What’s the new role for Client Services?
Traditionally it was a distinct department charged with being the liaison between client and agency, of inspiring great work and maintaining a creative team’s enthusiasm for the task.
But things are changing. Client Services is no longer purely the domain of people who have an innate ability to get under a business’ skin. Now, everyone is expected to have a client mindset. All roles require client understanding. And where Client Services departments remain, they are finding new ways to add value.
BIMA’s latest Breakfast Briefing explored the ways in which Client Services is reinventing itself to remain relevant to clients and agencies. With expert opinion from Gareth Edwards, Head of Digital at Deloitte Digital in Edinburgh; Georgie Mack, Managing Partner of Made By Many; John Sinclair CEO, Founder of ustwo, and chaired by Nicki Sprinz, Managing Director, ustwo, the panel explored just what it takes to remain part of our clients’ futures.
Read on for insights from our panel or catch the entire recording
What Does Client Services Mean Today?
All our panellists agreed that, at its core, Client Services is still about having empathy and understanding for the person sitting in front of you. What are they looking to get out this project professionally? What are their personal goals? Do you know the name of their cat or how old their children are?
However, in today's agencies, it can be challenging to deliver client services at this level, in part because account managers or client leads are no longer the only face of client interaction. With product teams that are radically collaborative and flat, designers and technologists of all levels are expected to interact with clients. As a result, everyone across product teams needs to have a client sensibility. As Georgie explained, “If we’re expected to empathise with our users, we should be able to empathise with our clients.” She further admitted that it’s not easy to possess this skill: “I don't think we're great at it because sometimes we forget that they are human beings, but if we tap more into that, we would be brilliant at it.”
So, how do we set up our businesses so everyone has a client services mindset? Gareth emphasised the importance of building a team of practitioners who are great communicators. Digital teams often include people who are very passionate about things that are innately hard to explain (bitcoin, anyone?). So for Gareth, someone who can get those ideas across in a non-technical way and make the value clear to the client is invaluable.
John added that it’s not necessarily about asking a designer or developer to do account management; it's about finding people who understand and value their role in making every client’s experience a great one. A certain level of savvy can help them do their best work: “To be a great designer or developer, they need to understand the context – the budget, the organisation, everything.”
Same Goal, Different Approaches
This topic naturally led onto a discussion around how best to organise, structure and operate Client Services. In light of the flat nature of agile teams, should the responsibilities be shared among the practitioners or does it require a dedicated role?
Both Deloitte Digital and Made by Many have focused on integrating account management and growth responsibilities within the product team. Georgie felt this was a big but vital transition for MxM: “All the people who were account managers were really unhappy in that role. They felt overlooked and their opinions weren't taken into consideration. So we got rid of that role and brought in product management and client leads to sit alongside the teams.”
Giving the client perspective, Gareth, who worked in financial services for many years, explained how he had benefited from less formal, integrated account management from his agency partner. He credits this model in helping him develop an empathetic and understanding working relationship. Then, when contracts were re-negotiated, rates reduced but the time became billable. Suddenly every conversation was on the clock and relationships suffered as a result. His takeaway: “Paid-for client service has to show real value in the same way a developer or a creative has to be able to show value.” A tricky feat indeed.
Contrary to this trend, ustwo has focused on developing a separate Client Services discipline. John explained that ustwo’s strongest client-side relationships have historically been between the creatives and those building the work. More recently, they realised developing senior client relationships was something they needed to actively work at: “We needed to champion our clients.”
As a result, the London studio now has three client partners and a client lead – a hybrid T-shaped structure which gets involved in everything from planning to strategy but can also handle those senior-level conversations, sensing what clients need and adapting where value needs adding.
Nicki, our moderator, was keen to point out that just as we’ve come to expect a certain level of business acumen and client service from product teams, those responsible for driving client relationships also need to have a multi-disciplinary understanding. That, she believes, is where the future lies: “I would expect the client team to have empathy, like designers, for the users and customers, be understanding of design thinking and know about the latest technology.”
Throughout the discussion, our panel also spoke about how Client Services is adapting to meet the new business challenges our clients are facing. Alongside build and delivery work, there is an increasing focus on helping transform culture, testing new propositions and scoping future-proof strategies. As a result, the ability to reassure various levels of stakeholders through this uncertain space is becoming increasingly important. In this context, as Georgie pointed out, we have to understand how frustrating this ambiguity can be. They are operating in risky territory and we need to up our game in guiding them through it.
For Gareth, the ability to foster and grow client relationships in this rocky terrain comes down to humility. He noted how exasperation or arrogance could mean the end of a relationship. One way to avoid this is a focus on plain-English and demystifying terms that are common parlance in agency-land: “We forget how often people in traditional businesses don’t know anything about ‘agile’ or ‘backlogs’,” he said. He also reiterated the importance of hiring individuals who can “share their passion and show the value to the client.”
While the discussion explored many operational complexities, from revenue models to team shape, all our panellists kept returning to the theme of empathy.
In order to embrace increasingly complex challenges and deliver successful work, the key factor that should guide our interactions is to remember that every client is a human being.
I would expect the client team to have empathy, like designers, for the users and customers, be understanding of design thinking and know about the latest technology.” Nicki Sprinz, Managing Director, ustwo