On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly chats with Jodi Katz of Base Beauty Creative Agency about righting a pivotal client relationship and how that changed her view on everything. They dive into mutual accountability, being open to feedback, and being empathetic to one’s underlying needs.
EP 29:Righting Client Relationships, with Jodi Katz
Kelly: So welcome to another episode of THRIVE. Now we've all had these client relationships that have kind of taken a turn for the worse and that happens for lots of different reasons, right? So today, we're talking about how to get those challenging client relationships back on track and how that can kind of lead to a little bit of a real awakening in an agency. So my guest today is founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency, Jodi Katz. Jodi, thank you so much for joining me today.
Jodi: Well, thank you for having me and for being open to hearing the story of what kind of stinks about our business.
Kelly: We don't have enough time for those stories but yes we’ll pinpoint this one particular one today and this story that you've told me about, it really is one that I think needs to be told. And so, if you want to kind of just give us a little bit of a foundation as to what happened with this packaging design project and we’ll kind of launch into it from there.
Jodi: All right. So it started like the dream situation. I've been working on my networking and met someone who's a really phenomenal woman and she's up on the board of this one particular beauty brand and she made the connection for me with the founder so we start working on a project. This is like an ideal situation right like this is a dream come true.
Jodi: I meet people. I connect with them. They like me. I like them and they connect me with others. So it started off great, and I was thrilled. And the project was awesome in one respect but completely not ideal than others. It is awesome because it's a high profile brand. They needed a total rebuild on their packaging and they sell in all those kind of beauty specialty places we want to be in. So that was really exciting. The downside was they have literally six working days to do a total reboot of their packaging before they present it to a major retailer.
That's not good in so many ways. But I wasn't seeing the not good part in that moment. I was like oh, I got connected, I want to do a great job. This is the work that we’re meant to be doing. And really, just put an eye on getting the business and not an eye on, well, is this even reasonable, are we going to be setting ourselves or our client for failure because of this ridiculous timeline. So it's like that perfect storm where like there’s all these good stuff or good air, and then there's all this bad stuff, bad air and they clash and they create thunder clouds.
Kelly: So you basically put a ton of pressure on your team by doing that and what you did in that moment like what every agency owner does who really focuses on business development, they get this like dream project and then you’re just like, "We'll figure it out," and even though you know there are red flags you just push them away and ultimately I'm assuming that the project didn't go so well.
Jodi: No like how do you work with a very limited timeline and have to sort of reinvent everything that the brand's only known, like they’ve only known let’s say blue, and we’re in a position where we might be saying we're throwing away the blue and how do you do that to a founder, a leadership team in such a short amount of time. It's really asking too much of like any human to part with something they'd known for so long, even though they know they need to make a change. 6 days is not enough. So yeah I think I was like, okay we'll just like slide through it and make it happen, and it didn't happen. It was a mess.
Kelly: Okay. And so, can you talk a little bit about how the client sort of reacted and what your perception of that reaction was and just a little bit more about how the emotions kind of bubbled up in the situation.
Jodi: Yeah, it became what you'd expect which is like the us versus them which I think is a very agency thing to happen right there is my team being like, "Well, we're presenting forty thousand options at this point and you're not making a decision." And then the client team just seemed like they were always on top. From our point of view, they seemed completely unhappy and it seemed like they weren’t able to make a decision. So that was from our perspective.
So it was like really messy and I wouldn't say it was ugly or anything. Just messy like why can't we just find the new blue, like why should this be so hard, everybody knows we're not like building mechanicals. This is just for a presentation and albeit, it’s an important presentation but we can always make changes later. So the agency side, my team’s side, they're just super frustrated that they didn’t know how to read the client, they did not know how to anticipate, which I think is our job very often, like think about what the client's going to say before they say and then plan for it. We weren’t able to do that. It was like there's like a screen between us.
Kelly: Right but on the flip side, it also sounds like the client was probably not very good at communicating what their likes and dislikes and what their preferences were or what specifically about what you're presenting wasn't working for them, so that's difficult also. I think that's a huge common problem with agencies.
Jodi: Yeah, like I don't think anyone really knows what they want until they see it, and they see what they don't want. It's such a process for everybody to get to what they want, and I think the work actually in retrospect a lot of it was really great, and we go back to it now looking at it and like pulling from it. So I think it was less about the work. It was more of the emotional pressure that you have to make a decision about something so important to the business.
I think that's like can almost freeze somebody, like affect their ability to even think straight. So I think that would be more overwhelming than the work. We tried every version imaginable, and not that my team-- maybe they weren’t like the most kind and sweet on the phone going to these calls towards the end because they were super frustrated by it. I don't think it was about the work. I think is about the timeline and the pressure that the timeline created.
Kelly: Right. So fast forward a little bit and talk a little bit about the conversation that the client had with you, because that, I think, is the most important part of this discussion. I mean we've all done exactly what you just described but I think the big difference and the reason why this story needs to be told is that there is such a turning point, and I'll kind of let you talk a little bit about that.
Jodi: Right. So basically, like the project happened and ended in six days. The client went off to their meeting presented whatever they presented of,picked little screen captures of whatever elements they like that we created along the way, and they had their meeting, and everything was fine. Fast forward may a week or two later and my client gave me what I would call like the best-worst phone call I can ever have. So it's like the best version of like how horrible a phone call could ever be. I say that because she was telling us how she was feeling about the process of working with us in a way that was so kind, even though like it wasn't a good experience for her.
So she was really straight up about like, she didn’t like working with my teams, she didn’t think they were collaborative, she thought that they were like dismissive of her requests and her thoughts and ideas. Not cooperative I’d say. And that stinks to hear, and she was right, because there was that like whole like us them thing happened, and it happened quickly, and it really put the project on a sour note, it was like layered on a bunch of like difficulty on top of an already difficult project that we weren't really collaborative, that it became a us/them, and that’s on us.
But the way that my client spoke about it, she was so kind. And this time she was like, "Jodi, I want your business to grow. Jodi I want you to have success. I wanna have success with you and this is what's getting in the way." And she said it to me in a kind way. She didn’t curse at me, she didn’t call me names. She didn't like tear down our work and she said she didn't like working in my team and she didn’t like working specifically with one person but she wasn't like nasty about that person. She's just like, "I don’t like her, we're not meant for each other," which was so generous and kind in telling me with what it was really like on her side of the phone or her side of the screen share to work with my team and that she wants better for me. She wants better for me so I can grow my business, and it was a really difficult thing to hear.
But it was so filled with kindness and generosity in the sense that she wasn't cursing me out and she wasn't like to say I never want to talk to you again, which is certainly happens, like I've had clients telling us, okay we’re never going to work with you again and I’ve had clients that just goes off. I would rather have somebody talk to me about something that is hard to hear so that I can decide for myself. Is this the type of collaborator we want to have in a client or is this something that we're just going to end now and say goodbye.
Kelly: Right. And I think that's where it really where that gift is because it's such a rarity that a client would take the time to say, "I understand that you're kind of heads down, you're doing this work, but here's the perception," or, "here's the experience from the other side, and I think this could help us together." It's not just helping you, she was saying like, "I really want you to grow and I want to maintain our relationship as a client. I do think your work is good. Here's how we can improve together."
And you're right, it is the most rare thing in the world, which is why I think there's got to be sort of one of those little things in the beginning of a project or the beginning of any kind of client relationship, where you really put that stake in the ground to say, "This is two parties working toward a shared vision, and there has to be mutual respect, and there has to be great communication." And that's where we're ultimately going to get to a place where something like you're describing.
Jodi: Right. But this particular client of mine, she’s a very emotionally mature person.
Kelly: Which most people are not.
Jodi: Right. She can do this. She feels comfortable pouring her heart out and speaking from real authenticity not like I'm going to play games. She was speaking out authentically from like her soul. She was speaking with kindness, and she was making herself crystal clear. That is very unusual and very hard for people to do, but that is the type of client that I want to attract. I want to be able to have a hard conversation with somebody and not fear that they're going to be cursing at me or throwing things at me right, which we've all been through. Well no one's thrown something at me, but maybe they've thrown something at the phone. So I want more people like her as a client. This is where our future growth is.
Kelly: So how did that whole situation and that conversation and how you digest it afterwards, how did that change your own perspective about your agency?
Jodi: Well, it helped me so much like it made me to just stop, like it helped me take a pause as opposed to just like rushing into the next thing. I think it actually like turn my mindset into I need to write down what our relationship needs to be with future clients and that's what I did. I worked with my finance director, and it wasn't just money stuff. It was about like protocol, and timely responsiveness, and mutual respect. I wrote down like a whole laundry list. At first, I wrote it in kind of like I am mad, angry and frustrated. But it wasn’t just about this situation. It was sort of there were a lot of walls caving in, kind of at the same time, like there as a lot of opportunities that the universe is presenting to me to learn from all at the same time.
Kelly: Thank you for rephrasing that.
Jodi: I wrote them all down like I did see whatever moment, whatever I was holding and then I rewrote them in a softer way, that I kind of really want to be in the world. And I said this is the intention like these are the types of people that I want to attract, this is the protocol for working with us. I wrote it down and I shared it with my team. And I think that that shift of mindset really helped me. Also because of this client's conversation with me, I really wanted to do better for them. I think that that was like so amazing to any clients who’s listening to this.
Like this client speaking to me plainly and honestly from her heart made me want to do better for her and I actually ended up investing gratis a lot of time with her seem like to really groom them into, making sure that they can trust us like giving them the sense that we are on their team, because we are. And I want them to succeed. And I told the client team like listen I'm doing all this and not billing you for it, but I just want to see this through and this is many months later now, we're working on bigger projects with much better timelines and much stronger budget so that we can really do the work the right way. And I'm proud of that. But that came from a conversation with my client. It wasn't gonna happen with myself doing it alone.
Kelly: But it was reciprocal, because she gave you this gift of all this information and this knowledge and this experience, and then, reciprocally, you gave her your time investment which ultimately led to a much larger or multiple larger engagements with the same client, so it's just really interesting how a lot of people would say, "Well don't do work for free and don't let clients kind of just beat you up about different things," but there's nuance to all of this.
Jodi: Well, I think in that moment, I needed to prove it to myself like I think in my work I'm looking for clients that I can build a relationship with, and I know that seems like a little like soft or something, but like I really wanted to feel connected with my work and I want to feel connected to the idea of growing brands I believe in. So I'm looking for this sense of connection and I know that I can't find it with everybody. And we have clients who are just like, do this work, do this work.
Kelly: Work production.
Jodi: Yeah, which is fine, but in my heart, the reason I started this business is to feel this connection, to feel like I am part of a company that we're working with. And, I think this is just one of those moments where like I needed my heart to be filled with more than just production. I needed to be feeling like I'm part of a team, because it's very isolating to me in the agency, like a lot of clients really don't give us a seat in the table, even though we're asking for it, "We're saving your money, every dollar you spend with us will go further if you really talk to us let us and let us in."
A lot of cultures don't allow it. So when I do see an opportunity to have a seat at a table and really share expertise, and be a part of that process, I really want to dive right in and that's what I had in front of me at the right time I had this client team who is so fine with me, and then you have this open door basically to a team who really was thirsty for our expertise and advice. So I went for it and I told them we’re going for it, and I'm not charging them for it, and I want to see it through, and then when the next project came up, I said, "Okay so now I'm gonna have to charge for it." But I have gotten to a place where their thinking is more sophisticated, and the projects are going better, and I think it's a win for everybody.
Kelly: Yeah, that's great. So as we’re kind of wrapping up here, the last time we spoke, we talked about the larger issue here. Like this is a very small anecdote, but the larger issue here is that a lot of times as agency leaders, we sort of take our clients, and we bucket them, and we say, "These are the ideal clients, and these are the challenging ones." And we almost like throw the baby out with the bath water a little bit. And so your story for me, what it did was it made me realize that we kind of have to rethink that a little bit, because there's so much opportunity in dealing with more challenging clients. And the opportunity could even just the sort of self-growth or a new level for the agency. So I just want to wrap up and talk a little bit about that stopping bucketing these clients into these like two extremes.
Jodi: Right, well I mean when I do that, and I do it plenty, it's me assuming a person is not a human right? But that's just wrong, they're not robots right. They're not marketing robots or CEO robots. They’re human beings. And we all have flaws, there is no perfection in the world right? So if I'm bucketing people into these categories, I am taking the humanity out of it, which is like the opposite of what I want to be doing, but I'm longing for the humanity. That's why I'm here.
It's really like, it defeats the purpose of running my business to do that, and I think it's just an easy habit where we bucket everything. Easy job, hard job, profitable job, non-profitable job, sexy job, not sexy job. But I really want to start seeing people in a more human way, which is what I was able to do when the tide turned on this project which is like you like these are people who are thirsty and hungry for our advice and expertise, so I want to give it to them, and no I'm not gonna get paid at this moment for it, but I need to see this through.
So yeah, I mean, I think that I would like to look at people like human beings and not like pieces of meat. I think that is maybe a little easier said than done, but over time I start to think these people are human beings like me, who have other stuff going on their lives. And, because they're not answering the question the way I want them to, or they are not being crystal clear enough, it has nothing to do with me. They’re human. And I think that will help. It'll help everything just be smoother, and easier, and more fun.
Kelly: Right. And some actionable things for that are kind of like just realizing maybe again it's just that pause or that little reflection of things are not black and white. Like you don't know what someone else is going through. So if you have a client that's just a little bit off or just not communicating the way that you would like them to, maybe it's just pausing for a second and realizing that they may be going through something else in their lives. And how could you actually rephrase the questions that you're asking, or like how could you take a little bit more of a holistic approach to be sensitive to things that that they may be going through. And I know that sounds, as agency owners, why do we have to do all this? But the reality is if you want to get to a place where these relationships are really meaningful, and it's not just more money in the bank, that's kind of what you have to do, right?
Jodi: Yeah, I agree completely. I want this to be fun. I wanted to feel fulfilling. If I wanted like to be a bazillionaire, I wouldn't be doing this, like I would gone into something else. I'm not doing this for the money, I don't know where the money is yet. I'm doing it because I’m good at it and I do believe, ultimately, I have unlimited earning potential, and I just need to ride this wave until I see it.
Kelly: Right. Well Jodi, thank you so much. It’s been a great conversation. I really appreciate you sharing your stories today.
Jodi: Thank you for giving me a voice in this really kind of shitty situation.