How to be a Good Customer versus just a paying One (Hint: They aren't one in the same)

Working with a variety of clients across a variety of industries and geographies, I am often asked what differentiates the good clients from the acceptable ones (translation: which clients will earn you new clients versus just pay the bills). Specifically, what is it about certain clients that make everyone want to work on their business while with other clients it takes more than just a little managerial persuasion and cajoling to get folks excited about the assignment?

You might assume it's the industry or a client's product that gets people excited about working with them. While that definitely plays a role, it is really more of a red herring than anything else. What really gets people jazzed about working on a piece of business is the client himself or herself. It's pretty simple really. The good ones all share the same attributes: 1. Strategic alignment at the top; 2. Laser focus; 3. Trust, of their team and their marketing partners (e.g. they delegate authority).

These attributes seem simple enough, so what's the problem? Well the problem is it's a whole lot easier to talk about them then it is to live up to them. I can't tell you how many meetings I've sat in where a department head has shared the basics of their corporate culture and it always, without failure, involves employee empowerment, a stated belief that what the company chooses not to do is as important as what it chooses to do and a value statement that embraces learning from failure. Again, on paper these are all admirable things. In practice, however, too many leaders seem to abide by the old adage “do as I say, not as I do.”

There is no doubt, most clients don't hire outside resources because they are looking for additional ways to spend their budget. They seek outside counsel because despite having a team of qualified and hard working internal resources, they could still do with some additional insight and expertise. I like to think of the situation as similar to that of a patient who has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Having a brain tumor doesn't make you any less smart or capable, but it does put you in the position of needing to seek some specialized attention. And, if you were that patient would you choose to go with the surgeon who operates with a scalpel or a melon baller? I don't know about you, but I'm going with the scalpel. Also, I'm smart enough to not attempt to perform the surgery myself. Thanks, but I'm going to leave it to the surgeon having trusted that I've been very clear about what my goals and aspirations are post surgery.

The problem with too many clients is that they don't know what those “post surgical” goals are and they want to try a multitude of procedures all at once before they determine what those goals should be. When you look at some of the best performing companies and the most aspirational brands (e.g. Apple) they know whom they are, whom they want to serve and how they want to play. More importantly, though, they don't try and do everything themselves. They pick their partners carefully and then they trust in those partners’ advice in counsel and follow it! It's a two way street, though. Those outside partners need to know upfront what the goals are, how success is defined and who is ultimately on the hook for making a decision. And I can promise you, it is rarely, if ever, a committee that is defining success and making individual decisions.

I know what you are thinking, “easy enough for you to say, you don't work where I do.” You are right. I am no longer part of a large corporate hierarchy. But I do deal with corporate bureaucracies on a daily basis. And whether you have truly been empowered by your boss or not, you have the ability to affect the outcome of the work that leaves your organization. Some of the best clients that I've worked with have been folks that on paper didn't have final decision making authority at all. What they did have, however, is the confidence to make day to day decisions and then share those decisions (heard as often selling them) with their boss in such a way that supporting the recommendation is easy because doing so, clearly supports the earlier stated goals of the greater organization.

If for some reason your boss is unable to clearly define success in a way that can be measured and tracked, then you must do it for him or her. Based on that, both you and your outside partners can make swift and unemotional decisions on potential programs, tactics and creative solutions. Does the proposed solution bring you closer to those stated goals? If not, then why not? If so, how? Reaching agreement upfront, makes the decision making process that much easier for everyone involved. It also makes it a lot easier for your external team members to know just how much leeway they have to creatively execute those goals.

Knowing the answer to the question of how and where those boundaries exist is more than half the battle. Knowing that you are working with a client that will defend your recommendations based on their adherence to a well understood and agreed upon set of goals and boundaries is the final step toward getting the best team members at your agency partners' offices assigned to your business. Remember, if you are frustrated you can be certain your agency partners are too. And if they are, you can also be certain that they won't be lining up to work on your business.