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Does an Annual Agency Performance Review Open a Can of Worms?

Asking clients for feedback regarding their satisfaction with your agency is a wonderful way to understand the things you are doing really well… as well as dig for sore spots that need attention.

Ideally, your account management practices are so finely tuned, your service people can spot trouble long before it swells into a divisive issue that cannot be easily repaired. That said, there will always be clients who hide their dissatisfaction well, and won’t let you know in any definitive way that they are thinking about replacing you… until the deed is already done.

That is why it’s a good idea to conduct an annual client feedback survey. The best tactic to identify potential problems is to ask clients specific questions to gain a clear picture of where the relationship stands. Schedule a meeting with your best clients every year. The primary AE, the account service director and the agency principal should attend. For more comprehensive feedback, have your client’s top contacts as well as the daily contact person attend, too. Nothing clears the air better than an open, frank discussion of problems or concerns. It is, of course, the principal’s job to offer solutions to repair those issues. A well-managed discussion can end on positive notes of appreciation and respect.

The best you can hope for is an annual review where NO problems are discussed… because your service and your work are that good. That is the goal.

Why Ask for an Evaluation?

Some agency owners worry that requesting a performance evaluation might create more problems than it averts. Either they had a bad experience with a childhood report card, or they just can’t handle confrontation. Remember, information is power! Would you really prefer to not know when trouble is brewing? Few things are worse than having a long-time or big-bucks client suddenly drop the bomb that you are on the way out the door. An annual review at least gives you some warning; and asking for feedback more frequently can build trust and respect for your professionalism.

Evaluations need not be confrontational. Make it an AE best practice to follow up on projects, asking a few quick questions about project results, quality of creative concepts, agency service, any client concerns and overall satisfaction. AEs should record the responses for the project file. These can be referenced in the annual meeting, or as notes for writing your annual report letter.

What if clients stonewall about meeting to give feedback? Are they playing it close to the vest… because they need time to find their shiny new “next” agency? Stonewalling to buy time is not unusual. Learn to recognize when the client is putting off the discussion.

Work to overcome potential barriers to honest client feedback:

Develop friendships with clients outside of the agency-client relationship. Play golf together, serve on the boards of the same community service organizations, and even meet socially on occasion. Friendship does not mean you can skate on failing to deliver on your agency commitments. “Awkward…” But it can make it more comfortable for your “friend” to engage in frank conversation.

Make frankness and honesty a core value for all agency-client relationships year-round, not just during feedback sessions. Regular open discussions encourage better communications at all times, and should make providing feedback on agency performance easier for both parties, especially when a problem occurs.

Continually look for ways to add value. A freebie here, a referral there, and the odd discount, “because we love working with you guys,” help to cement a relationship. It’s like an ongoing courtship; woo your clients as you would woo a new business prospect. Better yet, proactively propose ways to help clients grow their business. Be the people who help them make money.

Be alert to work slowdowns. You’re mid-project on several assignments the client really needs… but nothing new is being added to the schedule. This could mean the client is just pushing the last projects through so they can start up a new relationship. They may already be working with another agency. Schedule a meeting between agency principal and top-level client contacts immediately.

No one likes to fire people. If the relationship has truly soured on the client side, they may simply be having difficulty telling you. The longer the relationship, the tougher the separation anxiety, especially if the client does not yet have anyone lined up to replace you. You are one-half of the relationship, so reach out if you sense clients may be uncomfortable or unhappy. Better yet, stay involved with top accounts to ensure they don’t reach that place without your even being aware of their state of mind.

Try the annual feedback meeting or regular report cards as a way to strengthen the agency-client relationship. Feedback is a fabulous tool for reducing the static of a faltering connection, and making client relationships last longer.

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