Episode 159

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Client relationships is a frequent topic on this podcast. In this episode, we focus on what it takes to cultivate strong and mutually beneficial relationships with clients.

Dr. Mario Vafeas is on the faculty at The University of the West of England in Bristol. His work in agency-client relationships is the result of research, study and real-world experience.

He brings a pragmatic approach, backed by the data, into the conversation.

Buckle up because it’s a deep conversation, packed with takeaways to use in your own agency. Through deepening your relationship with clients, and providing the right kinds of ideas, training and other added value, you can really set agency apart, increasing your client and employee retention. You will truly be a trusted ally and co-creator with your clients and prospects.

Prior to joining the faculty at UWE, Mario spent 20 years in branding and design consultancy and several years in brand management at HJ Heinz and Harveys of Bristol.

As well as undergraduate and masters teaching, Mario is involved in knowledge exchange projects with SMEs, and research in the field of buyer-seller relationships and value co-creation.

He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and a Fellow of the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing. He is also a DMA (West) Regional Council Member, and a Certified Digital Marketing Professional (Professional Diploma in Digital Marketing from the Digital Marketing Institute).

 

 

What You Will Learn About in This Episode:

  • How to both share ideas with and learn from the client
  • Drawing from other industries to bring depth to your work in the clients’ industry
  • Why external agencies need to focus less on producing “stuff” and more on producing insights and big ideas
  • Communication with clients does not come with a template – each client relationship is unique
  • Why you get more business opportunities when you take time to meet and check in with clients
  • How to build relationships through coaching clients in best practices
  • Adding value through offering training opportunities to clients
  • Being proactive in making clients’ lives easier
  • How to behave less transactionally so clients believe you really want a relationship
  • How coaching hits all the big C themes
  • Why great work with clients is co-creative

The Golden Nuggets:

“Clients actually don't think they know everything. They don't always feel confident. We can help them gain confidence.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Share on X “If you want to be a partner with your client, you've got to build that relationship. Go see them face-to-face.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Share on X “Part of building trust in a client relationship means understanding their budget; not trying to stick your hand in their pocket at every opportunity. Demonstrating care beyond the paycheck is how you build trust.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Share on X “If you are telling clients you want a relationship, don’t act in a transactional way. Don’t line item every little thing and charge them for it.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Share on X “As long as we focus on selling stuff to our clients, rather than offering deeper insight and analysis, we become less and less relevant.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Share on X “Ultimately this whole client-agency relationship relies on both parties actually delivering. It can be a real co-creating relationship.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Share on X

 

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We’re proud to announce that Hubspot is now the presenting sponsor of the Build A Better Agency podcast! Many thanks to them for their support!

Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency podcast, presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow, with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew Cs.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Man, are you going to love this episode. My guest today is a guy out of the UK who has had a really interesting career. He started out his career as a client, and then he went over to the agency side. For about the last decade, he’s worked in academia as a professor over in the UK, primarily doing research and then lecturing on the research. All of his research has been about the client agency relationship. I’ve read his research, and it’s really fascinating. It’s all about how the client determines whether or not they’re going to make a commitment to us in a long-term way, and what are the elements that factor into that commitment.

You’re going to find Mario, his name is Mario Vafeus, and you’re going to find that he is a font of knowledge, but also because he lived in our world and he lived in the client side’s world, he really applies a very practical point of view to all of his research. One of the things that I talk about all the time with you is the importance of understanding from the client’s perspective what their world is all about and what they’re looking for. In the AE boot camps that we teach, I spend a lot of time with the AEs helping them understand what the client’s life is like, and what the pressures they’re under, and what they really, really want from us.

I was heartened to find that Mario’s research supports all of the things that we’ve been talking about and teaching for a long time. This is an episode where this would be a great one for you to listen to with your entire agency, but certainly with your account service team, because I think it really speaks to some of the key clues that we either do or don’t give our clients to demonstrate how badly we want their business, how important their business is to us, and what we are willing to do to earn their trust, to keep their business, and to help them grow their business.

We all talk about that all the time. One of the points of the research and some of the things that Mario has written is we all talk about the fact that we want to be considered a partner and not a vendor. Yet, sometimes, and you have heard me say this before, sometimes I think the way we behave or the way we conduct ourselves, the way we behave, and some of our business practices scream vendor or supplier. Then we wonder how the client gets confused. Well, you know what? We’re the ones confusing them.

So, I want you to listen to this episode with a really open mind, and I want you to listen to it from a very opportunistic point of view, because I think that the conversation, and I certainly am going to be asking these kinds of questions, what can we do? How can we maximize this? How can we take advantage of these insights to really make ourselves look different than other agencies? How do we do this in a way that we demonstrate without having to say it, that we’re different than an in-house agency, that we offer a different value proposition, and how do we position ourselves with prospects and clients that we actually do want to be their partner, that we actually do want to make a mutual commitment, that we too… that’s the other thing I think sometimes we forget, we talk about that clients don’t have much of a commitment to us, but what are we doing to demonstrate our commitment to them?

So, we’re going to dig into all of that in this episode. Buckle up, because this is going to be a good one. All right. Without further ado, Mario, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Mario Vafeus:

It’s a pleasure. Thank you, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

Do me a favor, give the audience a little sense of your background and your history and how you have come to the position that you now have.

Mario Vafeus:

Okay. Yeah, sure. Well, I started my career working in marketing as a client in a brand management role. My first company, a name that you will be familiar with, even though I’m here in the UK, is HJ Heinz.

Drew McLellan:

Great.

Mario Vafeus:

I started my career with them. I worked several years as brand manager, and then what I like to describe as I jumped over the fence and joined the agency world.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right. Some people call that joining the dark side.

Mario Vafeus:

Okay, yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

I worked for many, many years in the agency world in a client services role. Then after many years of doing that, I joined the world of academia. I’m now a senior lecturer in marketing at Bristol Business School, which is part of the University of West of England. Probably just worth me saying that my current role, obvious given that I’m a lecturer, is to teach. But as well as teaching, I do a lot of research, which I know we’ll be talking about. I’m still very active in terms of engaging with the creative industries, which is where my interests are.

Drew McLellan:

What made you decide to make the shift? It’s a interesting shift to go from active agency life to more of an academic role. What drew you to that?

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah, it wasn’t an overnight conversion. It was a slow burn thing. I think it started off, I did an MBA, and I did a dissertation, a thesis, if you like, for my MBA. I did some research into client agency relationships, because at the time, I was working in an agency, and I was fascinated by this whole client agency relationship thing, trying to understand what makes them fall apart. I got quite interested in that and looking at the academic literature on the topic. I then took that a step further. I then did a part-time PhD while I was still working in the agency world. That really developed my interest further in this whole idea of academic research, academic theory.

After about 20 years, I think, in the agency world, I just decided it was time for a change, but not a complete change, so I moved into the academic world. But as I say, over the last, I’ve been teaching at university for eight years now, and through all of that time, I mean, all of my research has focused on clients and agencies, and in particular, the client agency relationship.

Drew McLellan:

The most recent research you did, which I know is a combination, correct me if I’m wrong, but some one on one interviews, some focus groups, and then some surveys.

Mario Vafeus:

That’s right. That’s right.

Drew McLellan:

I want to dig into everything that you learned.

Mario Vafeus:

Sure, sure.

Drew McLellan:

Probably not everything, because we can’t talk all day, but I want to dig into a lot of what you learned, but what was the thing that surprised you the most?

Mario Vafeus:

From what the clients told me? Let’s see. What surprised me most? I would say if I had to pick something, I would say that there is a tendency, I think, these days, to feel that clients are becoming more and more rational or focused on value, which they are, which they absolutely are. But I think of the things that surprised me is that the emotional element of the relationship is still there, and it’s still really important.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, right.

Mario Vafeus:

So, although we talk more and more about how to demonstrate the return on investment, and having to demonstrate that there’s transparency in terms of charging and all of that measurement. Everything’s measured these days. But, yeah, I think what surprised me was the fact that the personal chemistry is still really, really important. Clients will still say, “I want to work with people I like.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. You know, it’s fascinating, we do a lot of work with an agency search firm that helps brands choose their agency. At the end of the day, once they’ve identified that you can do the work, that you have the competency, it really does still boil down to, call it chemistry, call it connection, call it trust, however you want to label it, but it is absolutely an essential element. For a lot of agencies and a lot of agency owners, having a team that can convey that, that has the personalities and the skill sets to create those connections is vital.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely. I totally agree with you, Drew. One of the things, I don’t want to jump ahead too far in case we talk about this a little later in the interview, but one of the things that came across to me when I was talking to clients is that there is a big difference out there in the agency world in terms of the ability of some agencies to actually develop those relationships.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

I mean, I’m a traditionalist. I believe that the way of forming those relationships with clients is to actually go out there and meet them and shake their hands and talk to them, have lunch with them and all of that. But one of the things, again, that I suppose surprised me was the fact that there are a lot of agencies, particularly the newer ones, particularly if we could still use this term to distinguish agencies, digital agencies, who perhaps tend to rely more on electronic communication, email. They hide behind the email. They don’t get out there and meet the clients. So, those relationships aren’t really given the chance to develop.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

I think there’s some learning there to be done.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. In the AE bootcamps that I teach, that’s one of the things that I emphasize to the account executives is I get that it’s more efficient to send an email.

Mario Vafeus:

Sure, sure.

Drew McLellan:

I get that you can check it off your list.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

But you have got to get off your rear end and get into your clients, whether it’s their office or you’re taking them to play gold or lunch or whatever it is, but you have got to have face time. There is no substitute for that.

Mario Vafeus:

Totally.

Drew McLellan:

If a client is valuable enough to you, you will make the investment of both money and time to do it.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely. That’s the point, isn’t it?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

I think when I talk to agencies about this, they say, “Yeah, we’ve got loads of clients, and we can’t be going out to visit them twice a week,” or whatever. So, I say to them, “Well, okay, do you remember that term segmentation? Work out who your most important clients are and put more time into them.”

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Mario Vafeus:

Who are the platinum clients? Who do you need to spend more time with?

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right, absolutely.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah. I suppose those are some of the perhaps most interesting thing that came out, I guess, that for many people, they’re probably sitting there thinking, “Yeah, but that’s obvious, isn’t it?” But sometimes you forget that the emotional scene is so important. At the end of the day, we’re all still human beings, and it is about forming that relationship. It’s not just about measuring and demonstrating return on investment.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. One of the things I found most interesting about your research is that you identified some themes, and I know you’ve had a little graphic, which we will include in the show notes. Everybody who’s listening, you’ll be able to take a look at it. But talk a little bit about, so, basically, you built a matrix of all the things that contribute to the client’s commitment.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah. That’s right. I mean, is it okay if I just give a little bit of background on the research process? Is that all right?

Drew McLellan:

Yes, please. Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

I mean, as you said, Drew, we started off by doing qualitative research. We attended one-to-one interviews, we spoke to 25 clients, I think, individually. Then that was very useful for allowing us to identify the key themes. What was it that clients were saying that was common, if you like, across the board? Then we followed up those interviews with a survey particularly with senior clients, really to sort of test that those themes were relevant and were important.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

You’re quite right. As you say, what we identified is six themes that clients, if you ask them, these are the expectations they have of their agencies, these are the things that if agencies can meet these expectations, they’re more likely to win the commitment of the client for the longer term. Those six themes we’ve actually called the six Cs. We hunted around to try and find a common…

Drew McLellan:

A C word. Right, yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

… a C word, exactly, that would capture the theme. Maybe if I just mentioned what those six themes are, and then-

Drew McLellan:

That’d be great, yep.

Mario Vafeus:

… let’s talk about them, dig into them a bit more. I mean, the first one is context, by which we mean understanding the client’s context. The second one is content, which as you’d guess from the word, it’s about the output. The third one is contact or communication, if you like. The fourth one, we call coaching, training, if you like, training clients. Fifth one is care, looking after clients, and the sixth one is charging, or billing, if you like. Those were the six themes that when we looked across the interviews with clients, we found that these were the themes that came up over and over again, and seem to be the themes that were most important to clients.

It became clear to us that if an agency can deliver on the expectations the clients have for each of those six themes, then they’re going to be a long way to winning the client’s commitment. Now, I’ll say up front that clearly in some agencies, some of these themes for some clients, some of these themes are more important than others, so it all comes down, as it always does it anything to do with marketing, it comes down to understanding your customer and knowing what really matters to them.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Did you find overall that when you looked over the whole landscape of everyone that you talked to through all the different research methodologies that you used to verify this, was there one that seemed to stand out more than others, or was it very good individualized?

Mario Vafeus:

I would say ultimately I think what matters more than anything else is content. It’s the ideas. As one client said, and perhaps it sounds a little bit harsh, but he said, “What we’re buying is ideas. We’re buying ideas. If the agency can deliver consistently on that, then we’ll stick with them.” Ultimately, it comes down to that. They can forgive all sorts of things. They can forgive the fact they maybe haven’t talked to them for a while, they can forgive the fact that maybe you’ve charged them a bit too much on the most recent job. But if you can’t deliver on the ideas, then you ain’t going nowhere.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right. It makes sense. Right?

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely, it makes sense. I mean, do you want me to sort of talk through those Cs in a bit more detail?

Drew McLellan:

I would love you to do that, yep, absolutely. Yep.

Mario Vafeus:

If I can explain what I mean by those in the language of clients, really. If I start with the first one that I mentioned, which was context, what clients meant by this was understanding their market, demonstrating that you understand their market. Now, again, that sounds obvious. You’d say, “Well, every agency has to understand their client’s market.” Of course, you do. But what clients seem to be looking for is they want agencies to do more than just tell them what the client already knows.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

The client doesn’t need to be told what he or she already knows. Clients want to know more than that. I mean, one client said to me, “I want my agency to tell me what my market’s going to look like in three years time.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

This client was saying, I think she worked in financial sector, financial services, and she said, “I do that for my clients. I tell them what their markets are going to look like in three years time, so I want my agencies to do that for me. I want them to be showing some insight into the market.” I think that’s really important. The other thing that came out that was quite interesting was, and again, maybe it sounds obvious, was actually demonstrating to the client that you want to learn, demonstrating a desire to learn. I have one client saying, he said, “My market’s quite complicated.” He said, “I’ve tried to set up opportunities for the agency to meet the salespeople, to go out, the salespeople to understand the market more.” He said, “My agency aren’t doing that. They’re not taking up those opportunities.”

Drew McLellan:

Wow.

Mario Vafeus:

So, that demonstrates… what does it demonstrate? It demonstrates that you don’t care.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

So, I think it’s really important to show that you really understand the market, you know that you can actually tell the client something they don’t already know.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. One question in that arena that pops into my head, did you get a sense that they want an agency that specializes in their industry? Like, “I want an agency that has other financial services clients.”

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that’s a really interesting one, Drew. Actually, I mean, clearly there are going to be clients that want both.

Drew McLellan:

Right, of course. Sure.

Mario Vafeus:

They’re going to be [crosstalk 00:20:17], agencies specialize, bu there will always be clients that want the other thing. But one of the things that came out that was really interesting was I remember talking to a client who was in the legal sector, and she said, “I don’t want my agency to tell me what other legal firms are doing. I know what they’re doing. I want the agency to use its expertise and experience that it’s gathered from other sectors and bring that to bear on my industry.”

Drew McLellan:

Interesting.

Mario Vafeus:

Use what theyR