Back in the sixties I worked for the federal government. I was in the Army. Bad timing. Things got sporty back then, given the time and the place. I recall one day seeing a large artillery piece belonging to the storied 82nd Airborne. Someone had painted on the barrel with big white letters: Get Ugly Early. I always took it as a statement about showing up with a plan and ready to go to work.

If you’ve been working in agency account service for the last five years or so, you can skip this post—you would have it figured out by now. But if you are fairly new to the craft, this might be helpful.

In the day-to-day servicing of clients and accounts, the number of mistakes you can trip over can seem endless. You can prepare yourself by reading books by the big guys, working Saturday mornings, showing up early, staying late, and dressing well. Enough experience will eventually demonstrate how a lot of crises can be averted. Basically most of the fire drills can be stepped over by getting ugly early.

Getting ugly early means manage expectations—seriously manage. In those initial meetings and communications the tendency is to want to leave everybody with an elevated comfort level. You’ve pulled in a client’s interest by suggesting low cost estimates and short production schedules. You may have said that the mailer…the TV spot…the brochure…or the booth isn’t due for a week and that shouldn’t be a problem and it shouldn’t cost much. Train wreck waiting to happen.

Then you get into it: The creative brief you wrote, or should have written, wasn’t really clear on the schedule and scope of the project. You may have actually said ASAP, which is never a good time reference. When the creative takes thirty hours instead of the promised twenty, when the production studio provided only rough estimates on cost and time, that’s when the effluent can hit the fan. Now it’s going to get awkward. Even if everything works out some how, your client is left with an uncomfortable feeling and a lack of confidence in the agency’s ability to deliver.

Getting ugly early is painful. But getting face-to-face confirmation on production schedules and not setting the due date for the ad the day it’s due to the publication, is the discipline required to avoid a crisis. Build in some quiet slack. The creatives may hate you, but they’ll get over it. Clients won’t.

It’s often the responsibility of the creative department to arrange for purchase orders for outside work. Confirm the POs were completed. Creatives can get annoyed from what they will feel is micro management, but nothing generates stomach acid like a distant unknown invoice that comes in and lands after the project is closed and billed. It’s like a two-by-four in the face…it hurts. Robert Solomon wrote in Art of Client Service, “Assume nothing, confirm everything.” Great advice from a guy that knows how to keep clients happy.

Client-generated changes eat time and money. Don’t be overly generous about giving up either without getting client approval for more time and money. You might not make new friends, but you will lose fewer clients.

Get in the habit, actually make it a practice, of writing comprehensive conference reports. Document anything that mentions money, schedules, quantities, size and expectations. And if you don’t know the difference between writing conference reports and just taking meeting notes, read Solomon’s whole book.

And then there’s invoicing. Invoicing can be its own whole category of over-flowing sewage. But there’s another aspect of invoicing that can leave a mark. Think of an invoice as a resume. How it’s handled and how it’s received will communicate a lot about the account manager and the agency.   An invoice comes up from accounting for the account manager’s review before forwarding to the client. The account manager goes over it and realizes he or she possibly didn’t watch time and costs as closely as would have been prudent. Shit. One way to temporarily make that uncomfortable feeling go away is to just put the invoice aside for a while. Deal with it tomorrow, next week, or the week after. All of a sudden it’s not just a difficult invoice to explain, it’s gotten old…and starting to smell up the office. Clients hate invoices that don’t come in on a timely basis. A bad number compounded by a really late arrival. Never wait to give clients bad news.

The key to handling an account is to not set up loose expectations. Manage, and if necessary, over manage everything. Be brutally honest about what can be accomplished with the time and resources available. Get ugly early!