Saying you're a client centric creative services organization is easy. Proving it is much more difficult. Recognizing that we operate in a world where every advertising dollar is being increasingly scrutinized we, as creative leaders, must focus our energies on what's most important to our internal customers. Its no longer enough to just be "down the hall" ready to serve.

We have to establish our agency's business priorities based on our clients' needs, set quantifiable goals against those priorities, measure our results and then take the necessary action needed to improve our performance.

But do we really know what our clients want? How can we know that we are delivering against their needs? And how can we get better?

**Their perception is your reality.**

If you know what your clients expect from you and what they think of your performance, you can improve that performance, increase their satisfaction and in so doing, increase your value to them.
In a recent survey [1], 70% of client defections from their external agency relationships cited "service" as the sole or contributing reason.

But is "service" any less important to an internal agency? And what does "service" mean to your client? Quick turnaround? Error-free delivery? Helpful staff? Strategic insights? Breakthrough Creative? Production quality?

The answer is probably yes to all of the above (plus a few more). So, what can creative leaders do to a) better understand what their clients want, and b) gauge how their agencies are doing in their client's eyes? Follow a three-step process:

1. Define
What does your client want from you? Let your client define this for you. Too often agencies make the mistake of assuming they know what their clients want. Look to understand not only what will satisfy your customer, find out what will "delight" them. Delight should be defined by your client (not by you, the service provider).

Voice of Customer (VOC) can be gathered through interviews, surveys and roundtable sessions. Ask open-ended questions of your clients:

  • What do you find most valuable in working with us?
  • How would you describe us to a new colleague?
  • What improvements would you like to see?
  • What are your pain points in working with us?
  • What is the most important message we should take away?

Once established, VOC becomes the standard against which efforts are directed and performance measured.

2. Measure
Develop the methodology and tools to capture the necessary data to measure your performance. One of the most common approaches used is an online survey. When utilizing a survey, it's important that the survey itself be relatively brief (no more than 10 minutes to complete), quantifiable (e.g., closed-ended questions with a rating scale) and specific (e.g., asking about a recently completed project). Allowing respondents an opportunity to also provide qualitative feedback is also recommended.

The survey method needs to be consistent and timely. The agency/client relationship highway is littered with half-hearted survey approaches. Unless you have the appetite to develop a survey methodology and stick with it, you shouldn't bother. You'll create more harm than good.

But if you are committed to a formal, regular feedback survey system, your clients will respond and they will provide you with the kind of information that'll allow you to know exactly how you're doing and what you need to improve on.

3. Control
The third and arguably most important phase of the process is the control phase. For a customer satisfaction and process improvement system to take root and realize its true potential, leadership must establish a control plan that:

  • Communicates the measured results (to both agency personnel and clients),
  • Establishes "stretch" goals based on those results,
  • Identifies process improvement opportunities and
  • Takes action on those opportunities.

Creating and displaying an agency performance "dashboard"--a scorecard that shows agency performance against client established needs--is a powerful business development tool. It'll also serve as a visible reminder that yours is a customer centric organization.

Sharing the dashboard results and agency action plans created in response to opportunity areas identified through the survey system can be shared in client partnership meetings. Getting and keeping your clients involved in the process will help you develop a stronger agency/client relationship.

**Making perception equal reality.**

Getting on the same page with your clients is the key to long-term success. But Customer Satisfaction does not necessarily equal Customer Commitment. According to a Bain and Company study, 60-80% of customer defectors score themselves as "satisfied" or "very satisfied" before their defection. Service firms that do best understand their client's expectations and work to exceed them consistently.

Clients have expectations. We have to know what they are, how we're doing against them, develop action plans designed to improve areas of weakness and promote our combined accomplishments with them. Do that and you'll have long-term, "delighted" customers.

[1] 2011 survey of clients by Relationship Audits & Management.