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Great client service people are “good in the moment;”

Robert Solomon
Robert SolomonPublished on August 20, 2022

Great client service people are “good in the moment;” what the hell does that mean?

The other day I received a LinkedIn connection request from Theresa Fortune´, who wrote,

“I just watched your interview on the Account Management Skills YouTube channel, and I really appreciated your insights! It was a wonderful conversation that solidified my thoughts on how account management should be handled.”  


listened to the conversation the very thoughtful, astute, and well-prepared Jenny Plant and I had last October, but watched?  I didn’t know you could do this.  Acknowledging it is incredibly awkward, bordering on embarrassing, to subject yourself to this, I quickly got over it and I tuned in to our 60-minute exchange.

The viewing confirmed I am a shameless but unapologetic name dropper; during our discussion, I invoked the legendary David Ogilvy and the almost-as-well-known Martin Puris, along with my ;’]less-well-known friend Kristi Faulkner, not to speak of Andrew Robertson, Shelley Lazarus. Lee Clow, Steve Hayden, Jay Chiat, and, on the client side of things, Steve Jobs, Phil Knight, and Ken Chenault.

We talked at length about the challenges facing Account and client service people, with me at one point noting,

“So much of great client service work gets done in the moment and it almost never gets acknowledged.  There is that point in a client meeting where a really prescient account person – forget rank for a second – has a sense of not just what’s being said, the text of what’s being said, but the sub-text, then has the presence of mind in that moment to craft the perfectly calibrated question which the client may not have even known it needed to ask.”  

That comment led to a story about a former colleague and friend:

“Years ago, when I was at Foote, Cone & Belding, there was a wonderful account person named Jane Gardner, who – we were talking to a precursor to SBC, the old Pacific Bell – in the moment, with the CEO, had the perfectly calibrated observation to counter what that client was saying in the nicest possible way.

“It was a piece of brilliance that was lost, it was immediately perishable, it just disappeared.  It’s like air, and yet it was so stunning to me to watch her actually handle this. That’s one example of dozens of really good people, in the moment, doing the very thing that was needed.  

“Only another account person will recognize it.  There are lots of people in the room, there are some creative people, maybe a Planner, some production folks, media people.  The only person who will acknowledge this little kernel of brilliance is another very self-aware and in-touch account person.

“So much of best tradecraft never gets recognized, because really good account work is invisible.”

Let me fill in a couple of missing pieces to the story.  

My Creative Director Christine Bastoni and I accompanied Jane – she led the Pac Bell account – her second-in-command Liz Levy, and (I think) the agency Chief Strategy Officer Leslie Kessler to the company’s Sam Ramon headquarters (so far from our office we labeled it San Remote) to meet with the CEO Phil Quigley and others to discuss a big brand campaign the agency was recommending.

In the meeting, Quigley questioned the investment, claiming the brand’s prominence and potency, to which Jane responded something like this:

“Phil, your brand is like a faucet; you turn it on, and expect water to flow, without giving it a second thought.  Pac Bell is like that – a commodity that no one thinks about – which is why we absolutely do need to remind customers of who we are, what we do, and why it is important to them.”

The room was deathly silent; no one on Quigley’s team said a word.  Who has the audacity to tell the company CEO his brand is a commodity, as common as water pressure?  Quigley’s team didn’t.  Jane did.

Quigley sat for a moment, as if measuring the import of Jane’s point.  When he spoke, it was to greenlight the advertising.  

Okay, you had to be there to fully appreciate the full weight of the moment – I can (mostly) replicate Jane‘s words, not her delivery – but when I say, “good in the moment,” this is what I mean.

I recall returning by car with Jane and Liz to our Levi Plaza office – Christine and I were there primarily to represent the agency’s direct marketing group, a perfect vantage point to serve as witness – marveling at Jane’s completely unscripted, singular act of brilliance.  Years have passed; I might not have every last detail right, but still recall Jane’s stunning performance – I choose this word pointedly, because that’s exactly what it was, a performance – to this day.

It was a happy moment.

But what is more than a little sad is I likely am the only person who does remember it.  And this, right there, is one of the reasons why Account Management and client service remains the least understood skill in advertising and marketing.  

Unrecognized, under-appreciated, and under-valued, yet utterly essential to what makes great client service indispensable – another word I choose pointedly – to advertising agencies and their clients.

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