Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mr. Manners Answers Questions From Buyers and Sellers

Dear Mr. Manners,

I get more than two dozen calls per week from media sellers, and more than 50 emails. Must I answer every one?

-Inundated in Irvine

Dear Inundated,

Perfect manners would require a response for every message. But Mr. Manners is a realist, and instead suggests that your obligation is to respond to any message from someone who respects you enough to be communicating with you personally.

You do NOT have the responsibility to respond to any message that:

1)      Is delivered as an HTML newsletter or similar.
2)      Was clearly spammed to dozens or hundreds of people, without regard to information that they might reasonably obtain before contacting you. For example, your role, title, or responsibilities.
3)      Does not include a Dear…. salutation.
4)      Does not provide a capsule explanation of why you should be in touch with this person. For example, information on how their offering fits your brand(s).

You do have a responsibility to respond in a reasonable timeframe to a message from:

1)      Someone with which you have or have had a business relationship.
2)      Someone you have RFPed.
3)      Someone you told to check back with you later, and who has followed the time suggestion you outlined.
4)      Someone you have asked for a favor, or you have met with.
5)      Someone who has clearly made an effort to do research on your company and role, and who explains how that information has led them to believe that they have a solution appropriate for your business.

The depth and timing of your response relate to the amount of relationship you already have with that person, coupled with the amount of effort they made prior to contacting you. Existing partners, especially those who “go the extra mile” deserve a response within 24 hours, even if it is to tell them that a more thorough response will be forthcoming. Past or minor partners deserve a response within 72 hours. Companies you have RFPed deserve an explanation of why you didn’t purchase from them within a week.

In these instances, manners guide both good behavior and help protect and enhance your career. Sellers know and remember who makes an effort to respond to their messages. And a bad reputation will limit your career later.

Dear Mr. Manners,
Lately certain vendors have been going around my agency and reaching out directly to the client. How can I stop them while demonstrating good manners?

-Worried on Wacker

Dear Worried,

Mr. Manners believes that we must first answer the question WHY they are going client direct. It’s not a problem per se. If direct conversations between vendors and your clients endanger your relationship, then you have problems much larger than aggressive vendors.

The second question you need to ask is whether your interest in closing these information paths is actually in your interests and those of the client. Ultimately, agencies need more and better ideas from sellers, and engaging strong vendors in three way dialogue along with the client often makes for better effectiveness. If you’re trying to lock away your clients from information avenues, you’ll probably find that you aren’t in charge of the door before long.

In my experience there are four common “client direct” scenarios:

1)      Your client specifically requests that you prevent vendors from contacting them. Here you should communicate that request to vendors so that they know that they must work through you. When the client is contacted directly, ask them to forward messages to your team so you can set things right.
2)      A vendor you work with is asked for information by the client. Here your goal should be to become part of the conversation, as it may reveal client goals or needs with which you are unaware. You should not discourage the information sharing, but should ensure that you and your team are part of the dialogue. It is well within good manners, however, to scold a vendor for communicating with your client without making you aware first. And finally, you need to ask yourself WHY the client went vendor direct instead of talking to you, because it may signal an issue in your relationship.
3)      A vendor that you work with sees an opportunity to get more business by going client direct. In effect to circumvent the agency or to drive client demands for greater partnership. Relatively few companies will try this, mostly companies that have huge market share or importance such that you cannot “punish” their bad mannered behavior. In these instances, ask yourself:
a.      Does the vendor have a point? Would the client benefit from their suggestions? If so, work with the vendor to address the opportunities through the agency channel.
b.      Is it just a power grab? I suggest you confront these vendors directly, and work in concert with the client to ensure that their bad behavior is recognized as counterproductive.
4)      A vendor you don’t buy from goes client direct to try and force their way into your buy. Most of the time, your client will rebuff the effort outright. If they instead ask you why you aren’t working with a vendor, simply explain your rationale and in most cases that will end the problem. The quality of that rationale will in turn encourage them to rebuff such efforts in the future.

Ultimately you aren’t in control of vendors, even those you work with. But if your client relationships are strong, efforts to engage clients directly won’t be a problem. In fact, communication between clients and sellers may well lead to productive dialogue and a better informed, more digital-savvy client.
So, breathe. Either have confidence in your strong relationships with your clients, or work to address the relationships. Further, by treating sellers fairly and with respect, you benefit from their expertise and drastically reduce bad mannered behavior.

Dear Mr. Manners,

My team worked hard on an RFP response, and the agency never got back to us on why we didn’t win. How can I respond while still demonstrating good manners?

-Mad on Madison

Dear Mad,

Not providing you feedback for an RFP response is the height of bad manners, particularly if you were asked to respond on crash timing or spent a great deal of time and effort creating a customized solution. Buyers who don’t provide feedback usually fall into one of two buckets:

1)      Shotgun planners that RFD a huge list of sites because they have failed to pre-screen possible vendors to a subset that have a reasonable chance of winning.
2)      Selfish planners that simply “can’t be bothered.”

In either case, I suggest you politely but firmly contact the most senior member of the team and point out the need for feedback. If they don’t respond to your request, I suggest you refrain from responding in the future to RFP requests from that person or team. If they ask you why you didn’t respond, tell them that you can’t invest the time and effort without understanding what might drive the buyer to make a purchase. This is a polite way of demonstrating the importance of well mannered behavior on their part. While not responding may feel like a difficult decision, the reality is that you have better things to do that shoot in the dark. Focus instead on finding real opportunities.

One more thing. If your RFP response was a piece of crap, sending it was bad manners. The recipient is therefore under no obligation to demonstrate good manners in their dealings with you.

Dear Mr. Manners,

A rep has offered me a very high value gift. Is it good manners to take it?

-Tempted in Texas

Dear Tempted,

You are confusing manners and ethics. In my view, accepting high value gifts is unethical because it implies or seals a quid pro quo. Any personal gift that makes you feel obligated to buy is clearly unethical. Further, acceptance of it may run counter to your company policies, and may even be against the law.

Which raises the question of what is “high value”? Many companies have set a policy on a dollar figure, and it is not my place to question those figures. Where no such policy exists, you need to make a decision that reflects your values and the law.

Some people see no problem with accepting a gift from a vendor that will be bought anyway, but in my view this is AT LEAST as unethical. You are paid to make business decisions based upon the best interests of your client. We don’t live in, nor should we encourage a “soft economy.” And the cost of that gift is ultimately “baked in” to the buy, so your acceptance of it is ultimately theft from your client.

Further, acceptance of such gifts sullies your reputation – something that no amount of good manners can resurrect.

Manners govern how you turn down such a gift. Do so politely, but ensure you make clear your reason for doing so.

Got a question for Mr. Manners? Post it in the comments area, and he will respond.

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