OPINION19 April 2018

The need for human courtesy in business relationships

B2B Opinion People UK

The effort and cost involved in pitching – and the lack of professional respect shown by some clients – has come to the fore again, as Monique Drummond explains.

Respect courtesy polite_crop

Last month, I posted a brief article on LinkedIn about the need for clients to recognise and respect the time and effort agencies put into proposals. The title was ‘On Wasting Time’, and more than 42,000 viewed this post.  

It sparked a lively debate from both clients and agencies with many mentions of the need for common courtesy in the business world. We should all strive for a more ‘human’ approach in our professional relationships as much as we do in our personal ones.

The post was triggered by an email from a potential client explaining that there was no budget for the brief we’d responded to, and that we should have gathered that radio silence meant the job was a no-go. The focus was on how our time is our most valuable yet often under-valued resource. 

Colleen Ryan, head of strategy at TRA, said: “It’s a reflection on how poorly understood and valued the role of an insight agency is. Would they expect a bill from their lawyer or accountant for preparation of a document? I expect so. Until we are brave and confident enough to charge for our time in these cases nothing will change.”

David Evans, marketing consultant at Camelot Global Lottery Solutions added: “Totally agree, given the time and effort exerted. Really highlights the low level of competence some companies/individuals exhibit, particularly when it comes to fundamentals i.e. agreed budgeting. Surely from a client perspective it is only common courtesy to take the time to communicate with your agencies? Agencies realise they won't win every brief, but surely it’s about the relationship as at some stage there will come a time when the client needs help and agencies don't forget past experiences!”

So how do we place a real value on our time? There were many helpful suggestions about how agencies should qualify a brief, especially from a potential new client. This may mean we need to ask what can sometimes be seen as uncomfortable or even impertinent questions. At the same time, we should have the confidence to set out our expectations for feedback.  These questions may include:

How did you hear about us? Courtesy cuts two ways. Our rule is to promptly acknowledge receipt of any brief, showing genuine enthusiasm and gratitude. It’s very useful to learn how a new potential client has heard about you and your work. Call the person who may have recommended you and thank them for doing so – they also deserve to hear from you. 

Are there any reasons why we may not be successful?
All new briefs represent a great opportunity to showcase our ability and to begin a future relationship. However, agencies should be made aware of any potential barriers at the outset and determine whether to submit a proposal based on a full and fair understanding of the likely outcome.

We need a reality check. A number of agencies shared stories of how their proposal had been unsuccessful as they did not have prior experience with the brand/category, they were not on the client roster or they were geographically too far away from the client. Agencies can feel ‘used’, whether for a new approach or a price comparison to take to one of their current agencies.

Kate Smith business and brand strategist said: “I missed out on a pitch I had put considerable time and effort into recently because I’m a one-person band, but they knew this from the outset.”

Is there a budget? What is the budget? While many clients may prefer not to reveal the actual budget, there should be a discussion about where this is coming from and whether this has been agreed. It is only fair that clients disclose that the project does not (yet) have a secured budget. We can then make an informed decision to decline the opportunity or ask whether a simplified proposal would be sufficient for their needs before burning the midnight oil on what is clearly a more speculative bid.

How many agencies are you inviting to pitch? In some cases, clients send their brief to five or six (or even more) agencies to explore a full range of approaches, costs and new agencies. Clients should not be offended by the question, yet many are surprisingly coy about answering this. Another consideration is to validate who has sent you the brief and their role in the outcome. We’ve recently been sent a brief by an intern who had been given a ‘task’ of approaching eight-plus new agencies to prepare a summary of costs, times and approaches for their team. 

How do you feedback to agencies after you have made your decision?  Let clients know at the outset that we need feedback by phone or, if not, by email. If agencies are asked to write a proposal and put significant time into its preparation, the least we can expect is an explanation as to why we have not been selected. We all welcome candid criticism and equally, we’re irritated by ‘radio silence’.  It’s great to learn the reasons for failure – whether this is based on the approach, cost, sample, timing, proposal format, team or any other reason. We can build on these learnings for future work. Too often, we have to chase clients to find out whether the decision has been made and receive only a cursory email in response.

Nicola Keeley, senior consumer insight manager at Weetabix responded: “Radio silence is inexcusable but sometimes clients need proposals to help put a case forward for budget. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to obtain budget without making clear what will be delivered and how it will be done. Frustrating for agencies who spend a lot of time on proposals I appreciate but hopefully not wasted work as I for one am always more likely to go back to such agencies when budget is more readily available.”

Paul Thomas global head of insight, Asahi Breweries added:“Having worked on both sides of the fence, this is appalling, and I always ensure not just an answer but feedback as to why an agency doesn't get the job. It can certainly happen that a brief goes dead by the time a proposal comes in, but this should be managed through courtesy and transparency, not silence. There can be an arrogance client-side frankly about how agencies are handled. That said, we probably are a little jaded with the 20 new unsolicited agency approaches we get per week flooding our inboxes.”

Treat your own suppliers as you would like to be treated. Similarly, we should promptly advise any third-party suppliers if we hear we’ve been unsuccessful. After all, we’ve involved their time and energy.

As The Irrational Agency's Elina Halonen commented: "Whenever we ask a supplier to do a quote, that takes time which eventually finds its way into prices – even if it feels like saving money in the short term. So as an industry let’s try to be disciplined to save resource for everyone."

Transparency, honesty, open communication and simple courtesy form the bedrock of the ideal client-agency relationship. Great clients see their agencies as trusted advisors working in partnership to help them grow their brands. Great clients recognise and value our time and understand that we’re only human, after all. 

Monique Drummond is founder of Relish Research