Delivering excellent client service is a critical commitment for successful ad agencies and marketing firms. But we heard recently from an agency principal that his AEs attend even routine client meetings with an entourage of other agency people. He’s been wondering how to address the issue since it is beginning to cause problems:
- Too many production and creative people away from their desks.
- Too much time we cannot really bill.
- Too much “admin” time in already tight estimates.
Meet with AEs, Then the Team
Meet with the AEs who use team service most often. Discuss why they choose to take extra people to meetings that are not full-scale pitches, and why they need to be selective about the practice. If a lack of confidence seems to be the issue, address training needs.
Then gather up the reins and pull the rest of the team back into their proper roles. Explain why you want to reduce or limit the number of group visits to clients—productivity, scheduling, estimating overruns, etc. Lost billing and efficiency can negatively affect agency stability, and jeopardize end-of-year bonuses or profit sharing. Worse, these can disrupt key priorities in your agency business plan. When everyone sees the problem, they are more likely to support the change needed to solve it.
Train Your AEs
A lack of confidence may be the issue if your account executives seem afraid to fly solo. Invest in training with particular attention to selling skills, presenting creative, asking strategic planning questions and building relationships with clients. Selling and presentations skills training would also be valuable to creative, media and account planning employees.
Mentor Your People
Mentoring is also a good way to brace up an under-confident AE. The agency principal or account supervisor should join the AE on visits to key clients, and make sure the AE is not just as an observer, but looped into conversations,. When they become stronger participants and contributors, the agency leader can ease back out of the relationship except for periodic check-ins or troubleshooting.
Test for Aptitude
Your AE may simply be a bad fit for the job. Think about having your AE take a personality assessment. It’s a good HR practice to do this in conjunction with the annual review or salary adjustment, or have everyone in the agency (including the principal!) take the test. It can be quite eye-opening to learn how your personality fits—or doesn’t fit—your job description and duties. But back to the AEs…
If your AE proves to have a temperament not well-suited to the role of client service and building relationships, you may want to shift that person to an internal agency role and try someone else in the AE job.
Millennials Are Team Players
The team service issue may be a generational thing. Millennials were raised with the idea of being team players, working in collaboration, with ingrained sharing/social mindsets. Retraining them to become more independent players may seem counter-intuitive, but for an agency to function and get the work done, everyone has a role to play. Often, the individual role is more critical than the team role for delivering efficiency and helping the agency achieve billing and profit goals.
If necessary, offer examples of situations where team meetings with clients may be appropriate—and when they are not just inappropriate, but unnecessary. Help your people become better at judging when they should attend client meetings, and when other priorities should take first place.
Make up for the loss of team participation by scheduling more internal team bonding events. Also, include clients in some events, so employees can interact with clients in non-work activities, like civic functions or charitable efforts.
Develop Better Planning Skills
Help your AEs develop better judgment and advance planning skills regarding people needs. The only real reason to bring an entourage is for a big meeting—too many client-side people in the room for one individual to answer all questions. AEs need to pinpoint specifically who they will be meeting with advance, avoiding any “today, the senior management team from corporate will be joining us” meeting day surprises.
In defense of the lonely AE, your AEs may have certain clients who like to pack the room. In these situations, have them plan in advance to team up with another AE to even the playing field, rather than emptying out the agency to visit the client en masse. Many times, an entourage is not appropriate for a specific client venue; it can actually overwhelm the client, like playing with a full band when a duo can function just as well.
Strong team bonds make for a strong agency culture. Just make sure that the team ethos isn’t detrimental to getting stuff done. Every team needs a leader—step up and coach them to better client service practices, and your solo fliers will gain the confidence to do their best for the agency… and maybe become prospects for future agency leadership.
See also: Is It Time for Team Service?