Having courageous (post-COVID) client conversations

July 24, 2020

Right now, we are all in varying stages of dealing with the economic impact of COVID-19. Here, in New Zealand, we have been at Level 1 for a few weeks now, and the country is trying to ‘return to normal’ (though no-one believes that to be the case yet).

From conversations with agency folk, I sense a particular feeling of unease bubbling under the surface of some agencies.

On the one hand, agencies have (in general) received a hefty whack to their revenue. Many clients have pulled back on their marketing spend (or stopped spending altogether), and some clients have changed creative suppliers to focus on different (perhaps more specialised) marketing channels. This reduction in revenue has subsequently created both an immediate cash flow problem as well as the difficulty to forecast revenue for the next few months or year.

On the other hand, I hear a measure of reluctance for agency staff to do whatever they can to get their revenue back up to pre-COVID levels; and I have to ask myself why is that?

A good example is a conversation that I had, recently, with one business owner (let’s call her ‘Amy’). It went something like this: “I didn’t contact my clients during lock-down. I was helping my husband out with his business and got caught up with that, and I let my own business slip. Now that we are out the other side of all this, what should I do? Should I ring my clients? I don’t know what to say.

The big problem that Amy has created for herself was that she didn’t keep in touch with her clients when it was essential to do so. Think of it like the relationships that you have with your friends – if you did not make contact with them for a few weeks, or months (especially through something such as COVID-19), what would they think? They would likely feel that you didn’t care about them anymore, and it’s not that dissimilar with our clients (a.k.a. human beings with feelings).

The tricky part of post-COVID client conversations is that we don’t know if they have the budget to spend right now, and it can feel more than a little ‘inappropriate’ to ask for business in times like these.

Remember, this is not new business development; it’s talking with your existing client base. These are people you know well and have – hopefully – built up a level of trust with over time. For the financial sake of your business, you need to get the lay of the land as quickly as possible, which would include asking these types of questions:

  • How are they doing (and do they still have a job)? Remember that we have seen mass redundancies on both sides of the fence.
  • How is their business doing, and did the lock-down hit them hard?
  • Have they re-evaluated their marketing plan for the next few months? If so, what does it look like now?
  • How will your agency fit into that revised marketing plan?
  • How else can you help them?

If, like Amy, you have not kept in contact with your clients over the lock-down period, then you are going to have to approach your first conversation with an apologetic and empathetic manner. Be prepared to listen more than you talk so that you can better determine how your client and their company are doing before launching into anything that smacks of ‘sales’. While you ultimately need to have a business conversation, sometimes that is phone call #2 rather than phone call #1. Whatever you do, don’t delay calling your clients. The longer you leave it, the harder your first conversation will be.

If you did keep in contact with your clients during the past few months, then continue with your touchpoints and don’t be afraid to ask the pointy questions when you need to. We call this having ‘courageous conversations’. These pointy topics could include:

  • Asking for their business (in sales-speak that’s known as ‘asking for the sale’).
  • Asking about the likelihood of you working with them in the next six months.
  • Asking if they are working with any other (or new) suppliers apart from your agency, and
  • asking what you can do to build a closer relationship with them.

My mother always said, “ask me anything. I’ll either say “yes” or “no”, but you won’t know the answer unless you ask.” She was a very wise woman.


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