In an industry where there is never a shortage of funny stories about ludicrous requests made by clients, isn’t it strange that we rarely ever hear an agency’s response to such requests? Could it be that our responses are simply drowned out by the roars of laughter after hearing the “make the logo bigger” story for the 90th time? It’s possible.
It is also possible that those responses are never heard because they come in the form of a nod, an inward smile, and the fast scribbling of notes.
The recipe is simple. Start with the clients’ requests — both the reasonable and the not so — add in our propensity for walking on egg shells to not disrupt our relationship with them, and then mix in a few last-minute assignments on tight budgets. Sooner or later, one of two things will happen:
– Everyone gets used to it. Sure there’s no breakthrough work happening, but who cares? The work is relegated to a junior team and the client isn’t even fazed. The important thing is that clients are content — and as long as they keep paying, so is the agency. This wet dream of mediocrity can only be interrupted when the clients’ top management teams cut the budget, and the agency scrambles to come up with brilliant work to serve as justification.
– Clients are seen as demanding, picky, and difficult to please, while agency people are seen as incompetent half-wits who don’t seem to understand simple direction. In this case, it won’t be long before a messy breakup happens, usually followed by proverbial finger pointing and name calling.
This is unfortunately more common than most of us care to admit. Those of you shaking your heads in denial can go ahead and leave the page. For those of you nodding, I salute your acknowledgement that there is a problem, and it is up to us to fix it. While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I believe this rule should be the cornerstone of any client-agency relationship:
Learning to say “No” to our clients
Obviously, the objective here isn’t to start hemorrhaging clients by being stiff, inflexible, or otherwise unhelpful. The goal is actually the opposite. By saying no to a client when it is appropriate, we actually accomplish two important objectives:
– We enhance the trust in the client-agency relationship. Unlike an acquaintance who may ignore the fact that there is something stuck between your teeth, a good and trustworthy friend is the one who would immediately alert you to it.
– We remind the client that we are not their communication “suppliers”, but rather, their partners. And while there are plenty of agencies willing to rush in with the yes-sir supplier mentality, it is the value of our talent and our expertise that allows us to stand on equal footing with our clients and let our “no” be heard.
Volumes can be written about the art of saying no, but that’s a separate topic all together. Below is a list of requests or situations where we should get comfortable saying those two letters:
– No, this does not come for free.
– No, if we need any additional information about your business, we will not rely solely on finding it ourselves on your website. You have to provide answers as well.
– No, we cannot deliver our best work for projects with “yesterday” as a deadline.
– No, “everyone in the region over 13 years old” does not qualify as a target audience.
– No, none of the work we do takes us a minute.
– No, we will not be using your creative relative’s idea (although we are confident she has a bright future ahead of her).
– No, an emergency is not anything that comes up unexpectedly, and repeated misuse of this term will likely be dealt with much like The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Finally, and this is key in any situation where we feel the client — or anyone for that matter — has become too much of a burden on ourselves or on our resources:
– No, we cannot continue in this relationship, and we feel it is in everyone’s best interest that we part ways…for now. (Bonus tip: no, we never burn bridges with clients.)
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