A lesson in client-care from a six year-old

When my six year old daughter, Evelyn, decided to try out gymnastics, I was relieved. She had been adamantly opposed to team sports ever since her one soccer season when she was three and only spent 15 minutes of one game of the season on the field. She’s always been incredibly active so her resistance seemed inexplicable, until I started evaluating what motivates her. She’s never met a stranger, making friends with everyone she runs into. She is resilient and brave, but gets anxious going into group social settings where she doesn’t know anybody. This meant that team sports were seemingly off the table, and made her announcement and continued interest in gymnastics surprising.

Ev’s first coach was very sweet and connected with her right away. As we went to the first few sessions, I started to notice that the coach didn’t pay much attention to the technique and form of each individual student, but rather ran the group through various drills, and she rarely, if ever, called out individual room for improvement. Because Evelyn was enjoying herself, I was happy just to have her getting experience in a group setting and getting involved in a formal physical activity. Then came the announcement. Evelyn’s coach was no longer going to be available at the time that worked with our schedule, so we were reassigned to another group with a different coach.

Instantly, everything changed.

This new coach, instead of being sweet, was a little spicy. She was focused and direct, watching each student as they went through their drills and correcting their form and technique. I immediately felt like the value we were receiving had increased dramatically, and anticipated rapid improvement compared to what we had experienced so far.

It was during Evelyn’s third session with the new coach when I realized my perception of value and my daughter’s perception of value were very different. About halfway through the session, Ev came upstairs to the viewing area, visibly upset and holding back tears. She buried her face into me, trying to compose herself and avoid anyone seeing her emotions. After getting to a private area, she told me that her coach had yelled at her for doing one of the moves incorrectly. Having watched the coach in multiple sessions, this seemed very unlikely to me, but it was clear Ev was convinced her coach was mad at her and that she had thought she was doing exactly what was asked of her. 

After calming her down, I had her sit upstairs and waited for a break to talk to the coach. I told her what Evelyn had told me and asked if there was something I was missing or Evelyn was misunderstanding. She was shocked, expressing that she had zero clue that Evelyn was at all upset. She said that, yes, she had instructed the class to do a move, and Evelyn did something similar, but not exact. She explained that the prior instructor was very green, had never coached before, and likely used the wrong terminology. She said that what Evelyn was doing was A move, but not THE move she was asking for. Evelyn had then told the coach that she needed a drink of water, and instead came upstairs to me. The coach had no idea that she was upset or didn’t understand. She had the best of intentions and thought all was fine with her student.

Hearing the two perceptions of this situation immediately clued me in on several things: 

First - My daughter is incredibly relationally-driven. I don’t know if that’s a technical term, but I use it to define the tendency of her feelings and emotions to ebb and flow with the status of her relationships. In that moment, the lightbulb went off and I realized that her primary motivation is driven by her relationships, and it upset her to think she disappointed her coach, especially when she thought she was doing exactly what was expected. When her coach corrected her, she perceived that as disappointment and anger rather than support and encouragement. 

Second - Value delivered and value perceived are not always the same thing. Evelyn was receiving exponentially better instruction and had the opportunity to increase her ability and skill dramatically in a much faster period of time, but instead she was put off by the abrupt change in coaching styles.

Third - The coach was clueless about Evelyn’s true thoughts. She took Evelyn at her word that she just needed a drink and let her go, not knowing that there was a storm brewing below the surface.

Fourth - Both Evelyn and the coach needed to reset their expectations to be successful. Evelyn needed to understand her new coach’s personality, needed to feel seen by and connected with her, and needed more clear education on terminology. The coach needed to understand what drives Evelyn and how to connect with her, so that Evelyn could trust her enough to tell her when there was a problem.

Over the next few days I thought a lot about the correlation between my daughter’s gymnastics experience and what we as an agency often experience with our clients. Many new clients worked with and left an agency (or several agencies) prior to partnering with us. Sometimes we sense a communication breakdown, but can’t put our finger on what is driving it. Then there are the times a client gives us notice without any prior clues that something might be wrong. The four discoveries above often relate to those failed client relationships, and how we decide to approach them can make or break the success of a client relationship.

First - As a client team, we have to work to determine what motivates and drives our individual clients. As human beings, each of us has a tendency to let our perception of another person, situation, or organization be informed by our own experiences and values. Our clients do the same thing. Their perception of our communication style will inform their perception of the quality of our work, and we need to be able and willing to discern what they need and adapt to it. At OMG, we rely heavily on our Account Managers to trust and call-out their “spidey-sense” so that we can pivot and adapt our style to provide the level and style of communication our individual clients need.

Second - Clients often misunderstand what is happening behind the scenes. Their expectations of timelines may not be realistic. They may not realize the chaos a seemingly simple last-minute change to a promotion creates on the back-end. How many people are actually servicing their account may be eight, while they are only aware of two. The strategic plan for their account may not be clear, causing them to think we are disorganized and working without clear direction or purpose. Their perception of value may not line up with that value that is actually being delivered, and that can create dissatisfaction if they don’t understand how their investment is benefiting their business. At OMG, we are constantly developing our onboarding and ongoing communications to better inform our clients of the strategic plan and what is happening behind the scenes, which also helps develop a true partnership with feedback going both ways to best accelerate the growth of their business.

Third - Clients who leave may not tell us the actual reasons for doing so. They may be on the verge of leaving, and we have no clue. For the most part, people tend to avoid confrontation. Their experience may have left low expectations that if they share true feedback, it will be received instead of defended. They may not even truly understand their own reasoning. It is important that we take the time to self-evaluate, throughout the client relationship and after, so that we can continue to develop and improve not only the reality, but our client’s perception of our service and partnership. At OMG, we do this by having transparent internal conversations following client communication (calls, emails, Slacks, etc) and by performing client autopsies when a client partnership ends.

Fourth - As an agency and in our client teams, we need to establish clear expectations with our clients, and intentionally reset them as needed. Often we find that our main point of contact during the sales process is not the person we end up working with during the client partnership, and the goals, objectives, and expectations differ based on experience and role. Sometimes we have to do an internal transition and a client gets a new account manager or specialist, or the client has an internal transition and we get a new point of contact. When any team changes occur, that is a key trigger to reevaluate and confirm expectations. At OMG, we routinely facilitate this by building in objective perspectives that trigger us to have conversations around expectations. We utilize strategists to bring a fresh look to individual accounts, who then collaborate with the client team to identify opportunities that may have developed as we worked on our initial strategic plan.

Human nature tends to be consistent, whether it’s a 6 year old, 16 year old, or 60 year old.

As a service business, people are what create the majority of our work (internal and external). It is critical that we take the time to learn from each experience and apply that learning to both high-level processes and systems, as well as individual client and team member situations.

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