Client Satisfaction is a slippery slope: Optimize, don’t maximize

Written by: Karl Sakas

Should your agency pursue maximum Client Satisfaction? No—instead, I recommend you pursue optimum Client Satisfaction.

Why? Because maximum Client Satisfaction comes at too high a cost. If your goal is to get 100% satisfaction from 100% of clients, you’ll find yourself making too many compromises. It’ll hurt profit margins and your own satisfaction.

Beware the Cost of Maximum Client Satisfaction

In pursuit of 100% satisfaction, you may find your agency making dangerous compromises:

  • Under-billing and otherwise giving away free work (because you feel the client wouldn’t like paying full price)
  • Giving unnecessary discounts in proposals (because you feel you need to give a discount)
  • Avoiding giving clients difficult but necessary feedback (because you’re afraid they won’t like you)
  • Implementing work based on bad client feedback (because you don’t want to push back, even when you know the client’s request is contrary to the strategy)
  • Sliding into becoming a low-cost order-taker rather than a high-value, strategy-first agency (because you’re no longer confident in the quality of your advice)

Client Satisfaction is important… but maximum satisfaction comes at a cost. There’s a financial cost… and sometimes an existential cost, too.

What to do instead? Choose to optimize Client Satisfaction. How? Read on!

How to Optimize for Client Satisfaction at Your Agency

As I share in my article about “Maximizer vs. Optimizer,” maximizing is a dangerous pursuit—you never feel “done” because there’s always more to maximize. In contrast, optimization is about weighing the pros and cons—and choosing to invest your time and effort to produce your desired return. It’s about the return on investment (ROI) rather than the absolute maximum return.

Ready to optimize? Follow these tips as you implement the strategy at your agency.

  1. Choose what “optimized” Client Satisfaction means for your agency. Do you want clients to be happy a majority of the time? 80% of the time? 99% of the time? The answer is up to you. But the closer to 100%, the harder it’ll be to reach and maintain that level of satisfaction—and the closer you are to maximizing rather than optimizing.
  2. Choose the right KPIs and targets. Agencies often use a version of Net Promoter Score (NPS) in their client satisfaction surveys—the “how likely are you to recommend X” on a scale of 0-10. This produces a score of -100 to +100, where a positive number is good, and +50 or higher is world-class. If you use NPS, think twice about a score of +100; this means 100% of clients gave you a 9/10 or 10/10. This is nice in theory but unlikely in practice.
  3. Stand behind your team. Your team needs to know you’ll back them up as they follow your strategy. This includes siding with your team when a client is unreasonably upset, and firing your toxic clients before they make your great employees quit.
  4. Commit to scope management. Scope creep is a normal part of agency life… but ignore it at your peril. Clients tend to love free work—which increases their satisfaction, but reduces your profit margins. “Strategically free” is OK; “secretly free” is not.
  5. Consider where you’ll draw the line. There are points in agency life where client behavior is 100% unacceptable. In my consulting, this has included a client yelling at an agency employee, a client making a series of misogynistic comments to the agency team, and clients who refuse to respect reasonable boundaries around after-hours communications. As a leader, it’s your job to risk the wrath of unreasonable clients, to protect your team.
  6. Commit to balancing Warmth & Competence. I’m a big fan of Warmth & Competence, from the book The Human Brand. The concept gives you and your team a framework for making better decisions. If a choice supports High Warmth and High Competence, it’s probably a good idea. The approach also helps you avoid skewing too far in one direction.
  7. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Give your team tools and templates to navigate client challenges. For instance, my ever-growing Agency Profitability Toolkit includes dozens of resources—including step-by-step “scripts” for handling difficult client situations, and my on-demand training for creating a profitable Client Onboarding process.
  8. Be careful about Client Concentration. Don’t let a single client become more than 20% of your revenue; if you do, you have a Client Concentration problem. And your team will feel trapped into doing anything to keep the client happy, even when it hurts your financial viability.

As the owner, you’re ultimately Responsible for client satisfaction—both the process and the results. But consider how you’ll enlist your team—including your head of client services and head of operations—to support you in getting results.

Question: How will you optimize Client Satisfaction at your agency?

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