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Communication in business: What is it and how can you improve yours?

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When it comes to client-agency relationships, it’s generally the clients who hold the cards. After all, they’re the ones with the financial power.

In our experience of nearly 25,000 client-agency evaluations over the last 20 years, agencies tend to score their clients higher than clients score their agencies in most areas. But there is one notable exception: communication.

Perhaps this is unsurprising, as agencies are heavily reliant on communication from their clients and lack of clarity and understanding does tend to reflect more poorly on the agency’s work than the client’s briefings.

Our latest data delving into this topic shows that the poorest-scoring marketers have the opportunity to improve their communication by 34 points. This is the largest gap for clients in any of the seven behaviors we measure – the other six being accountability, challenge, functional (ability to do the job), goals, trust and resilience.

And perhaps even more unsurprisingly, agencies rate communication as the most important influence on overall relationship scores out of all seven behaviors. Even among the top 10%, communication remains a critical driver, second only to functional behaviors.

As agencies themselves are in the business of communication, however, it’s reasonable to expect this skill to be inherent within agency teams. This probably explains why communication falls behind other behaviors, last and second-last respectively in terms of priority for improvement, when clients evaluate their agencies.

What do we mean by communication?

What distinguishes communication in business relationships is the involvement of multiple stakeholders and increasingly, a reliance on written communication. For communication to be effective, the receiver must be of a similar mindset to the communicator.

When we think about communication in the context of client-agency relationships, we can identify four basic stages:

1. Encoding – the formulation of the message, or what we say and how we say it.

2. Channel – how the message is communicated, such as by email, or verbally face-to-face.

3. Decoding – how the receiver interprets the message.

4. Feedback – the acknowledgement or response of the receiver, which requires active listening.

Interestingly, one of our recent studies has shown that the frequency of communication isn’t always as important as the quality of communication. During Covid, communication frequency between clients and agencies spiked, but this was not accompanied by a corresponding increase in satisfaction scores. In fact some reported that the increased communication demand was detrimental to their mental health, leading to an ‘always-on’ culture.

Post-Covid, we can see from our data that communication frequency is returning to pre-Covid levels suggesting that increased contact frequency was driven by uncertainty and adapting to new ways of working at high speed.

How to improve communication

There are clear opportunities for both clients and agencies to improve their communication. Our data suggests the following areas of focus.

For agencies:

1. Remain open to client comments and the views of other agencies working with the brand.

2. Provide thorough, timely, polite and accurate responses to client requests.

3. Keep the client team informed of any relevant communication coming from the global agency lead or client team that the client may be unaware of.

4. Promote positive information flow and knowledge-sharing across the combined agency teams.

5. Present clear, comprehensive recommendations and defend them rationally.

For marketers:

1. Provide written briefs that are clear, focused and inspiring and clearly articulate business and communication objectives.

2. Give clear, consistent and constructive feedback on agency proposals, including any reasons for rejecting their recommendations.

3. Ensure all internal decision-makers are fully informed and aware of the timing and finality of decisions about the agency’s proposals.

4. Encourage open communication among all agency partners involved in the brand, including sharing regular and timely information about business performance.

5. Be a focused, punctual and attentive listener and stay open-minded to the agency’s point of view.

Given that all of us are in the business of communication, we should be experts. Our data shows how critically important communication is to business relationships – as important as in individual relationships.



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