In-house creative services teams often feel they are treated like a fast food drive thru—where customers want service fast, cheap, and satisfying.
I use this comparison often when writing about corporate creative teams because the data keeps proving it's true. A 2015 survey report shows that 72 percent of in-house creative leaders listed client behaviors as one of their greatest challenges. And a recent study published by Workfront shows that over 50 percent of marketers struggle with client relationships.
Usually when I write about this topic, I defend the creative team and offer tips on how to avoid being treated like a drive-thru. I've recommended things like only accepting work requests through a centralized request method or tool, or carefully prioritizing strategic vs. non-strategic work—both of which are effective ways of gaining respect and avoiding chaos. The risky part of this approach, however, is that clients usually have a second option: If they don't like working with the creative team, they can take their work to an agency.
The Content Marketing Institute recently reported that B2B marketers outsource 64 percent of writing work and 54 percent of design work. That's work where the internal creative team, for one reason or another, wasn't chosen to do the job. Granted, a swamped creative team will seek out additional resources and use freelance work or agencies as a supplement to the team, but LOSING projects because clients choose to hire agencies instead of using the internal team threatens the existence of the team. It breeds difficult questions, like, what company would see the value of an in-house creative team when they're already outsourcing so much?
So, while it's important for creative teams to take a stand and work toward controlling chaos, they also have to consider how to improve their clients' experiences to keep clients from deciding to outsource.
"We go into design because we like to wrestle with problems on our own or with like-minded colleagues—not because we like dealing with others telling us what to do in areas where they have no expertise," writes Andy Epstein, Studio Lead at The Boss Group and author of, The Corporate Creative. "Like it or not, as an in-house designer, you need to embrace the tenets of customer service. Chances are you have more direct client contact than your design peers in the agency world who have account executives to liaise with clients. This is not about brown-nosing or suffering abuse. It's about extending common courtesies, acting in a civil and professional manner, and enhancing your relationship with your client in ways that will lead to more trust and ultimately a more rewarding collaborative partnership."
Epstein also gives tips to creative teams like saying please and thank you, making and keeping commitments, and avoiding saying "no" to clients.
In addition to practicing principles of good customer service, creative teams can improve the client experience by making the following changes to specific aspects of the creative workflow:
1. Include the client at appropriate points in production.
Clients understandably want to be involved in the production process of their work requests. But you know how some clients are: persistently nagging to know the status of the project, wanting to see the product before it's finished, etc. Here are three ways to keep clients involved in the production process, enough that they feel informed, but not so much that the creative team feels suffocated:
- Start the project with a creative brief
If it's possible, meet with the client one-on-one to fill out a creative brief before beginning the project. (If clients are remote, you can schedule a conference call.) This gives the client a chance to explain exactly what he or she wants, and the creative a chance to take notes and ask questions for clarification. As part of the meeting, work out a schedule that fits the needs of both parties, including check points when clients can expect to see a version of the project. This helps give the creative team space to work uninterrupted, while giving the client peace of mind about the status of the project. Refer to this earlier post for more best practices on using creative briefs.
- Use digital proofing software
One of the most frustrating elements of a creative workflow is the approval process. Conflicting schedules, lost emails, differing priorities, etc., can turn a few rounds of revision into a few weeks of hell. With a cloud-based proofing tool, creative teams can upload digital versions of assets and collaborate with fellow team members and clients from anywhere in the world at any time. Important feedback doesn't get lost in email threads, clients can feel confident that their suggestions are addressed, and changes can be viewed immediately by the creative team.
- Deliver assets with a DAM solution
Digital asset management (DAM) solutions have become a must-have for many in-house creative teams. With a DAM solution, teams can easily manage their files and control all access and usage, while keeping a curated collection of finished assets for clients. This especially helps when distributing projects with large files.
2. Go against your instinct and embrace a few numbers.
In many ways you and your clients are different breeds. Your clients are most likely left-brained, analytical, goal-driven, risk takers, etc. While you and your creative team are most likely methodical, right-brained, abstract-thinking, detail oriented, etc. At the end of a project—or even during it—your clients might ask how much time has been spent on their project, or perhaps how much money has been spent. That may be the last thing creatives want to worry about, but it matters to your clients.
The quickest, most painless way to track time, budgets, and other KPIs is with a cloud-based Marketing Work Management solution, where creatives can keep a pulse on everything a client might want to see during or following a project. (Ideally, the Marketing Work Management solution would include a proofing tool and a DAM system, or at least integrate nicely with them so you can keep everything in one place.)
3. Use client satisfaction surveys to find out where you stand with your clients.
I could write 10 more ways that you could potentially improve your relationship with your clients, but every creative team has a different story, which means what works for one team may not work for another team. With client satisfaction surveys, your team can find out exactly how your clients feel about your processes. You can then make changes based on these surveys to better meet your clients' needs. Consider including questions that address overall satisfaction, strategic contributions of the creative team, and satisfaction with project workflow. As another option, The In-House Agency Forum offers a customizable survey tool to its members. Remember to keep these surveys short and simple. If you feel like you're not getting useful information from them, tweak the surveys until you're getting the information you want.
Keep Good Rapport with Your Clients, Keep Your Job
Creative services teams play a critical role in a company's success, but that doesn't mean their worth is universally apparent. Creatives must make an effort at developing and maintaining good rapport with their internal clients to help change, improve and solidify perceptions of the team throughout the organization. With more than half of writing and design work already being outsourced, it likely won't be difficult for the support of an in-house creative team to dwindle in board meetings unless the team is focusing on proving its value.
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