How to answer the question, not simply accept the answer

Ever received an unexpected piece of news from a client and thought ‘what the hell?’.

This article is a reminder that often, when a client brings you a piece of information, they are often in fact bringing you an answer to a question rather than a question itself. And unless you get to the root, there’s a high chance you’ll miss out on further opportunities. 

Here’s an example: 

A client of mine has been doing incredibly well for their own customer, so much so that lead generation had surpassed even their best case scenario. Sounds good, doesn’t it? My client certainty thought so and was delighted with the results. So, when he received a call from the customer telling them that they were pulling the plug on marketing because they no longer needed it – he was shocked. 

As is a common reaction to a receiving an unexpected piece of news, my client began creating reasons for this sudden 360 on marketing, you know the sort of stuff; he was doing a terrible job, the customer didn’t like the team, they weren’t impressing the customer, they had found a better agency to do the work, they didn’t trust or believe in them etc. Of course, none of these stories were founded on anything but his own internal monologue, but we all know that can be incredibly convincing at times.

He asked me for a quick chat, and I suggested – as I so frequently do – going back and asking for some direct feedback from the customer. I suggested that the information that had been delivered might not be the only answer to his customers question.  

He duly pickup up the phone and asked his contact if he could help him to understand why they had decided they no longer needed marketing support – citing he would find the feedback useful and constructive for the team. It turns out the one and only reason that the customer had pulled the budget was because demand was now greater than supply. In his mind, the pipeline was full and because my client’s job had been lead generation, they had ‘completed’ their task. He had answered his own question – and delivered the ‘answer’ back to my client. 

By opening up the conversation, my client had found the real question for his customer which was ‘we have been so successful with our lead generation, what should we do next?’ – the chat opened up a whole host of new opportunities for my client – from providing smart consulting for the customer on growth strategies e.g. if you’re too busy then now is the time to put your prices up, to suggesting an emphasis change rather than a chop for marketing, from lead generation to brand building or client/commercial relationships. 

The conversation changed the entire client – customer relationship. With the customer who was just moments before slashing marketing completely, now leaning on my client to help develop the brand, and provide consultancy services to help them with their longer term growth strategy. 

It’s very easy (and destructive) to allow ourselves to start making up stories about why things are happening – especially if it’s to do with slashing budgets or terminating relationships – but the only real way to interpret what a client is saying to you is to ask them. Trust me, it saves you and awful lot of head bashing and often opens new avenues for the relationship. 

I speak from experience on this subject. And if you’re after another example of the importance of client conversations then here you go. 

A number of years ago (more than I care to remember) I rather irrationally put my team out of the race for continued work for a well-known furniture company in the Cotswolds (too easy?). 

The team I was leading at the time had been delivering the paid search for above furniture company for some time, and the results were phenomenal. For every pound spent on paid search, the business was making hundreds back, and so – of course – they ploughed more and more money into this particular marketing function. They spent so much in fact, that they triggered a little-known clause in their original company policy that said they needed to put work out to tender if they were spending over a certain amount with a single supplier (us.)

I’m happy (if a little embarrassed) to admit that when the information was delivered that the work – which we were absolutely smashing – was being put out to pitch I was utterly put out. I created my own scenarios about an ungrateful client, I wound myself up with the ‘real’ reasons they must be putting the work out for pitch. Eventually, in my naivety, I stood what I believed to be very righteous ground and refused to be part of the pitching process. 

Looking back, there are so many things I could have done differently had my ego not been somewhat in the way – all of which I would advise my clients on today had they been in a similar position. I could have opened the client conversation and asked some direct questions; are we the preferred agency? Do you want to continue working with us? (this would have saved me making up my own internal, unfounded stories) and I could have suggested we change the direction or emphasis of our work to strategy rather than the more costly media buying. I could / should have spoken to the client and worked with them to find different answers the question, rather than only hearing the answer. Hindsight hey. 

The broader point here comes back to the power of direct client/customer conversation. It’s so important and yet still so many agency owners / leaders fail to recognise its importance. 

Hope this has been at least a little bit helpful and that it helps you navigate news and information clients might deliver in future.

Andy.  

Agency Founders Surgery - free 1 to 1.

If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.