Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to own your clients? Or what is ownership?

This is actually specific to the service industry where account management or client servicing is crucial for business partnerships, relationship building, recurring income and long term benefits. To be more precise, in an industry where clients or accounts are created or acquired over a period of time and not overnight but lost in split seconds. Various kinds of efforts go into the acquisition, repeated follow up is required and one has to go through a lot of disappointment in the process as well.
The nature of service businesses are changing and the demand to control and manage the accounts is putting a lot of pressure on the front line. Who is completely responsible or who shares the responsibility is a debate in itself. People on the front line are under tremendous pressure to forecast the next move, next plan, next need of their clients. Whether it is possible or not is very subjective, but evaluation is certainly objective.
Rohit works as a Senior Account Manager at a reputed branding services company. He is a qualified MBA with three years experience in an advertising agency. He has recently switched over from Advertising to pursue his ambitions as a brand consultant. He dreams of becoming a well known Brand consultant in five years. But the transition puts him in a client servicing or more precisely account management role, which according to him is the beginning of his journey towards his destination. Not that he has not done client servicing previously but he is shown the brighter side of servicing which is more involving and is a  platform for learning brand management with the brand managers on the account. For him servicing is simple. He has to listen to all that the clients say, forward it to the concerned developers/planners, liaison between the creative department and planners, keep the client posted on the work in progress, prepare proposals or estimates for the job undertaken. ensure timely payments, fix appointments for the presentation, arrange for gate passes, make sure all the things are ready before the D day and after. He is quite happy with what he does and so are his bosses, but he wonders where is the learning. The moment he asks permission to be part of the preliminary or crucial discussions, he is shown the desk and asked to get more information or find out what else is happening. He thinks, where is he learning the brand management techniques/tools/processes? His role is limited to making sure that the things are in order, that proposals are signed in time, billing is done as per schedule, payments are collected when due, calendars don't clash and some things more like these. More than the learning, what he is also missing is the ownership of his client or account. There are several reasons for such occurrences. Company policy, hierarchy, attitude, experience, background etc etc......But one thing is for sure, whatever the reason, if Rohit does not understand this then he is not going to reach his destination ever. You can advise as a consultant only when you are asked and you are asked only when they know that you are a worthy owner of their brand.
Just by taking this example I would like to share some of my views.

Ownership is not about accurate account management procedures, it is not about clean records in account books, it is not about friendly relations with your client, it is not about delivering the project on time or keeping the client happy by organizing working lunches or after work leisure activities often termed as 'bonding'.
Ownership is also not about number of calls made to the client everyday or number of visits to the clients office in a week. It is also not about how many people you know in the clients office from admin, finance, production, marketing, r&D, legal etc.
Ownership is also not about how many sms are shared between the two parties or face book interactions.
Ownership is always mis-understood as something that has a direct consequence or something that will show results immediately. Ownership cannot be traded. Ownership cannot be priced. Ownership cannot be transferred. You cannot demand ownership, you have to command it.
Often people like Rohit get stuck in the definition and the action.
They start believing that constant interaction, being in the radar of the clients, exchanging some dozen mails daily with their clients means that they have ownership or they really own their clients.
One has to look at both the sides of the ownership coin.
One side is the side that Rohit belongs to. He is doing his job as per his KRA's and what he sees his peers doing, may be even better than some of them.
The other side of the coin is the client side. No doubt all of the above mentioned actions of Rohit will not cause any damage to the relationship but it will fall short of complete ownership. It will keep the client well informed and on track of his expenses and budgets, time table and deadlines, but they will not give the ownership.

It is important to know what the client wants from us. And within that what they expect a particular person to demonstrate so that they can give ownership or share. Clients want a peaceful working relationship but when they are under pressure or not in their minds, it gets passed on to the client servicing person from the agency. When their ass is on fire, they don't mind burning the behinds of everyone from the agency. Instead the equation should be that of sharing the problem and discussing the solutions. If the account manager is able to provide practical and favorable solution, he is in the circle of trust and already owns a part of the brand. He will always be the first to be consulted by the brand manager on his problems. He will have the trust of the client and the client will always depend on him. This sets the path for ownership.

It is important to understand that all clients are not the same and so are the brands that they manage. So how can the requirements be the same. Like every brand has specific expectations from its customer, every marketer has certain expectation from its brand, similarly every brand or brand manager has a specific requirement from the account manager. The account manager should not weigh them in the same scale. The account manager should have a reasonable understanding of the brand history, the activities of the brand in the last few years, what are the initiatives or actions of the current brand manager, what did his predecessor do, how many weeks/months/years the brand manager has been managing it and so on. It is also important to know the other affiliates of the brand like the printer, supplier, ad agency, photographer etc. Knowing them helps the account manager to know his client better and his needs. But above all, the account manager should never do any mistake with the brand information else he will lose trust. The account manager should always seek to know more and more from the brand manager in order to match his wavelength. This not only gets him closer to the brand but also the brand custodian who then does not mind sharing his dreams and actions with the account manager. This sets the path for ownership.

It is important to understand what is going on in their minds and doing it proactively. Only when the mail comes or the call is received, the job should not start. As an account manager, one should be able to think about the next steps or the next expectations. Knowing the forward and having solutions ready brings confidence between the two. The client will also discuss the plans before formalizing the brief. The client will always put down the challenges and threats before even crafting the intent/purpose of the exercise. The client will discuss the odds and ensure with you that all things are perfectly organized and worked upon. This sets the path for ownership.

It is important to provide 'knowledge ingredients' to the client. Never repeat what the client already knows or has shared with you. Neither say that you didn't know when it was already mentioned. Knowledge ingredients are the best tools for building ownership. These are ingredients that have a direct consequence on your impression, status and stamina. If you constantly share with your client direct or indirect information, information on what competition is doing, what is new at the retail shelf, what is the new hoarding etc etc and try to engage the client in  a healthy discussion, you are certainly going to score brownie points. Clients are interested inn updates that they might have missed, because they tend to believe that they really don't have as much time to keep up with everything that is going around. And as an account manager if you are able to fill in the blanks, then you are already on the path to ownership.

It is important to share your own achievements or company's achievement from time to time. It is important to showcase the 'Secret Sauce' of your company. How you or your team members managed work in tight deadlines or unfavorable circumstances. This brings a sense of comfort for the brand manager. Success stories or stories of distress management result in building faith in you. Your successes will not only bring accolades from the client but also his belief that his brand is in safe and responsible hands. This sets the path for ownership.

These are some of my views that I have been able to put down basis my experience as an account manager, observing other account managers and interacting with the brand managers of some of the most reputed FMCG firms in India.

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