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Champions of Customer Conversations
Build a culture of proactive innovation through effective customer conversations.
The role of client services in a digital agency is critical to nurturing long-term partnerships and providing the right client experience. As the face of the agency, client services is the primary conduit through which clients get the value out of your services.
What this looks like exactly differs from agency to agency. The account management service is shaped according to the client; there is no one size fits all approach. Factors include the agency’s size, niche, market positioning, resources, and team experience.
In the beginning, identifying innovative ways to solve your clients’ problems is your task to solve, motivated by the success or failure of your business. You are also the face of the agency and are ultimately responsible for delivering client services. However, as your client list grows and you begin to delegate the technical work itself, there reaches a point where you need to implement a client services strategy and account management structure, which is necessary to scale the agency beyond yourself.
How can digital agencies instil an entrepreneurial mindset into their account management service, transforming and scaling it into an innovation-driven function that uncovers and addresses clients' needs?
In this post, I will introduce the idea of embedding a culture of proactive innovation within your account management service through practising Customer Conversations. More than just a friendly chin wag with your clients, Customer Conversations refers to finding and evaluating Customer Jobs and applying the Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD) framework principles to get your team proactively pitching solutions your clients will pay for.
The Death of the (Traditional) Account Manager
What is a ‘traditional’ account manager, anyway?
Picture the “Mad Men” era in the 1960s during the ‘Golden Age of Advertising’ —a time before digital advertising and when agencies truly began to leverage creative and strategic brand building to drive advertising campaigns. The early prototype for the Account Manager role would be part of the old boy network, a smooth-talking, whiskey-drinking character whose primary aim was to keep clients happy. So long as the Account Manager was likeable, good at storytelling, got on board with the campaign, and understood the creative well enough, the primary objective was to build trust and maintain client satisfaction.
The role of the Account Manager would retain this shape albeit with more structure until the digital revolution in the late 90s and early 00s transformed the advertising landscape. The web created a huge flattening effect and introduced new and exciting ways to reach customers through digital advertising. This demand and opportunity produced a new breed of creative agencies who were either digital-first or incorporated digital services into their existing print-based offering. For the Account Manager, this meant becoming more delivery focused across multiple channels, which required understanding the detail, becoming more data-driven, reporting quantitative outcomes, communicating technical requirements and talking about features and platform integrations.
"I already told you: I deal with the goddamn customers, so the engineers don't have to. I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can't you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?"
Tom Smykowski, Engineer Liaison @ Initech
The increasing complexity of digital projects also required more structured project management (e.g. agile methods) and Project Manager roles in the form of either dedicated PMs or Studio / Traffic Managers. Around this point, the idea of a ‘traditional’ account manager fragmented into the multifaceted and often misunderstood role it is today. SaaS, complex third-party integrations and more advanced tech dragged the Account Manager into the detail and moved well beyond “noted” or “let’s circle back on that” order taker.
Instead, the Modern AM gets pulled in all directions and, through the sheer degree of context switching, often becomes some of the overloaded and reactive characters in the agency, which caused many agencies to think differently about their overall account management service.
The global pandemic saw an acceleration in the adoption of novel business models as digital agencies pivoted to embrace remote ways of working and respond to the change in demands of their clients. To survive, some agencies regressed to a combination of an AM/PM role — a Jekyll and Hyde character with mismatching attributes.
Some agencies, however, used the pandemic as an opportunity to reimagine the role of the Account Manager. They recognise that the position within their organisation has been poorly defined for many years, and a more specialised or suitable job description was required. In some ways, this led to the adoption of more specialised AM variants, such as the Digital Producer.
Today, whatever you call it, the expectation of an Account Manager is a configuration of the following:
Client Relationship Management
Product, Project, or Campaign Management
Strategic Planning and Innovation
Data Analysis and Reporting
Financial Management and Forecasting
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So, we’ve established that Account Managers have many essential roles to play in delivering client services:
Where does innovation come into play?
Innovation begins with understanding your clients’ problems or JTBD. As an agency owner, when you delegate talking to your clients to your client services team, you give up the opportunity to listen and identify your client’s problems first-hand. A necessary step to scale the agency but, as a result, you rely on the team to have the same entrepreneurial instinct and motivation to find Customer Jobs.
Like the other business areas, you need to develop a repeatable and reliable process for innovating through your client services. As part of this, you must transform your AMs into expert Customer Job Hunters.
‘Customer Conversations’ is one technique that can help with this. Practised in the startup world, it involves directly engaging with customers to uncover their underlying needs and pain points. As described in the book The Mom Test, it involves conducting thoughtful and unbiased conversations that delve beyond surface-level opinions to gain genuine insights.
Account Managers: I recommend you read this book, which provides practical tips for developing an entrepreneurial mindset for Customer Job Hunting!
Here are a few techniques mentioned in the book:
Avoid pitching: I find this difficult; avoid pitching your ideas or solutions when your clients give you a glimpse of a problem. Instead, focus on understanding the client’s perspective, needs, and challenges without biasing their responses.
Deflect compliments or requests for a solution: If a client compliments you for an idea or something you’ve done, you have become the centre of the conversation, not the client. You want to quickly move out of this position away from you and any hypothetical/half-baked solutions.
Ask about specifics: Encourage clients to share specific examples from their experiences rather than hypothetical scenarios. For example, your client might go off on a rant about something that sounds important only until you drill down to the specifics, and it turns out it is a minor concern compared to more pressuring issues. You want to cut the fluff.
Use open-ended questions: Frame questions to encourage clients to provide detailed responses. Open-ended questions prompt clients to share their thoughts, motivations, and experiences, enabling you to gain richer insights.
Seek evidence and details: Challenge vague or general statements by asking for specific evidence or examples. It helps ensure that responses are grounded in real experiences rather than opinions or assumptions.
Listen actively: Give full attention to the clients during the conversation, actively listening and seeking clarification when needed. Demonstrate genuine interest and engagement to create a comfortable environment for open dialogue. Don’t waste each other’s time.
Focus on the past: Ask clients about their past experiences and behaviours rather than hypothetical future scenarios. Past actions and experiences provide more reliable insights into clients’ motivations and decision-making processes.
Find patterns and commonalities: Look for recurring themes or patterns in the responses from multiple clients. Identifying commonalities helps uncover broader market needs and trends across your client base that can inform product development or business strategies.
Embrace discomfort: be willing to explore challenging topics. Addressing sensitive issues can uncover valuable insights that may not crop up in more surface-level discussions. Learn to ask why multiple times.
As the people actively engaged with your clients, your AMs are in a unique position of trust and can use these techniques to bring problems out into the open. The next part of the puzzle is identifying Customer Jobs on the fly and having an effective process for capturing them.
I can’t find the YouTube video where I first came across this note-taking technique for Customer Job Hunting. However, I have adapted to use the Jobs as Progress method by Alan Klement.
Essentially, at the start of each call you have with a client, grab a sketchpad and draw the following diagram:
Have this in front of you during your call. As you get down to business, note any problem areas as you discuss the client's struggles broadly and openly. There is a bit of dance where you’re trying to qualify whether a problem is worth diving deeper into. Sometimes the client isn’t in the frame of mind to go deep and instead needs some agency therapy!
Note that you may also carry a lot of solution bias into the conversation. If, for example, a client is telling you something is not a problem but is based on your experience (e.g. other clients), this is a problem, you should seek to understand rather than create an argument for creating a problem. Maybe there are more fundamental problems to be addressed beforehand.
Conversely, the client may ask you for a product and service (i.e. build me a website), inhibiting your ability to dive deeper into the underlying problem. If someone walks onto a lot looking for a car, the salesperson will sell you a car when a bicycle might have done the job just fine.
Once you uncover a pain point, you need to qualify it using the customer conversation techniques described above:
How many clients does this same problem impact? (you want many)
How frequent is the problem? (every or multiple times a day)
How expensive or time intensive is the current solution to deal with it?
You want to find the thing that your client dreads the most. The thing that keeps them up at night and lies awake questioning their life choices: a problem so painful that they would bite your hand off for a solution!
When you’re onto something, try to engage your client with questions to understand the demand for solving this problem, and fill in each section of the Forces of Progress diagram above.
Push: What is driving this change? These can be changes imposed on the client from an external source (e.g. decisions by leadership, a new law to comply with, or a global pandemic) or driven by internal needs (e.g. a new ‘head of marketing’ needing to make their mark) that ‘push’ clients to seek a solution.
Pull: What does this change look like? If you solved this problem, what would the clients’ life look like? And what would cause a client to choose one solution over another?
Anxiety: What keeps the client from choosing a potential solution today? Why did they abandon or stop using previous attempts to solve this problem?
Inertia: What are they habitually doing at the moment as a workaround that a new solution must compete with? How much does your solution require a behaviour change?
One example of a “candidate point” for Customer Job Discovery is finding a “compensating solution”. If your client is actively creating a sticky tape / hacky solution to their problem, it is a clear sign of an unmet need and, in most cases, a subpar solution already in place. It also could indicate a similar job exists in similar organisations. In any case, it is a good launching point to discuss the underlying problem (e.g. what did you try before putting this “compensating solution” together yourself?)
After every call, you should be able to take all your notes, file the Customer Jobs in a shared workspace (e.g. Google Docs, Notion), and throw away your paper notes. Your team should meet weekly and spend some time evaluating Customer Jobs:
On a strategic level, how valuable are the problems you’ve identified? Would solving this problem help our client significantly increase revenue?
Are we the right people to solve this problem? Is this in our wheelhouse? Do we need to act as a strategic partner, or will we deliver the complete solution?
Is there a turn-key solution we can offer our client? What is the MVP way we can help our client out?
Can we develop a solution or product for multiple clients with this problem? What is the scope (e.g. large, medium or small)?
If you have something, you should pull on the broader team to develop a proposal for a solution, and then hey presto: you’re proactively pitching solutions to your client’s problems. 🌈
I wrote this post thinking about what a modern account manager looks like today, reflecting on my experience in the industry so far. You often see discussions about blending the role of the Project Manager and the Account Manager, but there are few practical models for embedding innovation within your client services team. Since innovation stems from understanding and talking to your clients, I think there is a strong argument for AMs in a flat or horizontal structure to lean closer to trustworthy strategic thinkers rather than the more sober, practical PM thinking.
Today, there is plenty of spontaneous Invention for sure, especially if you have a talented bunch of superstars: a clever GPT wrapper, a developer’s weekend project in React, or an ‘internal project’ mandated from the top is often quickly spun off into a ‘product’ or ‘project template’ clients services can start pushing onto their clients. More often or not, your clients will run with it (because they trust you) and may give you a false sense of progress.
However, are you solving the right problems? Are you placing risky bets with your resources and clients’ time? You risk missing the mark with technology-led innovation, especially when you jump on trends yet to cross the chasm!
Purposeful innovation, on the other hand, is client driven. Innovation is problem-led; when you understand your clients, and their business, identify deep pain points and the underlying JTBDs. You take the time to listen and identify the most valuable problems to solve for your clients. And it puts you in the position to consistently and proactively deliver new solutions your clients will value.
Thanks a million,