Have agencies forgotten the basics of customer service?

It’s been 175 days since I last worked full-time for a communications agency.   Not a lot of time in the scheme of things – a mere 1% of my life to date – but enough time to give me a sense of perspective about the relationship between agencies and their clients.

Technically I’m still agency-side as I provide PR and communications advice to companies on a contract basis. However those clients treat me as part of their team so I honestly feel like I’ve gone in-house (gasp!).

I work directly with the founders of my core clients, one of which is a start-up while the other has a business that is only 5 years old. Both founders are incredibly intelligent, madly passionate about what they do and have high expectations when it comes to the people they work with. And rightly so.

The work I do with them is varied and I’m fortunate that they trust me to recommend and commission other third-parties. I’ve had to write briefs for creatives, PR agencies, web developers and designers on their behalf and act as the liaison between the client and the contractors.

Generally it’s been a good experience but there have been occasions that have caused me to pause and wonder whether agencies have forgotten the basics of customer service.

In fact, these occasions have really ticked me off and I can appreciate why clients whine about agencies.  Some of the traits I’ve come across recently include:

  • Unresponsive – don’t acknowledge emails or return phone calls, fail to respond quickly to an urgent media deadline
  • Non-committal – won’t provide a firm timeline for responding to a brief or delivering a piece of work
  • Lazy –rely solely on the client to provide every skerrick of information and don’t bother doing their own research
  • Apathetic  – just don’t care about the client or their business, even if it’s been handed to them on a plate
  • Poor communication – over promise and under deliver, fail to provide work when they said they would (that’s when they have committed to a deadline) and wait for the client to do the chasing

A lot of this should be covered in client management 101 but it seems to have been forgotten.

Now, I’ve been on the end of a client tirade where I’ve been told that I’m the servant and essentially there to do their bidding, regardless of what it is and whether I believe in it. I don’t expect that from the people I work with and I know how demanding it can be within an agency.

Instead, my advice to agencies is to try and think about it from the client’s perspective. If it’s a small business then typically you’ll be working with an owner-manager who has invested a lot of time and money in developing their organisation. They might not have much (if any) marketing experience and will be looking for a partner they can trust, someone who is excited about their business and its potential.

In larger companies, your client might be lower down the rungs but they’ll still have their own pressures, internal deadlines and stakeholders to manage. If you fail to deliver to them, they will have to handle the fall-out with their bosses. Needless to say it’s not a great way to build a good relationship.

And lastly, if you don’t want the business then please don’t take it. It’s not just your reputation that’s on the line, it’s also the person who has recommended you.