This is part one of a three-part series on healthy, successful business relationships between companies and outsourced partners. Spoiler alert: you won’t be finding any agency-client horror stories here. Helpful tips? Yes indeed.
Ready for some straight talk? We’re all busy executives and business owners, so let’s just get to what works.
If you are embarking on a PR or marketing agency search, or if you’re an agency considering how to vet a client’s RFP or meeting request, it doesn’t have to be the equivalent of a root canal. Instead, perhaps some tips from the trenches will help remove some pain points.
Clients are looking for several things. Agencies are too. It’s that sweet spot where prospective clients and prospective agencies meet in the middle – the intersection of the two circles – that’s the recipe for success. You can’t force the sweet spot. Some clients and agencies are compelled to overlook “poor fit” yellow flags. Fight that tooth and nail, just like you do with job interviews. Hold out for the best fit for your needs – as the client, and for your needs – as the agency.
Or, something like that. Trust me, we all get dazzled by the idea of working on that big campaign that catapults a product line, and wins the agency equivalent of the “Dundies.” Smile. And working with new partners – it’s like starting that early dating phase where everything looks great, new and intriguing. It’s simply human nature. And that’s from both the client and agency side.
While I’m a big proponent of “like and trust” being the top litmus test for a healthy agency/client partnership, it’s something that is established as you get to know one another. Before you even get to the ideas, ask questions that matter to you and really listen.
Ask “un-aided” questions that will give you clues to how they handle tough situations, respond to adversity, tackle challenges, show appreciation and respect. For example, a client might ask an agency to “tell us about a time when you just flat-out failed on a big project.” Don’t ask how they handled it, how they recovered, how they communicated or what they learned. If and how they address those topics in their responses should give you strong insights on “like and trust” and right fit.
For the agency? That’s right, you must ask right-fit questions too. We know that agencies crave appreciation, want to work with companies who respect them as partners, and good agencies love accountability. Ask your prospective client partners to “share an example of when your marketing team succeeded at a particularly difficult assignment.” The same rules apply. Don’t aid their answer by asking how they recognized their success – let them talk. Listen intently for what they do and don’t say.
Enter the agency search and client vetting process being 100 percent okay with this.
Understandably, I’m not saying that you’ll be searching for the “true love” equivalent of an agency or client partner. But, finding a company that you like and trust enough to work with every day – that can’t be every company or agency you meet.
That means both sides will need to get used to saying and hearing “no, we’ve decided to move in a different direction.” I’m noticing that messaging more frequently in business right now – but by all means, tell them what you authentically want them to hear about your decision.
And be prepared to be asked why you’ve “gone in a different direction.” Decide how you want to answer. I recently “opted out” of several client opportunities, and was respectfully open and honest about our right-fit perspective, while wishing them the best in finding their right-fit agency. It doesn’t make them a bad client, or us, a bad agency – it just means there isn’t a right fit at this point for both businesses.
Kim McKeeman is the founder and CEO of McKeeman Communications, a 23-year-old public relations agency with offices in NC and TN. McKeeman Communications specializes in issues management, crisis communications, media relations, social media and community relations.