Less (clients) is more (value)
By Peter Cleary, founder, Zinc
“We are losing our battle with all that is personal and real about our business. Every day I can look at a list of phone calls only partially returned. Driving home, I think of what was not accomplished, instead of what was accomplished. The gnawing feeling continues.”
This is part of Jerry Maguire’s mission statement from the 1996 movie of the same name starring Tom Cruise. Maguire got on a roll in his Miami hotel when looking at writing a one page mission statement which ended up being 25 pages.
The basic message was that to be successful in business, particularly the service industry, the focus should not be on the number of clients you can attract and maximising revenue from those clients, but on the strength of relationships and quality of service. In Maguire’s case it was looking after fewer star athletes to better service the athletes he had.
Over the past four to five years, Zinc has reduced its clients from 180 to 35 to get to know our clients better. We have relationships that go back 10 years or more with 40 percent of our top 15 clients.
To have genuinely strong relationships, you need fewer clients. To better understand your client you need to spend time to understand and generate genuine insights so you can offer a better service. The philosophy is that if you genuinely give a damn about your clients, you will have good relationships, do great work, and then the dollars will follow… and clients will be loyal.
But, if you start with maximising the dollars, clients and team members get treated as a means to an end, which could potentially results in weaker relationships, weaker work and ultimately, a higher turnover of staff and subsequently clients as a result.
We treat our client partners the same way we treat our team members (the word staff is banned) and our supplier partners – we give a damn about them, and we live and breathe our values in how we work with them. Genuine business partnerships are built on genuine relationships and genuine relationships are built on a deep understanding of a client’s business. You can’t get a deep understanding of hundreds of clients.
You also need to continually add value or your clients will go elsewhere. Don’t start with your competencies – start with the client’s problem. This means looking at the client’s wider business and industry environment; not just focussing on marketing. This is constantly changing and evolving with market forces and competitive pressures. Just when you think you understand a client, things change and you need to reinvest again – to get the context of change.
It’s a constant challenge that does not end… you have to have the right culture/mindset as well as the process and infrastructure to keep on the journey. It’s a journey of constantly ensuring a good ‘fit’ – of understanding what a client needs and what an agency can offer. The context of this fit is based on values – shared values/philosophies etc. These are the building blocks that make client relationships sustainable. Without shared values/philosophies, few client relationships last. It’s the same principle in peoples’ personal lives. We all know it intuitively but perhaps are not conscious of it enough on a daily basis.
You need to identify and understand a client’s problems in the context of their objectives. Of course, that is not always easy. Getting a company to recognise the problem can be half the battle. Some companies don’t want to recognise that there is a problem. Other companies may know they have a problem and may also know the solution but other factors are preventing them from making the necessary changes. A strategic journey is not always black and white and it can be highly political.
There may be hidden factors that mean the problem is not what you originally thought it was (start out addressing a symptom rather than the originating disease) and/or the solution is not what you thought it was. Hidden factors may be preventing the client from adopting strategies that you think will help them.
This goes back to finding the right clients in the first place. Understand the business before you pitch and don’t pitch if you don’t want it. Find and work with companies that have similar values, where you share a similar philosophy and culture to yours.
It is also important to gain each other’s trust to build an open and honest relationship. Trust is the glue that binds. Ask more questions, talk less, and listen more.
If a client’s values or future direction change (perhaps due to people or partner agency changes) and is no longer in line with our values, the relationship may also need to change, or expire.
Jerry Maguire left a copy of his mission statement in each person’s mailbox before work and he got fired because of it. He was honest but to the detriment of his job. Short term pain perhaps for long term gain (but we don’t know – there was never a Jerry Maguire sequel).
It’s hard to part ways but sometimes there is a use-by date in a relationship. Jerry knew his time had come.
We understand a company’s direction will change, and we try to move with our clients, but values will never change. The key here, if you are concerned about changing relationship dynamics, is to be honest and open with your clients.
It may be counterintuitive but it is imperative to work with like-minded businesses. We look for businesses that align with our beliefs:
– Integrity (honesty, genuinely wanting what is best for their business, doing what you say you’re going to do, being honest about what you and can’t do)
– Passion (sincerely interested and give a damn)
– Knowledge (want to understand, seek to understand, intellectual capacity to understand), and
– Accountability (getting results).
New business is important but it should not be at the expense of the client list that you already have.
And not all revenue is good revenue. The opportunity cost of some revenue is greater than the actual profit you generate from it. Be honest – just say the business isn’t right, isn’t in line with your values and own direction and refer them to a third party where the ‘fit’ might be better.
It’s a small world and it’s continually surprising how a client will pop up somewhere else and remember the way you uniquely dealt with them. Always be honest and do the right thing by clients and by people in general and good karma (as some will call it) will come your way.