Are people being more helpful or are we asking better questions?
The past couple of months have been difficult for businesses in a lot of ways, but one thing that has proven less difficult than expected is the level of communication. In fact, during times where you’d expect communication to drop off a bit as people get used to working remotely, businesses re-plan their entire budget and priorities, and companies figure out where they need to focus their efforts, we’ve seen a lot more communication both internally and with our clients.
Because everyone is in the same boat. Everyone is trying to get used to a different way of working, tackling issues that many have never faced before, and trying to learn from past recessions to inform what might be coming. We’ve had clients come to us to engage us in their budget plans, ask for our opinions on where they should be investing efforts, what’s coming next, what we can do to support them, and whether we can change up services/focuses/approaches. But, a lot of those conversations wouldn’t have been happening if we hadn’t invested in becoming a growth partner for them , rather than just an agency cost. Instead, we’re an extension of the team; our clients are right at home talking to us about what might impact our work and are happy to bounce ideas around instead of just telling us to do what they want, and the value we get from that relationship is staggering.
More recently, the value from those relationships has exceeded previous levels. We’re getting more and more insight into the business operations, what the true pain points are for different people in the company, how priorities change from department to department, not just marketing priorities. And similarly, our clients are getting more and more value out of us because we are more involved in what really matters to them.
Which begs the thought, are people being more helpful or are we asking better questions?
Support where it matters.
Not to run with the classic SEO “it depends” cliché, but it really does depend how you look at it. A lot of the information we’re being given now about what’s happening in our clients’ businesses, their team developments, and changing priorities is information that would have been available before, but we may not have been given it because our day-to-day contacts wouldn’t necessarily have known it. So, even if we were asking all the same questions 6 months ago, the answers are likely to have been very, very different to what they are now.
Suddenly we’ve gone from “I’m not too sure, let me catch up with X and I’ll come back to you”, to “I spoke with X this morning and this is where we’re at right now” or “It might change, but here’s our current thoughts”. So, are people being more helpful? Maybe, because the communication has improved. But, are people asking better questions? Maybe, because suddenly these questions impact what they have to do to survive and grow.
The key really for agencies is knowing your clients, and for clients is knowing your agency. The more agencies know about the pressures their clients are under, who their contacts report into, and what the focuses are from both the contact team and the wider business, the more they will be able to support. And similarly, the more clients know about the agency, what services they offer, which teams do what and to what extent, and how the different services relate to each other, the more they will be able to lean on you for support.
Asking the right questions about the right things to the right people will open whole new avenues for strategic direction and pre-emptively forming decisions around potential tactics to deploy and goals to achieve.
So as an agency, where do you start?
If you work in an agency environment, you tend to work across a variety of clients in a range of industries, which is both great and pressuring. You need to know what’s happening in your clients’ industries almost day-by-day to be able to inform your marketing activity and make sure your strategies are still effective.
I myself work across retail, entertainment, data security, and property-based industries, each with sub-sectors and sub-sub-audiences; do I need to be an expert in all of them? No. Do I need to know what changes in those industries are important to my clients? Yes. But that isn’t following every single development in every single strand of every single publication, that is knowing enough to have meaningful conversations with my clients, and to do that I need to know:
- What the leading publications are in the industry (these tend to give the fullest datasets)
- What the niche publications are in the industry (these tend to provide more of an argument/opinion on developments)
- What the client’s focus is in the industry – commercial growth, disruption, service expansion?
- What will impact the client’s performance – competitors (new and existing, business and channel), market/economy changes, the weather?
Every business has different focuses and operates in a different market position, even if they’re in the same industry. So knowing about the industry is great, but you also need to be able to apply a nuanced view that takes into consideration their business, sector and direct competitors.
You need to dig into the specific sectors your clients operate in, and that largely starts with audience and market positioning. One of my clients is a well-known ticket provider who have multiple brands under the same company. Each brand has its own audience, even though they’re all the same company, and each has its own focuses. And that’s true of almost every service-based business, too. If you’re looking at data security, you’ll have some services that apply to CTOs and some that apply to wider teams. If you’re looking at property is it investment, commercial, or domestic? More so with service-based businesses, you’ll find different teams in the company have different goals and different requirements so if you just focus on one part of that, you’re not really understanding the setup of the business or what you need to do to provide value across the board.
While you need to know enough about the industry to know what’s happening at a wider scale, you need to know the ins-and-outs of what’s changing in the sub-sectors, why, and what that means. Your clients will likely always know more about what’s happening in the sector than you will because they are fully immersed in it every day. Learn from them every chance you get. Learn about:
- What’s happened in the past week/month/quarter
- How that has changed immediate and longer term focuses
- What’s working across different parts of the business – for example in retail, how are the stores comparing to online performance, are customer services noticing any changes in what’s being asked of them?
- What matters and what doesn’t, at a team level and a business level
Then, and only then, can you really start to understand your clients and what they need from you.
The truth is clients are people. And people like to talk. And if you ask questions around the topics above (and revisit them occasionally) then you’re going to learn more about your clients and what they need you to support them with than you ever would from an onboarding checklist.
It seems basic, but how could you turn around and tell a client that they need to follow this specific strategic direction without knowing how that will impact their position in their sector and what changes in the wider industry might impact the end goal? You couldn’t. And if you do, well, probably rethink your strategy.
Your clients depend on you for value, and you depend on your clients for insight. You need to know everything that is happening with your clients, both in terms of the business and just with them in general.
- Are they under a lot of pressure internally because their team has been reduced?
- Are their budgets under more scrutiny?
- Have they just been promoted?
- Have their own targets changed?
- Has who they report into changed?
- Are they looking at new services? Products? Opening new stores? Changing delivery? Updating the branding?
- How do they work? What times? Email or phone? Presentations or bullet points?
The more you know about what’s happening with your clients the more value you’ll be able to give them. A lot of that starts with questions, but more of it comes from actually working with them instead of just being someone they ask for things from.
So where does that leave us?
In a strange way, working further apart from people has made everyone more relaxed and with that everyone has become a bit friendlier. Client meetings are no longer stiff and uniform, they’re conversations. They’ve changed from sitting at opposite sides of a boardroom table, to everyone collectively sitting together (albeit from behind a screen at the moment) and openly discussing things that matter, not just things that have been done.
Yes, people are becoming more helpful because everyone needs to work together to figure out what to do next. And yes, people are asking better questions because everyone needs to know as much information as possible. But no, it isn’t unique to the current situation; it is a development of how you have formed relationships between client and agency, between team and business. Right now, it might be much more about understanding and pivoting than it is about performing against targets, because almost every budget and every forecast has been thrown out and redone. Once this passes, it will be more about learnings and developments, and how, as a team, the agency and the client worked together to pull through it, and how much more valuable that relationship has become.
It’s an opportunity to come out the other side of this pandemic with; much more information about how the business operates, much more accurate understanding of what you need to be providing for your clients and much more collaboration between you and your clients.