Are You Really In The Service Business?


By Tim Williams, Ignition Consulting Group

Partners, managers and associates of advertising agencies, accounting firms, and law firms alike are increasingly frustrated by the master-servant dynamic that often characterizes the relationship they have with their clients. We sometimes feel that clients treat us more as a supplier than a partner. We are quick to lay the blame at the feet of the client, but is it possible that the problem really starts with us?

For starters, we constantly refer to our business as a “service business.” Some firms – like advertising agencies — have “client service” departments. We call ourselves a “professional service firm.” Consider how this creates our self-perception.

Many firms lament that they have become “order-takers.” But why? Who turned your firm into an order-taker? You did – not your clients. You did it by forgetting what it is you’re really selling. You’re not selling service. You’re selling important business outcomes.

The firms that understand this invest in better people who can produce a better product. They resist hiring an army of junior people who are good at service, but fail to add the value that clients are ultimately paying for. They realize that the way to deal with demanding clients isn’t to give them exactly what they want, but rather to counsel clients on what they really need.

You only get treated like a servant if you act like a servant

The fact is that we shouldn’t be regarded as professional service firms, but rather professional knowledge firms. Clients don’t just hire us for what we do, but rather what we know.

In the advertising agency business – my domain — clients routinely complain that the average “account executive” doesn’t really add much value to their business. That’s because most account executives view their job as simply responding to client requests.

Over the many years that Ignition Consulting Group has been conducting surveys of advertising agencies, we have discovered that agencies give themselves the highest ratings in the areas of “Responsive service,” “Listening to clients,” and “Meeting timetables and budgets.” The lowest-rated areas? “Developing proactive ideas and delivering marketing leadership to clients.”

Service is a commodity. Smart thinking is not. Clients can get good service anywhere, but proactive marketing leadership is in short supply. In fact, most surveys that seek to diagnose why clients switch advertising agencies usually produce the same answer: “Because our agency never gave us anything we didn’t ask for.”

Think hard about the question of what business you’re in. If you’re in the service business, you can expect to be treated and paid accordingly. If you believe you’re in the knowledge business, then you’d better hire, train, and invest in people accordingly.

There are plenty of smart clients who value and respect what a smart firm can deliver. But respect starts with a firm’s self-perception. You will never be accorded more respect than you think you deserve, and you will never be paid more than you think you are worth.


  1. Jingjing Xu says:

    Hi, I am Professor Brenda’s student. Your post is very interesting and it is very close to life experience. I agree with you that as a counselor/ agent, we should not only give what clients ask for, but also give them our own ideas which can help their firms have better operation from professional perspective. If I go to a services company or business agency and tell them what my problem is or what I want them to do, and they do not turn out to be creative, I will tend to change a new company next time because I think they are boring and not capable.

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