Businesses are really just complex collections of humans, so reciprocal trust and transparency are key building blocks of every business relationship.
This is particularly true when it comes to the relationship between a client and an agency. The dance is a delicate one, especially in the early days. Building trust can take time.
As with all human relationships, there are moments when one party has to put more trust in the other than they had previously. Both sides need to take small leaps of faith until those moments are no longer perceived as risky.
This certainly applies to agency relationships in the world of marketing and media, and potentially even more so in the realm of software development, where a customer is trusting an agency to help create a product that often has a longer lifespan than say, an advertising campaign or even a corporate website. Note: we prefer the word ‘customer’ to ‘client’, since it's more of a two-way street.
When creating software for other businesses, our role is like that of a surrogate parent: while an initial idea might come from a customer, we are asked to incubate it, grow it, give life to it. As the American author Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr rightly observed: "Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up".
After birthing a product, we’ll sometimes hand stewardship back to the customer. In other situations, we’ll be installed in a Godparent-type role, whereby we shepherd a product through to adolescence, maturity and sometimes even retirement.
This model can only work when an agency is treated like a strategic partner, rather than a supplier or vendor.
For us, that means living and breathing a customer's business. So we shadow and interview staff, we spend time in their environment, and whenever possible our team actively participate in the daily activities of the business to better understand the pain points of users and the scenarios we’re designing for.
One reason we want to be a partner (not a vendor) is because both parties need to have a willingness to challenge each other and be challenged. The ability to be totally honest in service of the work - both in customer interactions and within our own walls - can only come from a deep mutual respect and ongoing alignment around the intentions of a project. That's how we create something that's genuinely transformational for users.
To be clear, ‘vendor' is not a dirty word. A vendor relationship can be a good match if a customer is looking to outsource a particular part of the process, perhaps because they have in-house capabilities in certain areas.
However, that approach can have its drawbacks. A vendor spends time thinking about how they can optimise delivery of a particular practice, such as development, design or testing. A partner, on the other hand, builds a breadth of understanding across a customer’s business that allows them to think deeply about the problems they’re solving and optimise their work to get the best outcomes.
At Smudge, we want to build lasting relationships with customers based on trust. We want to contribute to an environment where both parties can bring ideas to the table, and where those ideas can be discussed with egoless honesty.
Over time, we gain enough trust to proactively suggest solutions to problems within a customer’s business without receiving a formal brief each time. In doing so, we are not just reacting to a customer’s strategic goals, we are helping to craft them.
True partners don't just give and follow each other’s instructions, they build on each other's strengths to make something greater than the sum of their parts.
When it comes to product development, you’re looking for an agency partner to be an extension of your team; to bring in specialist skills but also provide an external perspective grounded in objectivity. This allows the agency to rise above the politics of the customer organisation, which can make a big difference in a multi-year relationship.
By continually listening and learning about a customer’s business, we’re exposed to many different roles and departments, some of whom may not work together regularly (or at all), especially in a larger organisation.
Since large businesses can be complex and hierarchical, we often find ourselves playing the role of “cross-functional stitcher”. This is where we can start adding a new level of value. We start to see solutions to problems within a customer’s business that they don’t know they have.
For instance, we might be dealing with different teams within a large enterprise (sometimes with different objectives or even different P&Ls) who - unbeknownst to each other - are solving similar kinds of problems. We start to see around corners, suggesting new solutions, products or features, and recommending cultural, process or resourcing changes that drive organisational efficiencies.
Our objectivity as an external partner allows us to legitimately intervene when the politics of a customer’s org is causing friction or preventing consensus within its own ranks. Over time, we notice patterns and can pre-empt politically-driven situations that can derail or slow down a project. It’s this kind of added value that leads to a thriving partnership.
Whether an agency relationship is for the short- or long-term, a high level of bi-lateral trust will be a defining factor in its success. It takes courage on both sides but invariably results in better products and better outcomes for users.