Conflicting deadlines are a normal part of agency life. Just when you think you have your weekly calendar planned out, one or more clients will throw a spanner in the works and your gears will come grinding to a halt. What do you do when deadlines and priorities collide?
Account management triage is a highly effective internal process. It's what you can practise either by yourself, with your line manager or your wider team, but it is definitely not something that you would communicate to your clients.
If you have handled your client relationships correctly, and have made each one of your clients feel important and valued, then each of your clients will want to be treated like they are the only client in your world - a difficult illusion to maintain when you have a finite set of agency resources. They certainly do not want to be told that another client's work would ever be deemed more important than theirs!
What can you do when you have two (or more) client deadlines which coincide? Let's assume that you have already practised your account management triage and you have determined that both deadlines are valid and immovable.
What you communicate to each client
Keep some things to yourself: Whatever you do, never ever tell a client that you have had to prioritise them lower than another client. This could be a death knell for your account.
Don't lie: Like any other lie, it will likely come back to bite you some day.
Don't promise what you can't deliver: Never tell a client they will definitely receive on-time delivery if you know it won't happen. A client would rather know (early on) that they will not receive delivery as expected; that way they can try to put a contingency plan in place.
Manage expectations: Make sure you have a good handle on what your client expects will happen. There may be a difference between their expectations and reality, and you don’t want to get caught in the crossfire when the two do not meet!
Defer your answer: If you don't yet know how you will manage to deliver your client's work on time, just tell your client that you will talk with your team, and then get back to them as soon as possible with an update (then make sure you follow through on what you've promised).
Create an action plan: If you haven't done so already, you should create an "action plan" for each of your critical projects. This will include milestone dates for each agency deliverable (e.g. proofs/concepts, partial deliveries, final delivery); and each client deliverable (e.g. content supply, feedback, approvals). Each party should be made aware that achieving the deadline will be contingent on the milestones being strictly adhered to.
Protect your team: You need to do whatever you can to keep pressure off your agency team and your suppliers. If your client's request has been unreasonable (e.g. they have given you a very short timeframe, or requests outside of the original brief), then you will need to let your client know the implications of their request. The realities associated with production processes may mean you sometimes have to say "no" to your client.
What you action internally
Keep the communication flowing: Have a chat to your studio/production manager and/or line manager immediately. What needs to happen to meet both deadlines? Can you use the resources you currently have on staff? Do you need to hire a short-term contractor? Can other projects be juggled to fit the urgent ones in?
Keep the process flowing: Make sure you are not the one slowing any of the process down.
- Are the jobs booked into the studio?
- Is the brief ready?
- Is all the content available (copy, images, etc)?
- Have you passed on the delivery instructions?
Roll your sleeves up: Can you action any part of the process yourself to help speed things along (e.g. make small artwork changes, pack boxes, source products)?
Between what you can action internally, and how you manage client expectations, there is every good chance that you can get multiple jobs out the door, on time, without your clients even knowing there was any issue.
Sarah Ritchie is the founder of AM-Insider - a website bursting with tips, tricks and resources to create account management superstars in the advertising, design, PR, experiential and print industries. Sarah has been involved in account management for 25 years and has a passion for encouraging, mentoring and helping others succeed.
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