Whatever business you’re in, dealing with customers is where earth moving boots crunch deep gravel roads. Part of my job is training marketers committed to becoming self-contained entrepreneurs over the long haul. Relatively early in their development we start them interacting directly with name-brand clients, to our mind a necessary step for building “complete” marketers.
At morning meetings we discuss each other’s jobs, progress, ongoing client dynamics, priorities, coordinate production and critique correspondences. We focus on leadership, being nimble and doing whatever it takes for success. A lot of mutual teaching and learning happens in these shredding sessions. This post is part one of a three-part series to share what we’ve learned and offer our view of account management best practices. We’ll continue with Part 2 and conclude with Part three, which will offer insight for dealing with difficult clients.
Completely Understand the Goals
It’s frightening how far one can delve into a project without having achieved a satisfactory understanding of business objective at hands. Take time at the beginning of each project to gain absolute clarity. Ask for as many explanations as necessary, even if it means the need for additional training to understand. Time spent early to understand the goals, may be saved many times over as opposed to marching the uninformed army off a cliff.
Establish Your Customers’ Capacity For Moving Parts
With some clients it works to send incredibly intricate action plans expressed in line-by-line specificity. To present hierarchical details once means the client will assimilate the information perfectly and never drop the ball. Others don’t read their email and need to have things spoon-fed in bite-sized chunks. These types need to be followed around and they’re implementation verified. Know the difference and be willing to raise your game to lower levels.
Lead Client’s Expectations
Every business has unique intricacies in execution. In search marketing this might be how we’ll proof PPC campaign creative with HTML documents, how many clicks to expect, the timing of a website’s server change, action steps for staging a blog, organizing a community manager to run video contest or writing SEO tags for a website. Most clients don’t have enough granular experience in these processes to know what to expect. Lead them! Explain what will happen next, before it happens, to align everyone’s expectations with reality.
Set Reporting Expectations Early & Often
Once goals and expectations are set, opportunities are rife for misunderstanding without rock-solid reporting. Report types and depth of detail typically differ by job categories and the objectives of recipients who consume them. Executives may only have the bandwidth or inclination for single metric reports to define whether the cash register is going ka-ching. Marketing managers may want all the granular gory details along with training to read the reports. Either way (or anything in between), what’s most important is to establish what each stakeholder needs to see and set up reoccurring reports early.
Keep Daily Promises or Explain Why Before You’re Late
My mom and dad had a rule, which I dared not break. If I was going to be late I absolutely had to call and update them. The penalty for breaking the rule, which I only did once, was measured in weeks-per-minute.
Business is like that too. There are very few totally immovable deadlines but not many things kill relationships as quickly as bad communication when targets start moving. In any complicated industry, it’s hard to predict contingencies like third parties, shipment speeds, and availability of needed assets or data.
Clients understand these things but often times their own reputation is on the line for promises we make. Don’t ever hang them out to dry for lack of information. As for me I like to send out emails every Monday where I touch every client and job I’m responsible for. I run the entire list every morning. Establish and make sacred routine updates regarding timelines, progress and deliverable schedule status.
Confirm Important Conversations in Writing
Everybody works different ways. I have some clients where every month we go out to dinner to review results and establish marching orders. It’s critical that these verbal outlines be memorialized in writing afterwards to prevent misunderstanding. The account manager should always offer to originate the list, however sometimes the client has details, which make it more efficient to generate the first draft. Follow meetings that yield verbal agreements quickly in writing. It will speak volumes about your follow through and help prevent mistakes and misinterpretation.
Keep Appointments Whenever Possible
We’re all busy and it’s nearly impossible to prevent last minute conflicts. However do your best to save emergency reschedules to true emergencies. Like the boy that cried wolf, relationships can only withstand so many “gee my kid is home sick from school” excuses.
If your business or personal life gets to the point where you repeatedly need to cancel meetings with team members or customers for personal reasons, reevaluate your goals and timeline. If the account itself presents recurrent roadblocks to keeping schedules sacred, call in your boss and reassess the situation.
Do your level best to make sure that the customer is the only party who ever cancels meetings. Bank the equity gained by accommodating their mishaps for the times you need equal consideration. Always be polite and respectful when others cancel and apply measured reason if you ever need to challenge or charge them for the wasted time.
Build & Maintain Personal Relationships, In Person
We have clients I’ve never met in person and love. I’m sure over the years we’ve had some that did not work out because we did not have a chance to develop a more personal relationship. That said I now make it my business to try and connect with everyone in person at least once. Emails don’t convey emotions, important buttons and nuances that in-person meetings reveal.
After years of virtual relationships and telecommuting it’s becoming apparent that any client we work with past a very short term engagement, is totally worth the investment, even if it erodes profit on the initial assignment. If meeting in person is just not feasible due to cost or distance, use video conferencing zoomed in enough to watch your trading partner’s face and mannerisms. Even just knowing what someone’s’ face looks like humanizes the dynamic. If things every get stressful between you, the added insight can be valuable.
Make Client Responsibilities Clear
In many businesses including mine, clients have an important role to play in any success. On the most basic level they have to return phone calls, emails and pay the bills. It gets a great deal more complex when technology or other production is involved. Many times our team interacts with multiple players on the client-side. Make sure everyone knows the drill.
Lack of clarity in mutual expectations regarding both party’s’ roles can lead to misunderstanding and even failure. Starting with the contract’s scope of services and continuing through daily communication, make your customers’ responsibility clear.
Be Totally Available to Your Customers
We live in the sweet age of device convergence and cloud storage so maximize the benefit cloud synchronization tools. Smartphones (like Blackberrys and iPhones) easily sync to Google Apps’, SVN or MS Exchange (and other platforms) to offer groundbreaking options for mobile efficiency. Often times I use my Blackberry even when the laptop is in front of me.
For instance learn how to accept invitations, schedule and invite, forward text messages, links and docs as email on your mobile device. Prepare for trips on your laptop knowing that hotel information will be at fingertips the BlackBerry’s GPS will be pre-loaded with necessary waypoints. As an Account Manager it’s crucial to understand what your gear is capable of and leverage it it to your advantage. It’s incredible what can be accomplished in terms of the customer’s perception of your ability to react and respond. Become a power user of whatever office tools are available.
This is the conclusion of “The Guerrilla Account Manager’s Business Guide Part 1.” Stay tuned for Part 2, which continues this installment and then Part 3, “Dealing with Difficult Clients.”
photo credit: Alex E. Proimos