How to be proactive with clients


Not content with their consultancy answering the brief, delivering on time and on budget and generally doing a great job, clients seem to want even more. They call it ‘proactivity’. Of course, agencies have to make a judgement about what type of proactivity is a justified investment and when it goes beyond what is reasonable.

Whether we like it or not, however, proactivity is often the crucial difference between a good relationship and an excellent one. It’s the difference that leads to greater trust, loyalty, a closer partnership and more work.

Interviewing hundreds of clients on behalf of consultancies has given me plenty of opportunity to question them about what proactivity means in practice and how consultancies can improve.

Clients tend to view the subject differently depending on their seniority. For instance, junior and middle management clients usually see proactivity as being within the project. Flagging up budget issues ahead of time, spotting potential problems early or challenging the brief all fall into this category. However, more senior clients tend to view agency proactivity as being about the wider business. Typical examples include monitoring competitors, providing analogies with other brands and markets or coming up with ideas that have a direct bearing on sales and profitability.

A client’s propensity to award you more work is directly related to how much they trust you. As the old adage says, ‘Clients don’t care what you know until they know that you care.’ Proactivity is part and parcel of building that trust.

However, no agency will be consistently proactive in their approach unless it is built into a structured plan. Don’t trust to luck or think that somehow your agency will be naturally proactive.

With this in mind, it is useful to think about client development on three levels. The first level of activity is about merchandising success, telling your clients about new wins, awards, new hirings, project launches and relevant case studies.

The second level is about sharing knowledge. This is about your views and opinions on competitors, consumers and industry challenges.

The third level is about generating bespoke, client-specific ideas. These will usually have a proposal or next steps attached.

Clearly, each agency has to make a decision about which clients are worth this level of proactive time and effort. However, it would be a mistake to think that such ideas always need to be on a grand scale of ambition. They can also simply be pragmatic and useful, the result of intelligent questioning and experienced judgment, rather than slavish strategising.

The problem is that many agencies only really do the first level of activity, generating the sort of content that can be found in the average agency newsletter. It is useful and has a role but is one-dimensional. Really effective client development needs to be working on all three levels. Only then do you stand a chance of embedding proactivity into the agency culture.

Our client interviews consistently reveal two basic agency weaknesses. Firstly, very few clients are visiting their incumbent agency’s website. ‘I looked at it a couple of years ago when I selected them’ is a typical response. It has done its job in a new business context but becomes redundant in ongoing client relationships. Consequently, a major proactive communication channel is being missed.

The website is a great means of sharing knowledge and educating clients about your full skill-set, but they need to be given a reason to visit. Secondly, consultancies can sometimes be a bit shy and retiring about seeking more business.

Secondly, clients often tell me that they would be only too happy to introduce the agency to a colleague or other division within the organisation, ‘But they’ve never really asked me.’

Clients know that good agencies are ambitious. As long as agency ambition does not interfere with the project in hand and is restricted to the right time and place, then most clients are willing to help. Sometimes we forget to ask.