For ad industry outsiders, Mad Men portrays client services as background players that are primarily responsible for setting up meetings — and agreeing with Don Draper. A lot. For insiders, the stereotype is that of the person who takes clients to dinner and on other (expensive) excursions.
But the days of the client service professional as the host of extravagant meals and trips with little-to-no accountability are a thing of the past for most agencies, especially in digital.
It’s a brave new world with a sharper focus on margins, and there's no room for wasted time or budgets. So the modern client service pro must be ready and able to add value to the client – and the agency – in virtually every aspect of the business. And while there are a number of ways to interpret adding value, from my perspective, it can be broken into three main categories of business, consumer, and people.
Understanding the Business
First, and most obviously, the client services team needs to be an expert on the client's business – though the full breadth of what that expertise entails may not be completely obvious. That we need to understand the client’s industry, the competitors, and the market leaders is a given. What's deeper is an understanding of what "business" the client is actually in.
For example, as part of the team working on Dell at an agency years ago, my focus was to help determine the ROI of the print catalog. We quickly discovered that its co-op deals with partners like Intel were generating more revenue than any direct or attributable sales from the catalog. In that case, we found that the business unit we were working with was actually in the publishing business – and not necessarily selling computers, printers, and peripherals.
Similarly, Scooter Store, the seller of personal mobility devices, doesn’t really sell scooters. They don’t even sell mobility, really. Since the vast majority of their sales are paid for by Medicare and delivered to the consumer, you might say that they're actually in the business of managing and navigating Medicare. Once a client expert understands what business his client is really in, the filter for strategy and decision-influencing he is able to provide can't be beat.
Understanding the Consumer
That filter also extends to having a healthy understanding of the consumer. And while client services is not a replacement for the brand planning or consumer insights experts, those two teams simply cannot be present in every conversation with the client. The client services person often is, however, and we're often able to interject the "voice" of the consumer in a variety of situations.
Even in meetings with the C-suite, client services experts are the ones that wind up reminding everyone at the meeting about consumer preferences, thoughts, and feelings – which typically change the direction the conversation is headed for the better. I personally encourage my teams to be fearless in those situations.
Understanding the People
In addition to the strategic side of the business, an effective client service professional is also in tune with the client's people. From understanding their motivations, to their organization's decision-making politics, down to just who the clients are as people, there's a level of social interaction and social knowledge that will probably never be divorced from client services at its core. And right or wrong, like-ability can sometimes make the difference in both negative and positive situations.
The Bottom Line (No, Really)
But it's not enough to be an expert on the clients business, understand the consumer, and be socially engaged – today's client service professional also has to maintain a focus on the agency's business. This means understanding and driving agency profitability, as well as constantly looking for ways to deliver more client value through new or underused capabilities.
There are often agency goals for a client that involve selling ideas, pushing clients to try new things, and expand the relationship responsibly. The key word here is “responsibly,” since expansion that is not in a client's interest will be transparent — and result in a loss of credibility. But ultimately, no matter healthy the client relationship is or how much value we're delivering, if we cannot do so profitably, it's an unsustainable arrangement that will end in dissatisfaction and divorce.
Whether we're working with clients to set strategy, collaborating with the creative and media teams to deliver ideas, sitting with the agency CFO to evaluate new contracts, or having that rare client dinner, the client services team needs to be experts at whatever is in front of them at that moment in time.
Originally published Sep 18, 2014 8:00:58 AM, updated July 28 2017