Client services vs. account handling

What's the difference, and what's it like to move from one to the other?

Charles Deluvio, Unsplash

You may think account handling vs. client services just sounds like semantics. Before joining 383, I didn’t understand the difference either.

Trust me, there’s quite a big one…

One constant in my career is that I’ve always worked directly with clients. What I mean by that is, I’ve always been accountable for the relationship between the client and the agency. Whether the client is happy or unhappy, the buck stops with me.

That usually went hand-in-hand with managing complex projects on behalf of the client. Whether the project stays on time or not, on budget or not, the buck stops with me.

Let’s call that model account handling.

When I started at 383, that was set to change. There was an actual project management division, with actual project management employees, with actual project management skills. That meant I was only responsible for the client relationship.

Let’s call that model client services.

The problem with the account handling model is that by looking after both the client relationship and the client projects, you’re a jack of all trades, master of none.

Mic drop. Yep, I just said that. Cue the daggers from my industry peers.

Let me explain…

Time

Managing projects means managing deadlines. Those deadlines are driven by a complex web of people, process and dependencies. Take your eye off the ball on someone, or something, and that deadline can be missed. Missing deadlines means wasting client money. And so on and so forth.

I know, from personal experience, if it’s a choice between picking up the phone for a pro-active chat with my client or coordinating the team to meet a 5:30 project deadline on a six-figure media budget, I’m never making that phone call.

Yes, I can make that call the next day. But, by design, it’s not going to be my priority and tomorrow will bring its next set of project management deadlines.

It simply becomes a compromise between managing projects and managing your client.

Expertise

Even though I can proudly look back on projects I’ve delivered in the past, the truth is I barely scratched the surface of the discipline. I come from an advertising background where, once an ad is printed or the voiceover is recorded, it’s done. Those projects don’t evolve and iterate over time like they do in product development.

I didn’t even realise I was working in a particular methodology – waterfall. I just thought it was project management as a means to an end. I’d never even heard of Prince2 or agile. I quickly learned that project management is a discipline in its own right. In the same way that you wouldn’t expect an architect to build your house, you can’t expect one person to be capable of managing projects and managing client relationships.

At 383, we build products using agile scrum frameworks, so the complexity of project management is far beyond my experience. It’s often an adjustment for our clients as well, especially if they aren’t from a tech background, or haven’t worked in agile product sprints before.

What I do now

‘Err, doesn’t that mean you’ve halved your workload?’

Nope. Absolutely not.

By leaving project management to the experts, it allows my time to be dedicated to building the client relationship. Through whatever means – over the phone, over a coffee, in their office – it’s more time spent becoming an ambassador for that client so that 383 can make better decisions and recommendations.

That requires a heck of a lot of planning and knowledge gathering in an incredible amount of detail. That could be (by no means exhaustive):

  • Understanding my client’s personal and professional needs – for example, they’re excited by the vision, so we won’t bog them down in detail, or they’re a vegan, so lunch orders need a plant-based option.
  • Understanding my client’s business  – for example, they need to sell X, so proposals need to show how work will contribute to that, or they’re due to launch into a new market, so we should propose ways to understand that audience better.
  • Understanding my client’s industry – for example, their competitors have just launched a new product, so we should invest in some desk research, or legislation has changed, so the platforms we manage need to reflect that.

It’s not a simple task to build and maintain those relationships. When 383 win a new client, we may only have access to one or two main contacts. It’s my job to expand that contact base and grow that network, improving 383’s integration into the business to embed us as a trusted partner. Creating those new relationships is no mean feat, mainly because that person will have a lot competing for their attention, and they need to see value in giving over their time when they’re already time-poor.

Equally, I need to nurture the experience clients have with 383. We have a toolkit that standardises those experiences, including an onboarding process and an excellent content strategy, but I also need to man-mark them to make sure every experience builds trust.

Leaving project management to the experts allows my time to be dedicated to building the client relationship.

By nature of the role, I can represent the client at every level and challenge the rest of 383. Let’s take a very specific example of pitching a proposal to a client. I’ll question the team on:

  • Does the proposal make sense to the client at their experience level?
  • Is it clear how the proposal will benefit their business?
  • How can we make them excited about it?
  • Are we giving them the tools to represent it with their leaders and peers?
  • What decisions are we asking them to make and when?
  • How short can we make the pitch to keep their attention?
  • Who do they warm to at 383 who would be best to be in the room?

…you get the idea.

So what’s it been like to make the jump?

There’s a lot more to project management than I knew and a lot more that can be done in building client relationships than I had been doing. It wasn’t an easy transition. I had to remind myself in the early months to step away from the project detail and not overstep the boundaries with my much more capable project management peers.

On reflection, account handling offered too many distractions. But in client services, I have the focus to build a client strategy and nurture the relationships at both business and personal level, allowing me to be an impartial representative for my clients.

The big lesson for me? Leave client relations and project management to the respective experts.

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