Are You Really In The Service Business?

By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

Agency professionals everywhere are frustrated by the master-servant dynamic that increasingly characterizes client-agency relationships.  They feel that clients treat them more as a supplier than a partner.  Agencies are quick to lay the blame at the feet of the client, but is it possible that the problem really starts with us?

For starters, we constantly refer to the agency business as a “service business.”  We have “client service” departments.  We call the agency a “professional service firm.”  Consider how this creates our self-perception.

Many agencies lament that they have become “order-takers.”  But why?  Who turned your agency into an order-taker?  You did – not your clients.  You did it by forgetting what it is you’re really selling.  You’re not selling service.  You’re not even selling ads or ideas. You’re selling business results.

The agencies that understand this invest in better people who can produce a better product.  They resist hiring an army of junior account people who are good at service, but fail to add the value that clients are ultimately paying for.  They realize that the way to deal with demanding clients isn’t to give them exactly what they want, but rather counsel clients on what they really need.

You only get treated like a servant if you act like a servant

The fact is that agencies shouldn’t be regarded as professional service firms, but rather professionalknowledge firms.  Clients don’t just hire you for what you do, but rather what you know.

Clients routinely complain that the average “account executive” doesn’t really add much value to their business.  That’s because most account executives view their job as simply responding to client requests.

Over the many years that Ignition Consulting Group has been conducting surveys of advertising agencies, we have discovered that agencies give themselves the highest ratings in the areas of “Responsive service,” “Listening to clients,” and “Meeting timetables and budgets.”  The lowest-rated areas?  “Developing proactive ideas and delivering marketing leadership to clients.”

Service is a commodity.  Smart thinking is not.  Clients can get good service anywhere, but proactive marketing leadership is in short supply.  In fact, most surveys that seek to diagnose why clients switch agencies usually produce the same answer: “Because our agency never gave us anything we didn’t ask for.”

Think hard about the question of what business you’re in. If you’re in the service business, you can expect to be treated and paid accordingly.  If you believe you’re in the knowledge business, then you’d better hire, train, and invest in people accordingly.

There are plenty of smart clients who value and respect what a smart agency can deliver.  But respect starts with an agency’s self-perception.  You will never be accorded more respect than you think you deserve, and you will never be paid more than you think you are worth.