In the business world, there are mainly two types of exchanges:
The first one is transactional. A cold and straightforward exchange with no emotional or mental investment involved; purely economics. It is mainly aimed at the short-term result of making the sale with little or no regard for the deeper customer need.
In many cases, transactions are sufficient. Say, you need office supplies. You go to a bookstore, pick up supplies, pay for your purchase and walk out. You use a public highway, you pay the toll fee. All those home TV shopping programs (if you're from that generation) and in-feed ads on your Instagram? Same idea.
Nothing fundamentally wrong with these, really. And often, they can be considered effective because it appeals to human nature (i.e. buy now and get a reduced rate, buy three and you get a $50 value on this bonus gift, etc).
On the other end of the spectrum, there are relationships - exchanges that require more thought and effort and, if done right, reap significant benefits in the longer run.
Any meaningful relationship, whether personal or professional, takes work. A lot of work. For the simple reason that they don’t just happen but instead, is a result of a conscious effort to make it happen. As with personal relationships, it is important in business relationships to see the person behind the project or the client or the company. Being able to exercise empathy and flexibility are necessary to have a productive and symbiotic relationship.
This is no way meant to be bending over backward to keep your client or partner happy. It’s knowing how to be fair to yourself and finding a happy compromise that both (or all) parties can live with.
An example of this occurred with one of the local group conglomerates we’ve worked with on a digital project. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the launch of the project didn’t go as smoothly as intended and needless to say, this brought about some implications. We owned up to the mistake and pulled out all the stops to provide every possible solution and assistance humanly possible.
While we were able to bring the project back on track, this situation definitely cast the agency in a dimmer glow and it was no surprise to us. Internally, it was unanimous that if we were the client, we would feel the same way. As a team, we were ready to face whatever consequence that resulted from our mistakes though, at the same time, we were banking on the fact that the clients have been largely happy with the design work and service they’ve been getting from our team.
The consequence eventually came in the form of financial impact: the client wanted to pay only half of the last invoice (and this was largely due to the relationship we have established with them and the effort we put in to address the main issue).
We did what any self-respecting agency would do: we refused this.
Instead, we offered to waive the entire invoice out of goodwill. Sure, it was a monetary loss, to say the least, but it was also something more important: a learning experience on how to plan better for future projects and an opportunity to display the agency’s commitment to our relationship with the client and to their business objectives.
The Long Game vs a Quick Win
Looking out for the client's interest over yours as a general principle may sound counterintuitive but actually, plays out better in the long run.
One experience we had was with a client in the manufacturing industry. We worked closely with the client team for weeks to understand their business, their challenges, and needs and developed several proposals that we believed brought them closer to the solution they were looking for.
Throughout the proposal-development process, the client was upfront enough to tell us that they were also considering a ready-made solution. They even shared with us the option they were considering and wanted to hear our thoughts about it. We explored it and gave an assessment that it was indeed something that would address their needs but with some considerations regarding customization.
The client took some time to discuss internally and later came back that their management decided to go with the ready-made option but they also wanted to keep the door open for future partnership and collaboration. It was absolutely understandable and a sensible decision for the client (similarly, if we were in their shoes, we would have done the same) and we were more than happy to leave it at that.
A few months later, the client reached back out (surprise!) and mentioned that after proper consideration, they would like to resume planning for a customized app. Certainly good news after we were sure it was a lost project! By making an objective assessment to an alternative solution that benefits the clients more than ourselves, I believe we did right by them and with that, won the project back.
Another benefit of choosing the relationship over revenue is it clearly mitigates conflict over mistakes. Like any other project regardless of industry, there is always the risk of things going south. If the relationship that's built between the parties is one of true partnership and trust, fingers aren't pointed and the agency isn't made the default scapegoat (which, let's be honest, is a fact of life).
Instead, the teams hunker down to find solutions together. This isn't to say that it will always go swimmingly - expect some tension and contrasting points of view, for sure - but at the end of the day, both client and agency are on the same boat to solve a problem.
But it's not all roses and rainbows. On occasion, there will be times when it would be necessary to push back or maintain your position. ‘No’ doesn’t have to be such a dirty or difficult word. In fact, it’s acceptable and reasonable to refuse a request if it goes beyond boundaries (or breaches contract).
The magic is in how the decline - or any difficult conversation for that matter - is phrased or expressed. Keeping to the facts of the situation, maintaining a professional and polite tone in written and verbal encounters will always help to keep the relationship intact.
At the End of the Day
Building relationships, of course, is not limited to the client-agency partner dynamic. At Mäd, this ethic is extended to supplier-partners, candidates and, most especially, our own people because treating everyone with the same respect and courtesy as you would any client is just plain human decency.
In this day and age of lightning-speed transactions, immediate results and instant gratification, taking the time to understand the person behind the project, the client, the deadlines and the demands, certainly will result in more positive outcomes than otherwise.