Letting yourself go

Letting yourself go - image for article by Greg Alder

Time is a great healer, but a poor beautician.
– Lucille S. Harper

The courtship of a new client is like a beautiful brolga’s dance. We strut, coo, parade, coddle and dazzle. Our clients can’t help but fall under our spell.

So what happens once we’ve netted our catch?

You know what happens. We let the disguise slip. We stop caring.

The athletic beauty grows fat. The warrior prince falls into torpidity. Promising businesses go to seed. And go to seed quickly.

Many, many business owners willfully let their lithe babies grow fat and lethargic. They reduce service, product quality and range. Often they make incremental changes they think their clients won’t notice. This is easy to do.

They make these numerous small changes in the unwavering belief that they are making them for right and smart reasons. They are doing it because they need to cut ingredient costs, to save on cleaning costs, to reduce staff salaries or to simply put more cash in their pockets.

More difficult is to make monumental changes with a challenging, cavalier bravado. This takes (metaphoric) balls. First, you must have an unshakable belief in your own infallibility. You must believe that you are never wrong. Ever.

Second, you must have absolute faith that your clients won’t notice. The best bet is to think of them as too dumb, too timid or too unobservant to notice, care or object.

When their business folds, the owners will blame poor summer weather. Or an unexpected fall in tourist numbers. Or voodoo. But not themselves.

Of course people notice when things start to go south. In many homes around the world men and women wake up, look over to the flabby, farting bag of lard sleeping on the other side of the bed, look back to the photo of the lithe model they married and wonder what went wrong. Feel free to sing along with me.

This is not my beautiful wife.
This is not my beautiful house.
My god, what have I done? *

At home, we accept this as a normal part of life. We make the most of the physical assets nature gave us until we’ve lured and trapped our partners for life. For some reason though, clients don’t seem to show the same latitude in business. They keep longing for the good old days. They keep comparing your performance today with the heady days of your honeymoon. You can almost hear them asking themselves rhetorical questions like: Where’s the hungry, keen, helpful, passionate, exciting company we hired?

You’ve heard your client’s charges – even if you don’t understand why they’re being made. Where once you were frequently on the phone with new ideas, now it’s six months between calls – and every one of them made by your client. Where once you anticipated and solved minor issues, now it’s your client who has to bring them to your attention – and then wonder why you seem so unconcerned about them. Where once your enthusiasm electrified the room, it now seems hard to stir you from your constant lethargy. Where once you entered a room bristling with energy and brimming with brilliance, a robot now wears your suit.

Just to pacify your accusing client, you might even nod agreement and make a few hollow promises about mending your ways (promises you have no intention of keeping). You’d love to (but don’t) tell your client that there are some really good reasons you’re not the passionate suitor you used to be. You have newer, more valuable, more exciting clients to fawn over. Or you’re now making so much money that it doesn’t really matter if one or two older, less profitable clients fall by the wayside. Etcetera, etcetera.

The founder of a very successful advertising agency in Singapore actually factored client redundancy into his business model. He had determined to build his business with a base of ten clients. Whenever he had an opportunity to pick up another new client, he would relinquish an existing client. This caused him to do something that too few business leaders do. Before choosing to add a new client to his roster, he asked himself if it would be both more enjoyable and more profitable than one of his existing clients. In doing this, he was bucking conventional wisdom. To some of you his actions might seem unfathomable. Why wasn’t he greedily and indiscriminately acquiring as much business as possible?

Instead of doing what comes naturally, he was choosing the clients who best matched his style, ambitions and his staff’s skills. His staff grew, of course, but controllably. His income grew faster than his expenses (in advertising, as in most service businesses, payroll is by far the biggest business expense). His business became increasingly profitable – because it often takes no more man-hours to create a $20,000,000 campaign than a $500,000 one. Of course, for many of us it’s all a bit sickening, really. He wasn’t being fired by clients. He was firing them! Outrageous! Radical! Perverse!

The ugly naked truth

Okay, crunch time. Time to stand naked in front of the mirror. What do you see? (I’m sorry, I meant this instruction metaphorically. Put your clothes back on – and for your neighbours’ sake please step back from the window. I want you to stand your company naked in front of a mirror, not yourself.)

Look beyond what your General Manager or Human Resources Manager or Finance Director shows you (you know the usual stuff, the profit-to-staff ratio, the man-hours per $100,000 income, the steadily climbing client profitability graphs). Look into the very soul of your company. How’s it looking?

Struggling to do this? OK, here’s an exercise.

Grab some paper and a pen. Pretend that you are writing a company profile for an Internet dating service. (You shouldn’t have to work too hard at this – your self-assessment is probably already the foundation of your credentials document.) Write down all of the things you think you do really well. Help build client business? Check. Provide great strategic input? Check. Consistently deliver breakthrough ideas? Check. Deliver on time and within budget? Check.

Give yourself two minutes for this exercise. Come back when you have your list.

Now take that piece of paper and throw it in the bin. It’s useless. Completely valueless.

Don’t believe me? Maybe this will convince you. A couple of years ago I had the chance to study and compare the credentials documents of twenty Australian advertising agencies. These ranged from the big multinational names to smaller creative hot shops. What did I find? Every credentials document contains some, if not all, of the promises listed above. Every agency claims to help build their clients’ businesses. Every one claims to deliver insightful strategies and breakthrough creative ideas. (One Sydney office of a global agency has immortalised one of these claims on the wall of its reception area. Not once but twice. Puzzlingly, there are words of the agency’s English founder and right beside these are the Australian Chairman’s almost identical words.)

Based on all of these agencies’ self-assessments, a prospective client would be hard-pressed to differentiate one advertising agency from another. Surely you have to make such claims (I can hear some of you thinking). After all, that’s what a client is looking for (just as prospective dates are looking for good-looking, tall, slim and rich partners).

Is there any alternative?

Well yes there is.

Of the agency credentials documents I looked at, one agency stood out from the others. In essence, they asked their clients to write their credentials for them. Before you start nodding sagely and before you convince yourself that this is very noble and brave, I’ll remind you of the dangers to which this company had exposed themselves.

What dangers?

First, it keeps you on your toes. It forces you to stay in shape. If you allow yourself to grow fat, lazy, disinterested, expensive and slow, then your client’s assessment will say as much.

Second, it strengthens your bond with your clients – and demonstrates to prospective clients that you and your clients have a great working relationship.

Third, it gives your credentials credibility. A potential client no longer has your word that you’re brilliant, he has your existing clients’ words for it.

Finally you need balls (yep, a metaphor again) to do that. You need to be sure your clients think you’re as proactive, diligent, creative, punctual, intuitive and co-operative (add your own parameters) as you think you are. You need to have absolute faith that your clients love you and love your work.

So, if you’re feeling recklessly, irresponsibly brave, ask your clients to write a profile of your business. If you’re going to go through with this charade, you could then compare their assessments with your own (the one you put into your credentials document).

You could ask yourself questions like: Do your clients think you are as good as you think you are? Would you be prepared to base your credentials document on their assessments?

Of course what might happen is that this exercise exposes a glaring discrepancy between how you see yourself and how your clients see you? That means that one of you must be wrong. If one client rates you lower than your other clients do, then it would indicate you’re not taking enough care of that client. If all of your clients rate you much lower than you rate yourself, some business analysts might suggest you have quite a lot of work to do.

Of course, I’m hoping that by now you are thinking that all of this just seems like too much hard work.

Yes, you mightn’t be the Adonis at whose feet your clients once worshipped. But who is? You’ve shown a stoic willingness to overlook your spouse’s sagging body bits. Why shouldn’t every one of your clients be prepared to do the same? How lazy, how fat, how nonchalant can you become before your clients start to mind?

Their behaviour is often confounding. You go out of your way to be lethargic, indifferent, aloof and annoying and yet they still seem disarmingly polite and affable whenever you meet. So long as they pay their (very inflated) bills, that’s probably okay. But don’t you sometimes secretly wonder why they’re still around? Maybe they can’t think of an option. That would make sense – they’re not very imaginative. Maybe nobody else wants them. That would also explain it. If there’s a hungrier, leaner, more energetic and more passionate suitor hovering in the wings, surely your client would have fallen for their charms.

The only thing to do with a stubbornly faithful client is to let yourself go even further. Take it as a personal challenge to ensure your company’s attitude or service sinks to new levels. You could even turn it into a bit of a game. Have wagers with your staff. See who can guess how bad your business has to become before your clients finally go somewhere else. Even then, there’ll always be the odd masochistic client who just won’t go away. Through no fault of your own, you and your client are stuck with each other. For better or worse. Till death us do part.

* Lyrics from Once In A Lifetime by David Byrne and Brian Eno, performed by Talking Heads – and what an extraordinary band they were. © Index Music/Bleu Disque Music

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