The next in my series of personal client experiences that I would personally prefer to forget, but that I hope provide some useful lessons for the rest of you…
Every agency wants to work for a client who “gets it”. The agency consultants get to use all their smarts and usually become smarter in the process.
A few years ago at a former agency, my team and I were hired by a large candy and confection company (I will call them SWEETS) to do high-level consulting to integrate the company’s sustainability activities into their corporate brand and business strategy. SWEETS was a company who “got it”. Smart, savvy, innovative. It was a great assignment. It had an ample budget. And it was going to make a terrific case study. I put my best team on the project and told them I wanted to be regularly updated on our progress.
Soon after the team started work, our original client contact, who was a Senior Director-level person, stopped being regularly involved. She no longer participated in calls and meetings with my team. She wasn’t reviewing work or giving us any direction or feedback. Instead, my team was dealing with a very nice, and very junior, person in the client organization.
Each week, when I would check-in with my team on their progress, we would discuss our concern about not being engaged with the right client contact. We discussed in detail how this posed a risk to the assignment. We would talk about it among ourselves. We tried to raise it with the senior client on many occasions in a delicate way, but she was essentially unresponsive.
My team and I all agreed 100% on both the problem and the risk… We would meet and talk about it… We would wring our hands… We would sigh…. We would end our internal update meetings… And we would go right back to continuing with the work…
I really don’t think it was greed about the fees. Our overall business was vibrant and growing. We could have been making money on other clients and assignments. It wasn’t arrogance on our part. We knew that the agency could not do this sort of assignment on our own. We knew we needed full engagement and partnership with the client.
So, why did we keep moving forward with the project? We were being too damn polite.
What we needed to do was put the brakes on and say to the client, “If we can’t get the proper engagement from you, then we can’t do our job.” But this would have been awkward, if not downright disruptive. It would have offended the junior client contact. It would have annoyed the senior client. And it would have caused unwelcome attention from senior management within the company.
So in order to not ruffle feathers and be polite, we kept moving forward. Our team put lots of hard work and great expertise into the project. Their deliverables were smart, comprehensive and well thought-through.
But, because our work did not receive effective collaboration, input or guidance from the client, the final product was not aligned with crucial internal considerations that my team wasn’t aware of. And once the work was complete, it was neither properly introduced nor explained to senior management.
So by being polite… we did work incredibly hard… we did develop something very smart… and we did do what the client told us to do. But we did NOT give the client what they actually needed. Trust me, by that point, we had everyone’s attention…
There’s an interesting final chapter to this story: About two years later, I received a voicemail from someone at SWEETS who had “seen the sustainability branding work my team had done” and wanted to talk to me.
I returned the call wondering why someone would want to yell at me again, two years later. So I was very pleasantly surprised when the conversation started with “I saw the work your team did two years ago. It wasn’t exactly right for what we needed, but it was very impressive and we have an assignment I think you guys would be perfect for…” We ended up doing the global campaign to launch SWEETS’ successful mapping of the genome for an agricultural crop which enabled farmers in poor countries to better cultivate the crop and make more money selling it.
It was a highly successful campaign because we did what the client asked us to do AND we did what the client needed us to do.