Agency Partnership

Goodbye Client Service, Hello Client Relationships

By Abby O'Connor

Recently, INK celebrated its 20th year in business. Of all the wisdom gained and lessons learned over the past two decades, one thing we’re doubling down on is the idea that “client service” is an antiquated term — and one that does not accurately describe how INK collaborates with its clients.

I sat down with INK’s Vice President of Communications, Caitlin New, to chat about waving goodbye to the term, saying hello to more collaborative client relationships, and INK’s philosophy for delivering true partnership.

An interview with INK Vice President of Communications, Caitlin New:

Abby: As a seasoned comms professional, can you explain why we’re moving away from using client “service” and the significance of that shift?

Caitlin: The idea of “service” in general is very one-sided; one party is giving, and the other is receiving. Ultimately, this means there’s less emphasis on both parties working together to find success and create a positive experience for one another. To me, and to INK, this isn’t a recipe for a fruitful partnership.

The value INK provides, and what any good agency partner provides, goes beyond client service. We build and nurture client relationships by first laying a foundation of trust and creative collaboration. What clients want, and often need, is to work with a partner who uses their experience and expertise to guide strategy and success. That’s where the magic happens. Most clients don’t want a “yes” agency.

Abby: What do you mean by a “yes” agency, exactly?

Caitlin: Meaning, we don’t just do what clients tell us to do. We don’t wait for work to come to us. Being proactive is a huge part of INK’s approach to client relationships. We’re always brainstorming ideas and looking for opportunities to bring to them. And I mean always. I could be at work or having dinner with my family when I get a spark of inspiration for one of my clients. The idea train doesn’t just run between 9 am and 5 pm.

The point is, we bring recommendations, suggestions, ideas, and sometimes (when appropriate), even execute on something before we’re asked. It’s about being a strategic partner, not an order taker, and it’s the cornerstone of INK’s Be There Before philosophy.

Abby: Tell me more about Be There Before. How does INK approach this philosophy?

Caitlin: Well, it really comes down to two main parts. First and foremost, we have a passion for understanding our clients. And not just their businesses and industries — but understanding who our clients are as people and what they value. This is the secret sauce that we bring to every client interaction. Next-level client comms and understanding the intricacies of their world. It should feel like I have coworkers at multiple companies because that’s how much I care about helping clients meet their goals and ensuring their businesses do well.

The second part is putting it all together — the knowledge, understanding, ideas — and actually doing something, acting on it. Knowing stuff is great, but INK’s philosophy isn’t “Be There,” it’s “Be There Before.

Abby: Okay, let’s talk about this secret sauce of yours. What’s your strategy for forging strong relationships with clients? How do you take client service and comms to that next level?

Caitlin: As the old marketing adage goes, we “surprise and delight.” Going the extra mile to be proactive. Using experience and intuition to gauge if a client is overwhelmed and stepping in to offer support. Not working or making decisions in a vacuum, but bringing clients along in decision-making and recommendation processes. Asking smart questions, being a resource, being empathetic, and again, having such a deep understanding of your clients and their companies you could work there.

When we approach client relationships this way, we show clients our value versus simply telling them we’re valuable.

Abby: Do you ever find yourself in situations where it feels like clients do want you to just say “yes” and execute? 

Caitlin: Sometimes, but that’s where having a foundation of trust and respect is especially valuable. A lot of agencies might shy away from disagreeing or pushing back on a client’s request or idea. But with INK, because we’ve nurtured a healthy relationship from the very beginning, we have the confidence and trust of our clients to respectfully dissent when we know something isn’t in their best interest.

The client knows we know our stuff. They know we’re experts at what we do, that we understand and respect their goals. So, when these situations do arise where INK pushes back, the client usually trusts us to make an alternate decision that will ultimately lead them in a better direction. And they appreciate that.

Abby: What about the client’s role in the partnership? Have agency expectations of clients also shifted?

Caitlin: In a good client relationship, the clients know their role, not just ours. They also understand our expectations (not just what they expect from us) and what we need from them in order to successfully support their business. Relationships are a two-way street. Both sides have to communicate.

We view ourselves less like a vendor and ideally, clients do, too. As I said, INK operates as an extension of our clients’ teams, so we want to feel like part of their team.

Abby: Finish these sentences – “Client service is…” and “A client relationship is…”  

Caitlin: I have two for you. Client service is “yes.” A client relationship is “yes, and…” Service means just doing the work. A client relationship means Be There Before.

Abby: Did we miss anything?

Caitlin: Client-agency partnerships have changed a lot over the years, and they’ll only continue to evolve. We need to remember the importance of staying flexible and, above all, to approach these professional relationships from a place of empathy, respect, and a shared passion for the work we’re doing.