Matt Panichas, VP, Client Service, Hot Paper Lantern
Psst. Who, me? Yes, I’m talking to you. This disembodied voice – the one rattling around in your brain trying to dispense wisdom. “Don’t write that.” “Don’t say that.” You’re in communications. Shouldn’t you adhere to two of the basic tenets of your discipline – listening and empathy? And, really, the rudimentary principles that guide being a decent human being?
What are we talking about here? Well, I’m glad you asked. Let’s start off with this premise. “Don’t be an a*****e.” A bit crude, yes, but also undeniably true. Allow me to elaborate.
Hot Paper Lantern launched a little less than one year ago. And by all measures, things are going well. The business is growing. Staff is expanding. We’re winning new business. Creativity and passion are flowing. There’s also a lot of change. In our industry; what it means to be an agency in a digitally driven platform economy. Marketing and PR folks, along with so many others, hear about massive disruptive change, fueled by AI, data and machine learning. Yet, at the heart of it all, lies a fundamental truth about agency life and client service that has endured for decades: Emotional intelligence, listening and empathy are what it’s all about.
Agency Life and Client Service – A Day in the Life
The dawn of a new week is upon us. The bitter disappointment of the Game of Thrones series finale still looms large in your mind. The baby was up and down all night. The prospect of NJ Transit delays adds a cherry on top of this turd of a Monday morning. And the wise words of George Costanza echo in your mind – “Today’s the type of day that almost makes you feel good to be alive.” After all, it is 80 degrees outside. I don’t know, George, that sounds a bit too optimistic for me.
OK, I’m prone to hyperbole, but what I’m hoping this does is paint a picture. Everybody is tired. Everybody has deadlines. People may be feeling a bit short-tempered. Is that an excuse to be curt? No, it is not.
Intangibles, such as empathy, emotional intelligence, social connection and listening appear to be self-evident, but prove to be surprisingly elusive, in, ironically, an industry that is built on drawing out emotional and social connections. So, after a decade in the business (and 35 years on good ole planet earth), here are my top tips for established and aspiring client service professionals in the marketing and PR disciplines.
- Ask questions! “Hey, Alex, how was your weekend?” “How’s the family, Joe?” “Have a few too many, Ted?”
Some of the questions may seem unnecessary, maybe even inane, but you know what? It’s nice to have somebody ask you about things outside work. Break down the social barriers. Connect. Put yourself out there. You might be surprised by what you find.
- Be vulnerable. This is not an easy one. But, if you can push yourself, I promise that colleagues, whether on the agency or client side, will be more likely to show a softer side, let their guard down, and demonstrate a little more humanity to which you might not be accustomed. Recently, a colleague penned a candid and honest article about challenges associated with mental illness, the ongoing stigmas of this issue in the workplace and the need for better education and understanding. I was humbled and moved by her story and couldn’t think of a better way of showing vulnerability than by sharing something as challenging as mental illness.
- Listen! If you’re in a meeting, on a client call, or a brainstorm and you have a bunch of things that you want to say, take a deep breath and listen. It could be feedback. It could be an idea you’re not too keen about initially; but give them a chance to be heard. One of the biggest problems I had coming out of graduate school was I thought I knew a hell a lot more than I did. I was proud of my graduate degree and figured I needed to be heard so people could see I can play this game, too. But, let me clue you in on something: experience and maturity always win out. Whatever you think you know, you don’t. Being humble enough to admit that will go a long way.
- Be empathetic. Honestly, this shouldn’t apply only to client service and agency dynamics. This is something you should always strive for in your relationships. It can be anything. Your client’s boss is giving them a hard time about how a media interview went. Your client is stranded in an airport because the flight got cancelled, but she needs to facilitate a call with the CEO, CMO and agency team. She’s stressed and overwhelmed. Even if you don’t have much control over the circumstances, the way you respond could make all the difference. “What can I or my team do to help?” “I know this is tough, but we’re on this.” “Text me, call me, whatever I can do to help you.”
Of course, there are circumstances where you can be as sensitive, empathetic and responsive as possible – and it won’t make a world of difference. Frustrating, yes; however, if you can say that I did everything I could do to make this situation better, then my guess is you’ll feel pretty good about yourself.
And there you have it. It may not be earth-shattering advice or insight. But it has served me well throughout my career and I’ll always come back to this simple, effective, albeit inelegant statement: “Don’t be an a*****e.” Can you imagine how different the world would be with this simple philosophy? Here’s to dreaming…