I listened to this interview with retiring US Representative Rush Holt and it struck me how well his viewpoint could be applied to client services.


Holt makes the case that his time in Congress was one where he would apply his ethics publicly (and he admits that he came up short from time to time). Similarly, client services is also an arena where you apply your ethics. Ethics can, of course, encompass how you treat people, your business practices, etc. but they should also encompass your principles and convictions. The process you use, your client interactions and your company’s culture reflect what you stand for while they guide teams and set expectations for your clients.

Ethics tend to be black and white issues, but applying them is often not. Knowing whether you’re willing to adapt your principles and convictions (and to what extent) is a key internal discussion. This isn’t easy work. Are you willing to lose a client in support of your ideals, are you willing to bend your ideals, or are your ideals in need of an overhaul? It’s one thing to say you work under an agile methodology, for example, but how strictly? In the land of UX, customer feedback is key, but if the client hesitates or declines, do you take on the assignment in hopes of convincing them of its value over time or do you simply say no, we don’t work like that and decline the big paycheck?

Do you know your organization’s non-negotiables? Who has authority to manage difficult situations and negotiate trade-offs? Is it an empowered person or a result of a process? What implications does it have on timelines, budget, morale, etc.? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but knowing your boundaries sets expectations for all involved and formalizes when and how to deviate from the norm.

“…a more perfect union…”

Holt talks about how the founding fathers aspired to a more perfect union — i.e. they knew they didn’t have all the answers and therefore created a system that could evolve to meet the needs of a dynamic country. Because of this inate ability to change, he rejects the idea that government is incapable of progress, of making things better for its citizens.

Most agencies would agree with those sentiments. After all, progress defines client services, right? Why are agencies hired if not to make improvements? As an agency person, I often see organizations hire outside teams even though they already have internal resources capable of accomplishing the work. What the agency has that internal teams don’t is often a “fresh perspective” or an “objective viewpoint.” That can be taken as code that internal teams are not capable of progress on their own. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t think so. Instead, I believe organizations sometimes need an outside force to create the momentum for a more perfect union that can then be sustained internally. The hard work is in getting off the ground, simply getting something, anything, accomplished. It may not be the right thing or the best thing, but it’s what’s needed to get on the path to greatness.

“…ideology has trumped evidence.”

Holt, who was a physicist before New Jersey’s Congressman, lays out two important scientific principles:

  • Evidence- Every position or answer posed should be substantiated with facts.
  • Verification- Ideas need to be open to scrutiny in order to know whether it’s correct or not.

“Scientists want the evidence first and consensus later. Politicians tend to look for consensus first, and look for the evidence to match. That has set up a bad precedent in the current Congress,” Holt says.

In client services, as in politics, ideology thwarts data driven decisions. Opinions and anecdotal evidence can turn out to be true, no doubt. But to rely on them as a consistent source for good decisions is risky at best. Holt uses the example of cigarette smoking to make this point: you can find an old person who smoked their whole life and conclude that smoking doesn’t kill. But that’s one person. Statistically, there’s no doubt that smoking shortens lives. Single points of data do not give you a full picture.

Our agency takes a hypothesis driven approach. We take the initial thoughts and discussions that take place early in a project as a starting point — something to work from. We then conduct research in order to support or deny those hypotheses. We may also just as easily find that parts of the hypotheses are correct, but other parts are not. Whatever the case, though, we’re able to define problems, see opportunities and begin to piece together a strategy that allows us to progressively move forward on solid ground. Additionally, once a solution is envisioned, we can test it too. Does it actually solve the problems at hand? Are the opportunities we discovered real? Is the strategy well formed? All these questions can be tested and improved upon with further thought and research.

One myth about science, which Holt addresses, is that science is not “cut and dried and definite.” The idea is not to throw your hands up and pronounce that research may be flawed therefore we shouldn’t take it into consideration. Rather, the research at hand should be acted upon because it’s the best information available at the time. As new research or better theories about what the research means comes to light, then you can change course appropriately. But to not act at all is a recipe for poor performance or, worse, outright failure.

“…people are not allowed to change their mind.”

An interesting topic during the interview, and the last one I’ll comment on, is the discussion of how politicians are almost to the point of being unable to change their minds for fear of being labeled flip floppers, weak leaders, or worse. Holt is convinced that being open to change as new information is gained is the hallmark of good governance. As previously brought up, the lack of 100% certitude that comes with a scientific approach should not be grounds for falling back on ideology. Some things simply have more evidence in support of them than other things.

Client services is predicated on finding common ground betweeen the client and agency in this regard. If either side sticks to ideology when research can be put to bear, the project is placed at risk, especially if a data driven methodology is among your core principles (i.e. part of your ethics). Agreement on how decisions will be made (and on what grounds) is central to getting things done. It not only will remove one point of frustration, but will also set the client up for success as the agency inevitably ends their engagement and the client must take stewardship of the project on their own.

In summary

  • Your company’s cultural ethics — both official and unofficial — affects your client relationships. Be intentional in what they are and how they’re applied.
  • Stalled projects need a jumpstart even if the catalyst isn’t perfect. Simply moving forward allows the team to become ever more perfect through iteration.
  • Research can combat the downsides of ideological intraction. Confidence in research, the process of acquiring it and how it’s used is paramount.
  • A willingness to be wrong or to make mistakes is not a character flaw if it’s used to learn and grow. You must start somewhere or else you won’t start at all.

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