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OPINION14 October 2015

Constant change requires constant relationships

Opinion UK

Regardless of work flow, research agencies need to be ready to participate and share thinking with clients if they are to break out of a project-based relationship says Paul Tredwell.

We live in times of unprecedented change. Even allowing for the fact that every generation makes this claim, our world is constantly under reconstruction. In the list of marketing priorities, agility and disruption appear to have relegated strategy and the long haul.

One key facet of this phenomenon, within the business environment, is that project-based assignments are on the increase. Clients like them. Procurement specialists particularly like them. They argue that projects tend to be managed more tightly, to deliver more reliably and generally permit more flexibility when seeking to deploy a roster of agency providers.

For many research and insight agencies, whose commercial health can be significantly influenced by income from projects, there is often a less positive view as a precarious revenue pipeline, endless pitching and planning on hope preoccupy stretched and stressed management teams.

Of course, smart research agency MDs will never expect the level of retained business enjoyed, for example, by advertising agencies. But they would certainly crave more than your average research company, and positively envy the model practised so effectively by the best management consultants.

How can this be achieved?

One of the drivers of success in increasing client loyalty is the importance attributed to nurturing continuous relationships, even where the reality of the contractual arrangements would indicate the opposite.

My experience is that service providers whose economic engine relies heavily on project-based income tend to underestimate the value of establishing and developing business relationships.

Specifically, there is the tendency to allow an ad hoc work flow to dictate an ad hoc relationship. This is dangerous because when allocating projects clients value evidence of an up to date understanding of their business. They will immediately sense if an agency which has habitually waited for the phone to ring lacks the desired currency regardless of their willingness and enthusiasm.

A likely consequence of this approach is an unwelcome downward spiral. Ad hoc work will become less frequent, less substantial and eventually will cease entirely as clients favour a number of preferred providers who offer a more collaborative style of interaction.

Is this not just a call for rampant and ultimately profit-sapping over-servicing by agencies? Clearly this would make no commercial sense and can be rebutted despite the fact that, in truth, the ideal response does involve investment. In short, framed as a business development expense, this cost, and more, will likely return as incremental revenue.

Relevant, selective, even relatively modest proactivity can deliver real value. The combination of understanding your clients (personally and professionally) and relationship behaviour can be compelling and, after all, if the result is recurring projects, then the outcome is continuous, retainer style income.

In addition, a seamless dialogue can lead to more contact points being established within a client organisation, reducing the risk from changes in client personnel, driving down new business costs and potentially increasing margin.

In essence, it’s all about keeping a pilot light going in the relationship, regardless of work flow (at least until it is absolutely certain that your investment is going down rather than up). Demonstrate that you are on permanent standby, always able to participate, keen to share your latest thinking and appropriate consolidated learning. As a result, clients will recognise that you will not require as much detailed, time-consuming briefing as your competitors in order to tackle the next project.

Behave like a constant, trusted consultant and your clients will treat you like one.

Paul Tredwell is director of Bigfoot Consulting

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