Will good client service always be the designer’s Achilles heel?

I’ve just managed to look at the 6th annual report on What Clients Think 2019-20 launched in late November by Up to the Light in association with the DBA. It presents the findings of 525 interviews conducted with clients of design agencies, and aims to monitor the health of client/agency relationships. It’s probably the closest you’ll get to getting inside the head of your clients – and prospective clients – and finding out what they really think about you. The findings make compelling reading.  

If you’ve been following these reports for several years now, as I have, you’ll also get a sense of deja vu. Many of the issues clients have with their agencies have not been addressed. So I decided to see what comparisons could be made between the findings from What Clients Think 2016 and those in this latest 2019-20 report. The following questions were asked in both 2016 and the most recent report. It’s sobering to look at the findings. They reveal almost no progress in improving client service:

  • Client service:

Number of clients who had a ‘weaker or more vulnerable relationship’ with their design agency cited ‘client service issues*’ as the main reason = 84% in 2016 v 86% in 2019-20 

  • Client expectations:

Number of clients that believe their design agency ‘regularly exceeds’ their expectations = 16% in 2016 v 16% in 2019-20   

  • Client development:

Number of clients that believe their design agency could ‘provide more added value’ communication (i.e. knowledge sharing / learnings) = 74% in 2016 v 72% in 2019-20

Since 2002, I have frequently conducted research into individual client experiences of working with my design agency clients. The findings are similar to the What Clients Think survey. And back in 2001, when I was running a design practice, we conducted a client survey called ’Signpost’ that explored client attitudes towards and their experiences of working with designers that posed the question, ‘Are you being served?’ Design Week published just a few extracts from the findings in a piece called Poor show from consultancies. It identified weaknesses in the way design firms engaged with and serviced clients at this time. Nearly 20 years on and, here we are, seeing pretty much the same issues!  

Where’s the improvement in how designers look after and interact with clients?

Fundamentally, despite the wealth of material and guidance available to designers in the form of; workshops, advisors (including myself here), books, seminars, webinars, etc, the poor client service and relationship issues that were evident nearly 20 years ago remain. 

Many designers are simply not paying enough attention to their behaviours and interactions with clients. 

This is strange when everyone knows that new business is far more expensive to secure than repeat business. If you want an in depth analysis of the value of customer loyalty, I recommend The Loyalty Effect written by Fred Reichheld, Bain Fellow, Author/Speaker on Loyalty and Creator of the Net Promoter System.

So what does good client service look like?

Meaningful, effective, retention and development initiatives can be easily planned and implemented. Improving client retention, upselling and cross-selling, will go a long way to bringing a degree of certainty to what always feels like a fickle business.

Clearly, quite a high number of design firms need to work smarter around client service. They need to really look after and show the love in often simple ways. Yet few managing directors put as much time and budget into client loyalty strategies as they do into business development.

If you’re curious or suspect there is scope for improving your client servicing then a conversation could be your next step. On the other hand, if you’re confident you have client service all buttoned down, you might just want to check by asking yourself some questions, like:

  • Do we monitor and know how clients experience working with us?
  • How well do we engage with and manage the interactions we have with clients on projects?
  • How do clients feel we compare with their past or incumbent agencies they might work with?
  • Outside of fee-based projects, is our behaviour within client relationships mostly reactive or proactive regarding their challenges, needs and future plans?