Client management lessons I learned from Living on a Prayer by Bon Jovi

This article was first published in Beloved by Clients, and you can read it here.

All these years later, Tommy is still working on the docks. Although today, Tommy probably isn’t a longshoreman working on the “Docks” loading ships, but probably working on Google “Docs.”

If you don’t know who Tommy is, that just means you’re at least 10 years older or at least 10 years younger than me, because the opening lines–and probably all lyrics–to Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer are probably melded into the minds of everyone born roughly around my age. (I’m purposefully not putting in that year in my own attempt to limit my own dealing with the fatal disease called “aging.”)

The next lines are equally as melded into our minds: “Gina works the diner all day.” And, of course, today Gina probably works in the diner–but in their office upstairs, managing their social media.

While superficially about a working class couple in, presumably, “Jersey,” the song contains some subtle wisdom about how to work with clients, not to mention some marketing advice, most notably in the oft-repeated pre-chorus, leading up to the famous chorus:

She says, “We’ve gotta hold on to what we’ve got

It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not

We’ve got each other and that’s a lot

For love we’ll give it a shot!”

Okay, almost every word there has implications in managing clients and marketing that’s interesting and powerful, so let’s dive in:

First, the pre-chorus opens with “She says.” Remember the old joke: “Rules of the house: 1.) My wife is always right. 2.) See rule #1.” Perhaps the wisest advice of all is to listen to women? (No, I’m not being paid to say that.) We know the diversity arguments, so I’m not going to dive into them here.

Second, it continues, “we’ve gotta hold on to what we got.” That is effectively an argument in favor of resource preservation. First rule drilled into doctor’s heads since ancient times: primum non nocere, which my text editor just auto-corrected to “premium no nowhere,” which I think is funny. First, do no harm.

The argument in favor of first do no harm does get complex because it goes directly against another classic (albeit very American) saying: in order to make an omelet, you need to break some eggs. But debating that angle is a question for another day.

But the core truth holds: in managing any client, it’s important that they always know–and thus you always need to remind them of it–that even before helping them grow, your first priority is to make sure they don’t lose anything.

In marketing, this is doubly a powerful issue. Clients are often scared that a risky (or risqué!) campaign will result in a backlash or them losing clients. And your challenge is to get the upside without risking the downside.

Jon Bon Jovi continues, “It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not.” Here he is arguing in favor of outcome independence. In fact, it’s hard for me to come up with a better definition of outcome independence than this exact phrase: it just doesn’t make any difference at all if we make it, or not.

You would think–don’t you need to be deeply tied into the outcome? You need to hit the goal, to get the gold? Shouldn’t you be obsessed with the outcome?

I’d suggest that, in managing clients, it makes much more sense to focus on process, not outcome. You can’t have both, they’re totally opposite focuses: either your mind is about “reaching the goal” and then you do what it takes around that (process or not; healthy process or not; good process or not; side effects be damned; consequences be damned; ethics be…). Or you build processes and follow them to the letter. I’m firmly in the process camp: processes can be scaled and replicated, and make things efficient and clear and understandable, but they have a downside: if not contained and constrained, and if the human element isn’t kept with them at all points, then process-fever turns into bureaucracy which turns into mind-numbingness.

In other words, it often makes sense to put process behind the goal, so it may not make a difference if you make it or not. Or at least a secondary difference. It’s better to do it right, than not–even if the “not” might increase your chances of getting the gold. So don’t dope-up, Oh Aspiring Olympians, before competing in the Olympics.

Bon Jovi continues, “We’ve got each other and that’s a lot for love.” This gets right to the heart of any client relationship: you have each other–and that’s a lot.

To build a healthy working relationship, ultimately both client and vendor need to have a long-term orientation. Having that or not is the difference between a one-night stand and marriage. But ultimately it’s a requirement for anything complex: if you’re doing anything, and people with non-trivial roles keep on coming in and out in an open door, and you spend all your time and energy training people and looking for people to hire–you can’t build anything complex. People, not documents, are the institutional memory; so for the institution to exist, people need to be around, and stay around.

So you have each other, but it’s not just that: “and that’s a lot.” Working with people is hard work. Managing people is hard work. Even just the two of you–that’s a lot. Now imagine how many other people your client needs to deal with! Focus, focus, focus wins the day, and since just the two of you are a lot–stay focused before growing.

The pre-chorus concludes, “We’ll give it a shot!” And that builds perfectly on the previous points: yes, it’s about the process not the conclusion, and yes, you may not succeed, in fact you’re likely to fail. But, nonetheless: you give it your best, your all, all your heart. You truly have to give it a shot.

Fundamentally, this is another core ingredient of a healthy, long-term client relationship: even knowing all the qualifications, that you’re focusing on the process, you really are all-in and doing what you can to help your team achieve its objectives.

This last one isn’t a “requirement” so much as, to use the word from the last paragraph, an “ingredient.” If you’re professional enough and awesome enough, that can compensate for not having your heart in. You’ll work hard, you’ll do the job, you’ll do what needs to be done–who cares if your heart isn’t in. But few, very, very few of us, ever reach that level of awesomeness. If you invite Jon Bon Jovi to sing at your sweet 16 party, Jon Bon Jovi’s heart most likely isn’t with you at that very moment. But he is just that awesome, that you’re willing to pay top-dollar to have him there. Although these days, long past his prime, he’d probably be there for a steeply discounted rate.

The chorus then builds up to the famous chorus whose lyrics aren’t particularly relevant to anything other than a fun concert–lots of “whoa, whoa, whoa”-s–but there is one key line that does magnify the point, the opening line of the chorus and the first line after the pre-chorus, thus perfectly building on the previous sentence and previous points: “whoa, we’re half-way there.”

Putting aside the various possible interpretations of the word “whoa,” this is a useful reminder, “we’re half-way there.” In almost all journeys in work, you’re almost always in the middle of the journey, in the belly of the beast. Stories start in a glittering moment, and end in another moment. (Except for the worst stories, in which the end painfully drags on for years.) But in-between those opening and closing moments, you have the core of the story.

But clients? They always–always–want fast results. Who doesn’t. I’m paying you money from my own pocket, so I’m losing cash every day you’re working. Of course I want to see results tomorrow. So it’s essential to remind them: you’re only half-way there. And it’s a very long half to go.

But you don’t only need to remind your clients of that: you need to remind yourself, as well. It’s a journey and a struggle just as much for you as it is for them. It’s dark when you’re inside the belly of the beast. Everyone wants the quick win, the cool fun thing that you’ll get insta-happiness from. But the path in client work, just like the path in life, can be long and dark, which is why you need to keep reminding yourself, as you look back on what you’ve already accomplished and look forward to what you will accomplish one day: we’re half-way there.

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