How To Be Great At Client Service

Jarred Cinman, joint CEO of VMLY&R South Africa, shares four fundamental principles that everyone in client service should follow.

  • Jarred Client Service

Listen, I’m a philosopher and I’ve spent most of my career building software and doing digital things and only fairly recently taken over as CEO. So what the hell do I know?


Viewed through another lens I have run my own company in one or other mode for nearly 27 years and as such every client, every rand of revenue, every project that’s gone right and gone wrong, every relationship that has thrived or dived, are in part my responsibility. So, in effect, I have been a client partner for almost three decades.

What have I learnt in this absurdly long journey about what clients really want from their direct contacts in an agency:

1 They want you to care.

One of our guidelines is that our people should care. “I am caring” is how we have it in the PowerPoint deck and again and again this quality is something I see in abundance when things are going well, and absent when they aren’t.

Truth be told, it’s not easy to care. It doesn’t just mean “I care that we got fired and I damaged my standing in the company” or “I don’t want to be seen as a failure”. That is called caring about yourself.

Caring about a client means taking a genuine interest in their well-being and that of the company they work for; it means feeling true accomplishment when something works, when their business grows, when they score a huge victory. And it means worrying and losing sleep when they are not doing well.

This is not something you can pretend, by the way. If you think client service is a job built on the foundation of superficial enthusiasm, don’t do it. The only people in client service should be deep empaths.

2 You should have a point of view.

I could add “and it should be a helpful one” but I’m sure that’s obvious. Clients do not want to pay you to say things like “I wouldn’t know” and “I’ve never heard of that” and “I’ll have to check with my strategist and get back to you”. You are not playing a valuable role if that is the kind of engagement you are capable of. Educate yourself, read up, watch some YouTube, book time with colleagues and have them explain stuff properly. Go and spend some time with the client in their organisation.

I see cases often where clients would rather speak directly to the agency team than their client service person. That’s telling. If you were a valuable asset to them, they would not try to evade you.

The best client service people know the most about the client, their category and their preferences, and they can act as their emissary inside the agency. Without the internal pressures of a corporate hierarchy, they are also free to offer thoughts, advice and suggestions which the marketer may not see themselves. This isn’t “value add” – this is the core of the job. Taking notes and delivering them to others is the value add.

3 Talk benefits, not features (or scope).

Clients know that they will have to pay for our services. They know time costs money and that agencies make their money – by and large – by selling hours. They don’t need reminding constantly. And when the first response to any request is “Well, you know we will have to bill you for that” or “I’ll send you a quote” what clients hear is arrogance and threats.

There is a reason the legal fraternity is lampooned and derided for billing for every phone call, text and email. But in their case, you generally have no choice – few people hire a lawyer unless they are under duress. Lawyers may be brilliant, insightful and helpful. But no-one mistakes them for nice.

Agencies are not law firms. Creative directors are not legal scholars. Marketing clients generally enjoy working with their agencies – they like to see us succeed, do amazing work, deliver exceptional results and yes, even occasionally, get a prize from our peers. They actively seek out something from us that should be a delight but is all too easily forgotten: fun. That’s why they hang out in our offices (uh, I mean used to). That’s why they want to be part of the big film shoots and meetings with the famous stars.

When clients ask for something extra, the only correct answer is: that’s a great idea and I’m on it. That short sentence curdles the blood of many CFOs and grey-suited bureaucrats but I stand by it every time. Because when you need to call and say “We need some extra budget to make this amazing” you’re likely to find warmth rather than a brick wall.

4 Be human, see human.

Labels are useful in some respects. Knowing who sits where in the hierarchy of a client business is necessary, as is understanding who wields what authority within the agency. Understanding who has the power, who makes the calls, who approves the creative and who signs the checks are all important things. And it makes sense that you will behave professionally and schmooze the people with the big titles the most.

However, these are all human beings – whether they are the CEO or the cleaner. And you – most likely – are one too. Being authentic and real and caring and funny and interesting works just as well at every level of the client’s business – and it pays dividends. If you are a creep, this isn’t the job for you. But if you’re a good person by and large, you can find a place where you can be real with your client, and they with you. And therein lies the magic.

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