5 Ways Your Agency’s Best Intentions to Add Value Can Backfire

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Dory Ford
Dory Ford




When speaking with clients about their agency relationships, a common theme we hear is that clients really want their agency to deliver “value-added” work -- thinking or actions that demonstrate a commitment to the client above and beyond the normal scope of work, delivered without a fee.

This value-added work might be in the form of proactive thinking, out-of-the-box ideas, trends or information sharing, or even additional time spent at no charge to get a project done. Yet, often, we’ve heard clients complain to us in confidence, criticizing and even forming poor impressions about the agency as a result of this extra effort.

When it comes to value-added efforts, we'd like to share the cautionary words of Oscar Wilde, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

If clients truly want the extra-mile efforts of their agency, why do we at Hallway Talk hear so much grumbling from clients when agencies attempt to deliver on the value-added promise?  

Sometimes value-added efforts are misunderstood by the client. And sometimes, they simply fail. Clients not wanting to appear ungrateful for an earnest “gift” of extra effort on their behalf often don’t share the full scope of their negative impressions with the agency. As an agency, what you don’t know can hurt you.

5 Ways Value-Added Efforts Backfire

These backfires are supported by quotes from client interviews -- because nothing is more demonstrative than the voice of the client.

1) “Don’t give me ideas I can’t execute.”

Your client says he welcomes “out of the box” thinking, so you proactively develop ideas that are thought-provoking and disruptive. You present them, and your client seems unimpressed, even slightly aggravated. What happened? The client has challenged the agency to bring risky ideas, but if the idea is perceived as grandiose, not in line with the current plan, not relevant to the client’s business, or creates a lot of uneasiness, it has the potential to backfire.

Voice of the Client:

  • “Their ideas demonstrated just how out of touch they are with our business.”
  • “I mean, who do they think we are -- Coke?”
  • “I didn’t realize they just don’t get my corporate culture.”
  • “We would never be able to execute this in our retail environment.”

How to Add Value: When a client believes your thinking is out of touch with their reality, that perception can be hard to dispel and can damage your relationship long-term. Think through objections and hurdles, and demonstrate how the ideas are relevant to the client’s specific business model before you present.

2) “Don’t keep throwing a bunch of stuff at me.”

To stay on top of the latest technology, trends, product innovations, and industry news, you scan the latest stories in various industry sites, LinkedIn posts, and Twitter feeds.  As an agency person, you love to share interesting news and insights with your clients. So off goes a link to the client’s email box with a short “FYI” or “Interesting!”. While you have good intentions, this attempt to add value by sharing relevant information can backfire.

Voice of the Client:

  • “I wish they would stop filling up my inbox with stuff I’ve already seen.”
  • “They send me a lot of articles and ideas without any rationale of how this will drive sales.”

How to Add Value: If you want to get full credit for your efforts to add value, choose your outreach carefully, and always connect the dots for the client. And per the point above, make sure the dots make sense and are relevant to the client's business and his goals.

3) “Don’t make me look bad with half-baked ideas.”

Sometimes your agency team gets excited by interesting opportunities and ways to change how the client markets. You quickly set up a preliminary meeting with the client to get feedback to determine if the opportunity has merit.

But things get out of hand. More people from the client's team unexpectedly sit in on the meeting, and while the agency is holding an informal feedback session, the client thinks this is a formal presentation. We’ve heard the aftermath of this scenario more than once, and client takeaways are not gentle. The agency looks bad and so does the client who set up the meeting with their team.

Voice of the Client:

  • “I felt like they were pitching us half-baked ideas with no thought to ROI.”
  • “I didn’t see any metrics to show how this would move my business.”
  • “It was a total waste of my time.”
  • “Were they just throwing stuff at us to see what would stick?”

How to Add Value: The lesson here is that value-added discussions can backfire when the client’s expectations are not set up front. Make sure the client understands the limitations of the work being presented so the agency gets credit for what you DO do, not what you DON’T do. 

4) “Don’t expect me to appreciate the extra time it took you to get the job done.”

If you’re in the agency business, odds are you’ve been the victim of project scope creep or client direction changes. In the spirit of partnership, your team rolls up their sleeves and performs above and beyond. The agency thinks they’ve added value and are heroes. How can this backfire?

Voice of the Client:

  • “It’s not my fault they underbid this job”
  • If they could learn to be more efficient it wouldn’t have taken them so long”
  • “I didn’t ask them to put in extra time.”

How to Add Value: Positioned or presented wrong, the value-added work can be viewed as a weakness of your agency, and this negative perception can carry forward to future projects. Don't be silent and expect a pat on the back for extra effort. Take the credit you deserve by keeping communication flowing throughout the assignment. Let your client know exactly how much extra effort your team is putting out and why you’ve chosen to do so. This also helps to manage expectations the next time there is project creep or when future estimates need to be revised upward. 

5) “I don’t want them to take their eye off the ball.”

Beware. The most well-intentioned efforts to deliver value-add services to your clients can come right back at you as the scapegoat for a host of other client-agency relationship issues.

Voice of the Client:

  • They’re so busy bringing us things THEY think WE should do, they aren’t paying attention to what WE think THEY should do!”
  • “I can’t believe they are wasting their time [with added-value effort] when they can’t get projects already on the list done on time.”

How to Add Value: Errors, miscommunication, or delays will be blamed on the value-added work even when there is no correlation. Your client‘s perception is that you’ve gotten sidetracked and lost focus on the important day-to-day matters. Right or wrong, your client’s perception is their truth. Make sure your team takes care of business before they tackle value-added work or you may be putting your relationship at risk.

How to Make Your Good Deeds Count

Value-added efforts need to be approached with the same discerning lens of any other client communication or project and managed accordingly. Value-adds are one of the top things we hear from clients that they want from their agency, but it’s also high on the list of complaints. Whether it is proactive thinking, POVs, whitepapers, research, ideas, articles, insights, etc., the agency’s extra effort can be lost or worse yet, damaging, if it is not made relevant to the client and if the rest of the agency’s work isn’t in order.

Agencies should think long and hard when planning what they can and will deliver as value-added work for the client. Because too often for agencies, the words of Oscar Wilde ring true: “No good deed goes unpunished.” 

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