What Clients REALLY Want

Consultant Joe Grant has interviewed thousands of companies that buy advertising and design—in other words, your clients—to find out what they really want in their relationships with design firms. Communication and trust are the dominant themes. “Over and over, agencies and clients get into trouble because they don’t take the time to clearly spell out what they expect from each other, including roles and responsibilities,” Grant says.

Grant’s “Top 10 List of Client Wants” is a set of precautionary principles that can help you bolster client relationships before those cracks appear. “Doing the ostrich thing is definitely not a good approach with client relationships,” Grant says. “You need to be proactive about keeping them happy and your relationship healthy.” How? By meeting 10 basic client needs.

1. Keep the Principal Involved
“It feels like bait-and-switch when you start out dealing with the president of the company and end up working on a day-to-day basis with someone fresh out of college,” Grant says. Be up-front with clients about who will be responsible for the project, and bring that person to the new-business presentation. And no matter who’s in charge of the day-to-day work, make sure you, as principal, are meaningfully involved in the account at all times.

2. Communicate Effectively
“A client should never, ever have to call your office to ask where you are on the project,” Grant says. Establish protocols for client communications; develop standardized tools such as memo formats, e-mail bulletins and status reports.

3. Be Easy to Work With
The most lethal six words in a conversation with your client? “We don’t do it that way.” If your client wants invoices twice a month and your office manager usually generates them only once, change your system. If they want status reports in two copies, one in pink and one in goldenrod, get to Kinko’s for that colored paper.

4. Exceed Expectations
Satisfaction equals performance divided by expectations. The first step, of course, is to know what the client’s expectations are. If they haven’t articulated them, watch out: “You never want to get into an ‘I’ll know a good annual report when I see it’ trap with your client,” Grant says. “You’ll never fully impress them, because success is a moving target.”

5. Keep Your Promises
When you start a client relationship, think of it as a “trust account,” Grant says. “Keep adding to it all the time by doing what you said you would do. Blow it once, and the entire amount is withdrawn.” Be careful about what you promise. And keep the promises you do make.

6. Anticipate Their Needs
Perhaps even more than they want you to produce great work right now, clients want you to be thinking ahead for them. “Anticipation and proactivity are essential to clients,” Grant explains. “Demonstrate to them that you’re thinking about their business all the time and coming up with solutions and ideas even before they ask you for them.”

7. Build a Seasoned Team
“Clients don’t want to train and direct your junior staff, and they especially don’t want to endure a revolving door of junior staff,” Grant says. “You should be hiring people at the same level of sophistication as your clients. Part of this is recruiting and keeping good people.”

8. Do Good Work
Clients expect great ideas from creative firms. But they also expect flawless implementation. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful that brochure is or how many awards it wins if the phone number is wrong,” Grant says. “Execution is everything.”

9. Hold Their Hand
Yes, they want to be guided out of the dark woods into the light. They want some hand-holding, but mostly they want sound business thinking based on strategic goals. “It’s scary out there, and when you’re spending a lot of money to communicate your message, a mistake can be disastrous,” Grant says. “So there has to be some substantial thinking involved. What are the business objectives? Will this meet them? Is it strategically on the mark? If those elements are missing, the work probably isn’t going to be strong.”

10. Meet Their Goals
A pretty picture is nice, but it doesn’t always get the job done. Clients want work that succeeds measurably, meeting specific, stated business goals and nailing their markets. The history of the design and advertising fields is littered with beautiful ideas that didn’t hit the mark.