Furloughs. Layoffs. Buyouts. They’re not words you want to see in headlines, yet recent moves by MGM Resorts, Coca-Cola, and United Airlines are just a few of the latest examples of large American companies making difficult personnel decisions as they deal with the extended effects of COVID-19. Regardless of the industry you’re in, there’s a good chance your clients are making some personnel cuts of their own. And that can be disruptive—there’s no two ways about it.
When your key contact suddenly leaves, you’re left to work with someone else you may have never met—someone who might not know the history of your business relationship, and who might be less familiar simply with how you do things, not to mention your existing projects and timelines.
So, how do you navigate that situation, especially if the departing person is someone you’ve been working with for years? Let’s examine some best practices for how to deal with a change in your point of contact.
Lay the groundwork in onboarding. Then add to it.
Let’s begin by considering the importance of successful client onboarding. While you might be tempted to kick off a project and rush right into the work, it’s critical to gain a solid understanding of the other organization first—especially if they have numerous business units and a complex reporting structure.
Begin by making sure you have a solid hand-off from your sales team to your services team. Your new contacts don’t want to answer the same questions repeatedly. Also, make sure your services team gathers some initial assets that provide background about the other organization. Our creative team here at Element Three typically starts off a marketing engagement with client knowledge resources that were gathered in our sales process, such as:
- Notes from or recordings of initial discovery calls
- Examples of existing marketing collateral
- Previous or current brand guidelines
- Buyer personas
- SWOT analysis
- Competitive research
- Employee or customer surveys
We also use creative briefs to provide our creative team with critical context about the project or campaign before we start on the work. These briefs inform our creative concepting by describing what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, who we’re marketing to, our primary goals, and more.
If you’re going to serve as a primary point of contact for the client, you’ll want to dig further into their operations side by learning about:
- How the company is structured
- The business model
- The sales cycle
- Whether there’s a board of directors or private equity involved
- The various business units
- The reporting structure
- Who makes budget decisions (as the relationship matures, you can dig into approvals and timelines)
- Whether teams are centralized or decentralized
- How approvals work (and whether brand or legal approvals are required)
- How the team you’re working with fits into the overall organization
- Where your key contacts work and how much they travel
- Who they report to
- Who reports to them
- How they like to communicate
- What collaboration tools they use internally and externally
Document this information in a central repository and add to it over time. That way, you can share it internally as new people at your company start working on the account. For example, an account executive who becomes experienced in working with the client might walk a junior account executive through an org chart that visualizes your key contacts and their solid- and dotted-line reporting relationships.
Also, when someone who has played a key role on the account is leaving your organization, be sure to have them share key insights and document their first-hand knowledge of the account before they leave.
Now that you’ve developed a solid understanding of your client’s business and its structure—and set the stage to expand your institutional knowledge over time—you’re in a better position should your point of contact leave the organization for any reason.
Trust is built for times like this
Even if you have a sterling reputation in your industry, trust is something that’s built between organizations over time. It’s the result of a shared commitment. You have to set expectations from the get-go and be completely transparent with each other, especially in times of great uncertainty.
Hopefully, a key partner will give you a heads-up in the event of an impending layoff that affects a team you work with. But that’s also why it’s important to invest time and energy in developing your relationship beyond a narrow set of people—because it builds trust between the organizations while enhancing your awareness of what it takes to succeed in the long term.
In other words, don’t rely on a single person to carry the bulk of the client relationship. Gradually introduce your subject matter experts (such as writers, designers, or digital gurus) by allowing them to attend brainstorming sessions, present their work, and address client questions in their respective areas of expertise. Also allow other staff such as project managers to support in communications, reviews, and product deliveries.
Meanwhile, your account executive should periodically visit the client on site to discuss current and upcoming work. These visits also allow existing contacts to make introductions to their colleagues in other parts of the client organization. If your company has been delivering excellent results, these on-site visits can result in new projects and types of work with existing accounts, as well as future work with business units you haven’t serviced before.
Admittedly, such visits are difficult, if not impossible, right now. But the point is: if you’re intentional about building trust, your contacts become more likely to notify you of impending changes to the organization—giving you valuable time to navigate them. And by the same token, you should be willing to notify your client of upcoming changes in your organization as well.
Use collaboration tools to stay connected
After your onboarding with the client, you can use collaboration tools like Asana, Basecamp, or Google Drive to stay connected. Consider incorporating tools the client prefers or is already using. Not sure what tools you need? Check out our Marketing Technology Purchasing Guide for some helpful guidance on how to determine your budget, build your martech stack, and buy for the right reasons.
Keep an eye out for warning signs
Once your collaboration infrastructure is set up, monitor the usage to see how often your key contacts are logging in; a sudden drop in engagement could indicate that your contact has left the organization.
When you’re suddenly unable to reach a key contact, give them a reasonable amount of time to respond. Then if something still feels off, reach out discreetly to key stakeholders or other contacts you’ve built within the organization. If you’ve established your company as a strategic partner that shares in that company’s success, they’ll probably share what they know. Or at least what they’re allowed to divulge.
But what if I don’t know whom to contact?
You’ve documented all your knowledge about this company, right? Check your records to see whom you should reach out to.
Another valuable source of information is LinkedIn, which could alert you that the person in question has changed roles or companies. And, if you’ve been steadily building LinkedIn connections with people you’ve met within the company, you can get a better sense of whom your contact worked most closely with based on your first- and second-degree connections at the business.
Or, you can follow the money by contacting the person who signed your sales contracts or statements of work. While this might be a senior executive, they or someone in their office should be able to point you in the right direction.
Story time: How to get your new contact up to speed
When you’re getting to know a new contact, you want them to appreciate the history between your organizations—the value you’ve delivered and the successes you’ve achieved. This can be as simple as delivering a PowerPoint presentation that gives a high-level overview of the work you’ve performed. Be sure to pull in people with deep experience on the account so they can add their perspectives to the conversation.
This meeting will demonstrate the knowledge you’ve developed about the client’s business, as well as your technical expertise and track record of dependability. Nevertheless, you’ll have to prove yourself again to some extent as your new contact gets to know you.
Empathy and resilience win the day
You’re stressed right now, and so are those you do business with. In fact, many business people consider this the most stressful time in their entire career. So, show empathy to your clients, partners, and suppliers who are struggling through the effects of layoffs, store closings, or bankruptcies. They’ll remember who remained loyal—and found ways to help them—when times were tough, and that can pay big dividends in the future.
Be resilient despite everything that’s going on. That means shifting your mindset—and that of your teams—from today to tomorrow. And it means anticipating what success looks like after we finally recover from this pandemic. Because, as Deloitte states, resilient organizations won’t simply return to where they left off before the crisis: “Rather, the truly resilient organization is one that has transformed, having built the attitudes, beliefs, agility, and structures into its DNA that enable it to…catapult forward—quickly.”
Derek Smith's skills as a reporter serve him well as a senior writer here at Element Three—and if you need a coach for your soccer team, he's got you covered. He's worked as a content strategist as well as a copywriter, so he's always thinking about the why behind every word and every piece of every campaign.
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