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Susan DeMatei
August 27, 2013 | Customer Support | Susan DeMatei


I know I’m old school.

I’m not so old that I experienced Mad Men, but I did earn my chops as an Account Executive at major international Ad Agencies in the 90’s.

In the agency world, Client Service meant service.  As in if your client needed a package the next day and it was 8pm you drove to the nearest airport to meet the plane, and if they wanted to go to a strip club, well…yeah, there were some strip clubs and illegal substances procured.

I loved it.  In fact I loved it so much I taught a class on Client Service for the San Francisco Ad Club for 7 years. In it, young Assistant Account Executives fresh with MBAs got the basics on how to better integrated with various client cultures, listen to what clients were really asking for and translate those needs to the copywriters and media planners internally, and overall how to navigate this confusing landscape.

We are not selling computers with a ten million dollar ad budget, we are in the wine industry, and that is a different world with different budgets and not usually in seedy cities.  But, there are still some basic things you should demand from your agency, consultant, technology partner, POS vendor, or web vendor.

1. Do They Listen with Sincerity?

At one Ad Agency I worked at they gave every Account Executive a caricature of a person with big ears to put in their office.  This was a to serve as a reminder that we are to listen first, talk later.  To me this is the cardinal rule when calling your consultant/partner/agency/vendor – do they listen to you?  Or, do they seem annoyed that you called?  Can you reach someone, or are you made to fill out forms?  Sometimes support tickets are helpful, but is the response timely, helpful, and service-oriented?  Or are they trying to move you along to get to the next ticket?  And, do they make you feel stupid for writing?  Make sure you’re being heard, it’s  your fundamental right as a client.

2. Do They Have Experience?

This didn’t used to be an issue before the web and social media made everyone an instant marketing expert, but carefully vet out your partners. Looks can be deceiving. Anyone can set up a website, blog and write some white papers and seem like an expert. Make sure they’ve been around the block a time or two. And, check credentials (one of my pet peeves is people calling themselves Sommeliers, who aren’t Certified, but that’s me.) The wine industry attracts all kinds and there are some very smart and capable partners out there. But there are also those who are suspect. Be a wise consumer.

3. Do They Agree with You?

This is a double-edged sword.  While you want your partners to be on the same page, and all marching toward the same goal, you don’t pay them to supply you with platitudes.  You want someone who works with you to define the best plan for your situation, and at times brings another point of view.  Hopefully, they learn from you and you learn from them and it is a fruitful relationship all the way around.  If it feels one sided, like you’re doing all the thinking and they’re just executing, think about what value you’re getting out of them and encourage them to bring their point of view to the table.

4. Are You Funding Their Growth or Development?

Your consultants/partners/vendors have a business as well. Their job is to provide the best technical/sales/marketing/whatever support to you, and to do so they should keep themselves up-to-date. They should go to conferences, participate in webinars, send their staff to training. They should also be open to bringing in specialists if they aren’t 100% versed in the area that is appropriate for your business. But, you shouldn’t have to fund this. The only exception would be if you specifically asked for something unique be custom-developed for you. Outside of that, you’re not responsible for beta testing or education. That is their industry and their responsibility.

5. Do They Provide You with Status or Progress Reports?

You shouldn’t have to wonder what your consultants/vendors/partners are doing.  Part of any agreement should be routine calls, meetings, dashboards or reports.  If they don’t want to provide these, then they don’t have confidence in their performance.  They should want to show you how they’re moving your business along.  This can be in many forms, a dashboard, status call or can even be detailed out on the monthly invoice, but you should never be wondering what your partner is doing for their fee.

6. Are You Getting What You Pay For?

If you were to buy a mini-cooper, would you be disappointed that it didn’t have all the full features of a BMW 7 Series?  Of course not.  You have the same responsibility to set your expectations and price levels for outside partners. Know what your service requirements are and what is of value to you.  If you’re very self-sufficient, make sure you’re not paying for extra hand-holding.  But if you need that extra attention, make sure it is in the contract and you aren’t being made to feel bad about calling twice a day.  It is the vendors’ job to be clear about charges and provide value where promised.  It is your job to make sure they’re focusing on what you consider valuable, and you’re fees are going to the right services for your business.

7. Do They Bring You New Ideas?

That same agency that gave us the big ears guy for our cubicles also had another saying: “At every Client meeting, bring one new idea.”  That was our goal, and our bosses tasked us with it.  We were never to let an opportunity with a Client pass where we weren’t adding value.  But, again, think about this critically.  This is a new idea for yourbusiness, not theirs.  Sometimes, happily, this overlaps and new features or opportunities are in development or programs cross their desk are relevant for you. But, your job as a Client is to continually remind them of what your specific goals are, and push them to bring you ideas to move your business forward.  Which brings me to point #8…

8. Do They Understand (or Care) About Your Goals (Or Just Theirs?)

When I was the Client at a well known winery up-valley, we were so prestigious that everyone wanted to say we were a Client.  At every new sales call I would give the potential partner the benefit of explaining our goals, and then I’d listen to the pitch.  Would it surprise you to know that 80% of the time the ensuing pitch had nothing to do with the goals I had just communicated to them?  Probably not, as you’re used to it, and that is sad.  Wineries do not exist to be trophies on a Client list.  You have a business to run, and partners/vendors/consultants are here to service you.  If you even occasionally feel like it is the other way around, rethink your relationships.

9. Are They Available on Your Terms?

My main Client at Intel was a very busy guy.  He was in 6-10 meetings back-to-back all day.  Thus, I knew that sometime after 5pm I’d get a call from him with the list of changes to the website, or presentation, or email campaign and they would all be due by the next day.  Was I annoyed?  Well, it wasn’t ideal.  But what I started to do was go to the gym mid-day, and have lunches with friends rather than dinner so I had some sort of a social life.  When I knew I’d be working from 6-8pm almost every night, I adjusted.  Because, that is what that Client needed and I was paid to work with that Client.

Think about your schedule.  When is your best time to work with your outside partners?  And do you prefer it on email, phone or in person?  Realizing your communication timelines and needs and being clear about them will ensure you’re getting what you need out of your vendors.  Now, a caveat here.  If you require Saturday in-person meetings, and phone calls three times a week at dinner time, expect to negotiate and pay for that.  Don’t just assume.  It is OK to be clear with your needs, but also OK for a partner to define what it will take to meet them.

10. Do They Hold Your Business Hostage?

Many times wineries are confused about outside services.  This is totally understandable – you make wine, not databases or email or websites or sales strategies.  And, while you don’t need to know everything your partners are doing, you should be able to move partners, or take over your business, should the relationship change.  One of the things you should ask when vetting out a new potential partner is for a reference of someone who has left them.  Were they helpful, and provide training and communication for an organized transfer?  Or did they drag their feet and hold your data hostage for the last payment.  How someone ends a relationship in some ways is more telling than how they conducted themselves in one.

We are very blessed in this industry to have so many talented and great consultants, vendors and partners.  No matter what your needs, there is likely someone out there who can help you.  It is your challenge to identify the right one, and make it work best for you.


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