, but all I see is chaos and disruption to my business. I hired my old agency for a reason, and this new version is not working for me.”
When the agency wins new accounts ...
“It seems they are so happy with their new big account that we’ve just become a small fish in their pond.”
When agency staff comes, goes, or is reassigned to accounts ...
“They keep changing up who is on our team, and then we need to retrain them on our business. I don’t know how this can be a ‘better’ team if we need to constantly explain our business.”
When the agency changes their processes or systems ...
“Their system is broken, and now they’ve introduced an online project management system that further distances us. We are a high-touch client. How is this supposed to work?”
When the agency adds new capabilities ...
“They have this new department, and they are really pushing us to use them. I think they are just looking for more of my money. And, I’m not sure if I want to be their guinea pig.”
How to Manage the Chaos of Agency Change
We often talk to clients who don’t buy in to their agency’s changes and don’t see them as being good for their business. They can be skeptical and apprehensive. That's why agency leadership needs to step up their game during times of change to understand and manage a client's perception of what's happening.
The 5 Cs of Change Management
There are five important tools that agencies can use to successfully manage their client’s perception of change and strengthen the relationship.
Be conscious of the fact that your change does impact the client. Even if you feel it shouldn’t or even if it’s a change for the better, your client will have a point of view. So put yourself in their shoes, anticipate objections, and be sensitive to your clients' interpretations, right or wrong.
Clients are more comfortable when they know that change is coming. Advance discussions about timelines and reasons behind the change will help your client ease into the transition. On the flipside, make sure that your own agency people are outwardly supportive of the change and not fueling the fire of the client’s concerns.
Clients often feel better about change when they have a chance to collaborate and feel that their needs have been taken into consideration. Collaboration isn’t just to manage perceptions. We’ve found that collaboration before and during change can lead to better improvements for all involved.
Clients see through changes that are transparent or temporary. Your agency must show a commitment to the changes. Credibility can be easily lost when change is announced or promised to clients and then not followed through. You have to be committed to your plan.
Your agency has worked hard to establish trust. It is critically important during times of change that you continue to instill confidence. Make sure there are some small wins for the client early on as a result of the change to earn their confidence and to demonstrate how the change is good for them. Wherever possible, measure results early and often.
Agency-driven changes are a necessity to remain competitive and to best serve your clients. But you need to ask yourself: How will my clients react to this change?
Check in with your clients to understand their perception of agency-driven changes -- even if you believe the change is for their own good. It’s one important, but often overlooked, component that can help ensure your agency’s change initiatives are successful and your client relationships long-lasting.