Photo credit: armchairadvice.co.uk
By Marcy Walsh (@marcywalsh, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Forgive me for going “Erin Brockovich” on you, but I do believe that our jobs as communications professionals are very personal. We sell intellectual capital. We sell influence. We sell ideas and the road map for our clients to build relationships with customers. And while nothing raises my ire more than hearing that someone chose our profession because they “are good with people” or they “like people,” I do believe that the grey matter to our success is in our ability to build client relationships that result in respect, trust, loyalty … and yes more business.
Let me state clearly that I know our business is about reaching goals and getting results for our clients through smart strategy, counsel and execution. That being said, how often have you and your agency lost a client in spite of what you thought was great work and great results? How often have you heard a client say, “It isn’t about your agency, it’s just that our budget was cut” or “I really liked working with you guys but the senior team felt it was important to issue a Request for Proposal to make sure we were getting the best”? Before your client relationship gets to this point, let’s look at how this might happen from both positions ala “Can This Client Relationship Be Saved”:
Client’s Turn: “I think the Agency does a good job, but I only hear from them when they want more money, and I only see them in person when I request that they present ideas. I don’t know what they are doing for the fee most of the time. When I ask for a quick turnaround on deliverables, they say they have other client priorities and ask for more time. The Agency has gotten some outstanding results; however, they only provide ideas when I ask for them. Recently a major blog wrote about a game-changer for our industry, but the Agency hadn’t read it before I asked them to give input on how we might respond. I feel like they don’t really understand my business or the stresses on me to show their value. My boss came to me to ask where we could cut costs, and we decided not to renew the contract with our Agency. When we have PR needs, we’ll hire freelancers to support us.”
Agency’s Turn: “Wow. We are surprised that our Client isn’t renewing our contract. We won a Silver Anvil for them last year, and we generated significant results with the media this year. The Client was constantly expecting us to work under extreme deadlines and for an unreasonable budget. We have other clients too, and they never understood why we couldn’t jump when they called. And we don’t work for free. We missed one deadline and sent an email or two with some typos, but they were minor incidences in the scheme of things and the success of our efforts. The Client said we had communication gaps, but we made a point of emailing her at least once a day and providing her with detailed 10-page monthly reports. I don’t understand what happened.”
Counselor’s Turn: In this case, the Client’s perception is what matters, and service gaps throughout the relationship created the perception. From the start, we need to understand the Client’s expectations, personal communications style and role within the organization.
I had the pleasure of attending a presentation on world-class client service by Ken Jacobs, principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting. What I learned is that caring is currency. In his article on better client relationships, he says it pays to:
- Listen: Resist the urge to counsel without careful consideration of what your Client has to say. Be prepared so you can ask the right questions. And then listen very carefully so you can absorb everything that will help you to make thoughtful and smart recommendations.
- Understand: Understand their fears and their world. Know how their business is doing. Understand their business objectives, challenges and competitive landscape. Consume the traditional and social media they consume. Attend the events that are important to them.
- Care: You should care as much about their business success as they care about it. If they are struggling with revenue growth, you should get in the bunker with them and be driven to help them drive more revenue. Let them know you care. Send them blog links, trend reports and interesting articles that are relevant to their business.
- Set client service standards and stick to them:
- Always make deadlines. This doesn’t mean jumping every time a client calls, but it does mean creating win-win situations. Maybe the client only needs an outline by the stated deadline rather than the entire white paper. By understanding what the client needs and why, you can avoid unnecessary quick deadlines and deliver world-class service.
- Always deliver a superior product. Little typos in emails do matter!
- Don’t rely on email for communication. Pick up the phone. Schedule face-to-face meetings as often as is possible and is useful to your client (never less than once a quarter!).
According to Jacobs, if you do the above, then you are in a position to speak to clients in their language, be proactive with counsel, and develop strategic solutions to their problems. You will be in a position to understand what tools will help them to communicate internally (Is an executive summary better than a long report? Is a monthly budget recap important? ).
And finally, be genuine and get personal. Yes. At work. With clients. We spend so much time at work that enjoying the people we work with on a personal level makes work more joyful and fulfilling. I ask my clients about their lives because I really care to know them as people. If they aren’t comfortable going there – I don’t push it.
Ultimately, building better client relationships results in trust and loyalty. Frederick Reichheld , author of Loyalty Rules!, says that loyalty not only drives profits when it is valued and measured, but it can also act as a central indicator of a company’s success. At the end of the day, we want our clients to fight for us to remain at the table – even in times of budget cuts. We want our clients to think of us when opportunities for partnerships come up, which ultimately helps to grow the business.
If you’ve ever been on the other end of the phone or across the table from a client letting your agency go, you know exactly how personal that feels. Nurturing your relationships with clients from the beginning will help you to avoid ever getting that phone call.