On the face of it, that headline is not a very controversial statement, but if you think about your client base for a minute, chances are good that most of them are using a smaller subset of the services that you provide. Like most of business, things start simple enough and then grow more complex as you position your firm to take advantage of any opportunity that could possibly surface.
I picture some of you with the biggest boat you can afford, patrolling the harbor with the biggest net that’ll fit in the boat, trawling it for anything that wiggles! With that mindset you’re naturally going to allow a client to nibble a little in hopes that you can set the hook later. Agencies that live off that promise, though, keep adding things until eventually it looks like the menu from the Cheescake Factory! It was a one-pager in 1978 and now it has 250+ items on 21 pages.
Challenges of the Agency Drive-Up Lane
The approach I’ve just described can maximize opportunty, but two things will suffer in the execution: profit and impact. Let’s look at the downside of a complex service menu and clients who do too much picking and choosing.
- Order Takers. When clients decide what should be on the menu, it balloons to accommodate the sum total of all their wishes. They are shaping your agency, and if you view yourself in the service industry, this is a good thing. But you’re in the expertise business and not the service business, and expert firms by definition direct their client relationships. Clients come to the expert with symptoms–not a list of prescriptions for which they want a signature.
- Multiple Little Companies Under the Same Roof. In this scenario, you might offer multiple service lines, like maybe public relations, media planning, app dev, marcom, and social. Used together, these might comprise your vision of integrated marketing, and some of your best clients use everything, but most don’t. That can lead to a scenario where the account people aren’t equally skilled at engaging clients in each of those areas. Even more challenging is they they want to “run” the account from their client service perch, and downline skill players who serve all the various fiefdoms aren’t always sure how to balance competing requests. This makes the compromises especially painful when project management is embedded inside the various little companies.
- Unintegrated Marketing. As you would expect from the previous point, the marketing that you are offering isn’t always integrated, either, because the PR-driven account that also needs digital tends to see digital through a PR lens. Not good. The only role players who are attached to specific clients are account people. Project management is administered by a group of project managers who are very closely tied together and who provide that integrated function to the entire firm. Copywriters are moved around based on what style/skill a client might need. And so on.
- Dragged to Competing Against Smaller Firms. This downside of the pick and choose service approach is the most subtle, but can be the most important over time. If only a dozen people in your much larger firm are serving a given client, you’re going to find yourself competing against firms with a dozen people. The entire premise of a large firm is that deep bench that can honestly, truthfully provide one-stop, full-service marketing. Any time you step away from that primary advantage you invite smaller competitors to eat your lunch.
This last point is an important positioning nuance that has escaped the marketplace so far, and it’s primarily what’s prompting me to write about this. So back to the original headline: your best clients use most of your services most of the time or you won’t be playing to your greatest strength as a firm of a certain size: “we are big enough to do all that for you.”
So how are we to avoid this order-taker mentally where clients pick and choose what they want to buy from you? I do understand that they have the final choice, but there are helpful ways to steer things differently and become a more expert firm where relationships aren’t so different from each other. And by the way, that’s where your profit and impact come from: similar relationships where you can start to notice the patterns, build in efficiencies, and really make a difference.
To make this work, you might consider:
- Compromise for new clients, temporarily, who could benefit from everything you do later. So in the sales process you’d walk them through everything you do for your best clients and indicate that it’ll be an acceptable compromise to only do X for them, but it will indeed be a compromise and that you’ll be gunning for all their work if they are willing.
- Prioritize scheduling and staff allocation for full-service clients. This will get tricky, and make sure that there are no surprises, but it is the way the world works and too much accommodation on your part drops you out of the expertise pact into a service relationship. Just don’t be passive-aggressive about it.
- Slim down your offerings. Each agency will be different in this regard, so instead of aiming for a perfect number of offerings, it may be better to dump a service line that your best clients don’t almost always use, especially if that’s been the case for at least one year. By this point I’m sure you’ve noticed the implication that your services are packaged, which is also a mark of an expert firm.
- Resell to client frequently. Once or twice every year, you might want to have a specific conversation with any client who isn’t using most of what you offer, just to remind them what you can do for them, and how much more effective it can be to be offering a larger, integrated subset of services. This is definitely a job for the account person–it’s not good to have the sales staff insert themselves periodically.
- Let your varying level of engagement be a guide. By that I mean to watch for when you get really pumped about helping a new client. Is there some mix of services that really let you shine? Are there a few where you dread what’s coming next? Maybe you don’t make as much money or you don’t feel as competent as a group.
It’s not a massive change, but it’s an interesting proposition that really works over long periods of time: offer services that most of your best client relationships will almost always use and appreciate, and slowly begin looking only for that type of client. And before you consider adding a new service line, make sure that most of your best clients will use it or pass on it. Focus. Focus. Focus. Don’t let clients run your firm.