In a world of accelerating change, many brands change IT consulting firms and marketing agencies as often as they swap the ink cartridges in their office printers.
Yet there are some relationships that endure—for example, the transnational consumer goods company giant, Unilever, has worked with agency MullenLowe for close to 120 years, and General Electric and BBDO have a partnership which spans nearly a century.
While Acceleration is a digital native company that was founded less than 20 years ago, we work to secure and foster long-term relationships with our clients because it makes great business sense for both sides. When a consulting firm and a client are aligned in their outlook and ambition, they can create enormous long-term value together and drive each other to excel.
Some of the advantages of such an enduring relationship include the following:
Trust: Long-term working relationships engender a sense of trust and mutual cooperation between the client and the vendor. Since each has known the other for years, they understand how their partner operates as well as how the consulting firm or agency will respond in a crisis. The very fact that the relationship has lasted years means that the organisations have faced multiple challenges together and that the partner has proved dependable in a range of circumstances.
Knowledge of the business: Today’s brands and organisations are complex, as are the world in which they operate and the IT environments and business processes that drive them. A long-term partner will understand the nuances of the client’s industry, the stakeholders in the business, what its IT systems can and can’t do and its regulatory barriers. Each time a complex organisation brings a new partner on board, it can lose months of potential value delivery as this new agency or consultants get up to speed with the business.
Accountability: A long-term relationship means that the agency or consulting firm will take ownership of, and accountability for, the account and its business. Performance can be tracked over a meaningful period of time.
Costs: Issuing requests for proposals, evaluating bids, drawing up new contracts and on-boarding new service providers can cost the business heavily in terms of time and money. It is more efficient and cost-effective to develop meaningful relationships with long-term strategic partners, with the goal of optimising costs and value delivery over time.
Continuous improvement: Long term relationships provide the opportunity for continual improvement of the service that the provider renders. The parties can work together on developing service level agreements and mutually beneficial key performance indicators, then strive to meet or exceed them. The service provider can also benefit from this type of relationship, as the longer they work with a client, the more efficient and profitable the relationship becomes.
Complacency: a potential relationship killer
There are potential pitfalls to long-term relationships between B2B service providers and clients—one of the most significant is the danger of complacency setting into the relationship. When a consultant has worked on an account for a long time, he or she may be less willing to rock the boat by taking provocative proposals to the client contact, for example.
A skilled consultant will stay focused on continually seeking new opportunities for the client. It helps to think about the client as if it’s a new account and think through how a new pitch might be constructed to secure its business. Like a marriage, a B2B partnership can go stale if the service provider doesn’t keep challenging the client with new ideas. A skilled consultant will not only seek out new opportunities, but will have the benefit of the fostered relationship and will, as such, be able to more easily recognise and address its clients’ pain points.
In our experience, some of the key elements of a long-term relationship between a consulting firm and a client include:
Commitment: In the same way as a marriage, a sibling relationship or a long-lasting friendship, a B2B partnership demands commitment and time invested. There will be debates, there will be frustrations, and there will be conflict, but what matters is how the partners handle their disagreements and that they feel like they can deliver great business value together.
Mutual trust: Relationships with consulting partners and agencies are not like buying stationary or leasing an office water cooler. As consultants, we get to see some of the most strategic and sensitive parts of a client’s business, which means that they need to trust us. Trust is also key to managing difficult conversations around pricing, service level agreements, and performance in a manner that ensures continued success.
Clear communication: To be a trusted advisor, a service provider needs to master the art of communication. It should be able to effectively communicate its capabilities to the client, ask questions that prompt insight into the client’s needs and communicate risks, trade-offs and opportunities in a way that makes sense to business users. Clients, for their part, need to focus on briefing accurately and engaging with service providers in a consistent manner.
Brands can get enormous value from building a strategic partnership with an agency or consulting firm that really understands the business and has a good fit with its organisational culture. In a world where there is such high turnover of CMOs, a good agency or consulting partner can be more than a service provider—it can also be part of the institutional memory, a trusted partner and an extension of the business.