Bringing humanity to account management

"Most agencies want long-term clients and stable client relationships, yet the average client-agency relationship continues to shorten."

Summarizing what I do on a daily basis as an account person is difficult. The nature of the job spans everything from relationship manager to business developer, strategist to client leader, consultant to financial analyst and creative champion to marketer.

While our responsibilities as account managers are many and varied, identifying the most important thing we do is easy: being human.

It may sound obvious or overly simplistic, but it’s more difficult than it seems. There are a multitude of stressors at play in client management that pull us away from our natural sense of humanness, but that very humanness is essential to creating enduring, trusting and influential relationships with clients. And creating those types of relationships are the greatest achievement of any account manager. 

Relationships operating on this deeply human level, as opposed to being transactional or superficial in nature, are beneficial to both clients and agencies not only because they feel good and are mutually fulfilling, but also because they lead to stronger work that leads to better business results over the long run — for clients and agencies.

Most agencies want long-term clients and stable client relationships, yet the average client-agency relationship continues to shorten. Depending upon what study you reference, it’s commonly accepted that the average client-agency relationships today last just about three years.

This is half of what it was in the late 1990s.  

So what do we do? How can we as account managers, along with other members of an agency, build those enduring relationships with clients? Focusing on the humanness that any relationship requires is a good place to start.

1.)   Think of client relationships like friendships. Genuine, close friendships require mutual investment, honesty, vulnerability, transparency and a commitment to growing and working through problems together. It’s not about making clients like you or the agency; it’s about creating trust and instilling the belief that you are always acting in their best interest (even when you are challenging them or delivering difficult news). No one aspires to build a short-term friendship. When you aim for a deeper and longer term relationship, how you go into it and treat each other along the way is different. Good friends always make each other better.

2.)   Lead with empathy. The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The best account managers I’ve worked with have an uncanny ability to put themselves into the shoes of their clients. They deeply understand their client’s aspirations, challenges and needs. Then they develop their relationship approach and orchestrate the agency’s capabilities in a way that addresses those for their clients. Empathy is a key to creating lasting connections with clients. 

3.)   Do the work together. There’s only one quote posted in my office, and it’s from Rumi. "Out beyond the ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there." Rumi was never an account manager, but his wisdom has always guided how I work with clients and teams. There is nothing more powerful for a client-agency relationship than breaking out of the details and the rules to discover an opportunity or solution together. Rather than excluding clients, bring them into your strategy development, ideation and creative process. Seek their perspectives and points of view. This shifts you from having to defend work to a place of alignment, mutual investment and collective excitement for it.

4.)   Be really smart and proactive. When I started in account management 25 years ago, I was given the advice to "know my clients’ business more than they do." This isn’t intended to be competitive; rather, it’s a call to account managers to serve their highest value to clients. Our clients are tasked with driving business success however they measure it. The only way you can truly help them is by understanding their business, their competitors, their industry and their audiences so well that you can anticipate their needs and identify marketing solutions to help them achieve success. Clients love smart people who expand and influence their thinking, especially when they do it unasked — or above expectations.

5.)   Say thank you and show appreciation. Our clients’ business is valuable to us, and there are plenty of agencies who would be happy to take our clients away. In big and small ways, frequently make sure your clients know you are grateful for them and that you value your partnership. It can be as simple as saying just that at the end of your next meeting.

As account managers, it’s easy to get caught up in the tasks at hand. But by bringing even more humanity to our discipline, partnerships grow stronger alongside more impactful work. The relationships we have with clients impact what we’re able to achieve together. So why not achieve more?

Shane Wolfsmith is the director of client services at Grady Britton, a values-based, full-service marketing agency based in Portland, Ore.

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