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November 7, 2009
Welcome to Omnicom, May I Take Your Order?

When I had just graduated from college, jobs in the Detroit communications industry were few and far between (for more on my personal, job seeking experiences, check out this Talent Zoo article). Faced with a seemingly endless stack of bills from my college years and needing an immediate source of income, I started waiting tables. I can’t even begin to describe the level of humiliation and degradation I felt during that time of my life but, in retrospect, I learned many lessons that I apply to my profession today.

In the time I’ve spent in the communications industry, I’ve seen the best and the worst of how agencies deal with their respective clientele. I’ve seen clients over-serviced and I’ve seen them treated as myopic ne’er-do-wells. At its best, I’ve seen the agency/client relationship manifest as an equal, like-minded partnership. What still surprises me is that people in this industry forget that, under all the ancillary aspects of our work that include awards, recognition, creativity and new business, communications remains in it's simplest form a service industry. Let me repeat that: This is a service industry; not that much unlike the one I worked in while waiting tables.

If you are a waiter/waitress, your ultimate responsibility is the customer’s satisfaction. Providing excellent service can mitigate a sub-par meal. If the kitchen is running behind, then you can assuage the ire of your patrons by remaining attentive throughout their wait. If their meal comes out wrong or the quality poor, then you must be quick to provide them with an alternative. My managers taught me that the service I provided my guests was as important as the meal itself, and they were right.

It doesn’t take much thought to substitute situations that occur in the account-side of agency life with any of the scenarios above. The creative doesn’t thrill your client, your agency’s workload has pushed the deadline of that client’s project, the client absolutely hates your concept….see what I mean? And just as it is when dining at a restaurant, having an attentive, sympathetic and knowledgeable account person can ensure that the client, regardless of the situation, is as content as possible in the end.

Not to take this metaphor too far, but one more thing comes to mind as I write this. I started to really make money waiting tables once I had cultivated “regulars” (customers that frequented the establishment and asked for me by name). I developed these “regulars” by building up a certain level of trust and expectation. In return, these patrons were more apt to respond to up-selling. “You are much better off going with a bottle of wine if you plan on having more than one glass” or, “That is a great selection, but let me tell you about our special today that I think you will absolutely love.”

Again, it doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination to apply these same scenarios to account service. The most important client in this business is a repeat-client, especially in these tough economic times. Building a relationship based on trust between your account team and your client is as important to long-term success as is the quality of the work you execute on that client’s behalf. Remember, many of your clients aren't as deft as you and your colleagues are in the art of communications, as such they might not be able to immediately see the big picture (or justify the big budget). It's not your job to sell them, but rather to engender an environment of trust in which they will take you at your professional word.

If this seems too obvious a metaphor, you're right: it is. Yet each of us at some point in our careers has cursed a client for ineptitude or lack of vision or for setting unreasonable expectations. Thinking of your role in this way may just help you be better at what you do.

And trust me, you don’t want to have to wait tables instead.

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Justin Celko is a digital communications professional based in Chicago, IL. Follow him on Twitter.

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