How to be a Good PR Client

In the client/service business, there’s always a lot of discussion about how the vendor can treat the client well, what constitutes good client service and how to yield valuable results. But it’s also important to think about what it takes to be a good client – like any relationship, it takes two. As the economy picks up and marketing budgets return, PR, marketing and social media agencies are adding to their rosters again – so it’s a good time to take a look at what it means to be a good client, in order to get the most out of your agency investment.

First, it’s important to understand why being a good client matters. Being a good client means you’re taking your investment seriously and that you’ve thought about your ROI. It also means that you understand a PR firm can’t work in a vacuum – you have a responsibility as a client to work with your agency as a partner – to provide resources and information, to participate in the process, to ensure decisions are pushed through in a timely manner, and to give thoughtful and productive feedback.

Make the Right Investments

Too often, companies want to invest as little as possible into PR – and yet have great expectations. They compare themselves to other companies who invest 10x what they do into PR and marketing, and expect the same level of awareness, which is unrealistic. The bottom line is that you get in what you put out – both financially and from a time perspective. PR is not only about good communication and strategy, but it’s about the time available to execute on that strategy. Promoting something in one place or only one time is much less effective than a continual stream of information – and having an agency get information out in a consistent manner means they need the time – and the budget – to do so. Yes, good – even great – things can happen on smaller budgets. Just be sure you aren’t expecting $35,000 results on a $5,000 budget.

Check Your Expectations

This is especially important for companies that want “quick hits” – that is, they expect an agency to quickly place really big feature media hits or social media campaigns that drive action – such as buying a product or downloading an app – and don’t want to “waste time” on trend pieces, market overviews that include competitors, product reviews, social media campaigns or other “less important” outlets like blogs. They don’t want to listen to the agency’s counsel on why other elements of PR matter just as much as media relations.

The truth is, a big part of PR is helping to establish, build and promote a brand – not just your product, but a credible and likable entity that people want to do business with and that they trust. This doesn’t happen overnight, or even in one week. Many companies don’t think about brand credibility as it relates to PR – or they don’t really care. They just want to launch a product or service, get media coverage and expect the world to want to buy from them. But for long-term success, it’s necessary to understand PR’s valuable role in building thought leadership alongside product promotion, and to stop comparing yourself to the 500 pound Gorillas in your industry. Unless you’re Apple, Twitter, Microsoft or Facebook, stop expecting your PR agency to get feature articles about you on the cover of Fast Company or Wired when you just launched a week ago (even Twitter, founded in 2006, didn’t land there for a couple of years). In 99% of cases, it’s not realistic. And when your agency gets you in a trend piece that also features those 500 pound Gorillas, respect the process – it’s all a part of building your industry credibility.

Be Respectful

Like any good relationship, an agency/client one is best when there is mutual respect, open communication and a sense of equality. Remember you hired a PR agency to help your business succeed, and you must trust that they are going to do that – understanding they are there as a helpful partner, not an adversary. If you talk openly and frankly with your agency, tell them the real story – including the fact that you do indeed have competitors, or when something goes wrong with the product or service that you offer – and bring them into planning early, they can do a better job. Withholding information, berating your account team when something goes awry, or never taking the agency’s counsel does not make a good, trusting partnership. Even the best PR teams can run into situations where a strategy didn’t work – and was out of their control – like your broadcast coverage being canceled because war broke out and dominated the news.

In the end, any good investment is worth protecting, and that includes the relationship with your PR firm. Make it a positive one and you’ll get more positive results.

 

Client Service – Deliver What They Don’t Know They Want

The other day one of our clients asked us for something that was relatively easy to do – something that we could have handled with a quick email response without even knowing why the client needed the information. But I tend to be nosey, so I asked. The client contact needed the information to share with superiors to show the success of a recent campaign. So, we had a choice – we could have simply delivered what was asked of us, or we could think about this further and deliver something that they did not even know they wanted – or didn’t realize they could even ask for – but that would provide greater value than expected.

We ended up delivering a document that, although it did not take much longer to produce than the original request, put the information in clear context for the client in a way that they could see not only the success of the recent campaign, but also its relation to other campaigns. We knew that this would be more beneficial and would make our client contact look good in the eyes of superiors, so we took the longer road.

I started really thinking about this and wondering how often I do this, or how often I push my teams to do this. Are we delivering what they ask for, or are we thinking about what they really need? Are we checking off tasks on our list, or are we thoughtfully delivering information in ways that will make our clients more successful?

Because, quite honestly, going the extra step on this one felt good – it wasn’t a huge deal, but it was actually kind of fun. I liked the idea of delivering a surprise to the client – giving them what they asked for plus a little bit more. And it made me think twice about how we can present what we do in a more meaningful way.

When you do a job for a long time, certain tasks can become routine or mundane, and it’s easy to just check things off. But when clients give us references or talk about us, I want them to say that we didn’t treat anything as “routine” – that we were always thinking ahead, differently and creatively. I am very proud that we have a staff here that keeps me on my toes, challenges me to do better and who aren’t afraid to push me, even when I’m the boss.

To keep us all fresh, I want to make sure I challenge myself and my teams constantly and always ask – are we just checking off boxes, or are we giving our clients everything we have? Let’s strive every day to deliver what they don’t yet know they want.

The Art of Listening in Client Service

At the risk of stereotyping myself, and my peers, it seems to me that most PR personalities are talkers, spinners and strategists, but rarely are they quiet listeners or observers. This observation is based on my own experience in PR over the last decade or so. I also speak from that rare position of listener.

Yep, I’m a listener. One of the ‘quiet ones,’ I buck the PR stereotype. I’m an introvert; shy to the point of pain in my youth; and though I have gotten over the pain part, I can still think of 100 things I would rather do than interject myself into a conversation with someone I just met.

Not surprisingly, this has caused some angst for me from a professional standpoint. In the client service business, we must prove ourselves every day – to our clients, colleagues and managers. In PR, this often takes the form of strategic counsel and creative ideas shared verbally in a meeting or via a conference call.

Fortunately, I’ve had some excellent guidance and support here at PerkettPR and have overcome most of my fears about voicing my ideas. Despite these strides, I still believe wholeheartedly that my ability to listen has benefited my teams, my clients, and me in countless ways – perhaps in more important ways than my verbal observations ever will.

Good customer service begins with listening

I’ve heard time and again, “if they don’t hear from you, they don’t know you’re engaged.” I’d argue that good client service is as much about listening as it is about presenting, counseling and verbalizing ideas. Listening is another form of engagement.

I’m surely not the only one who’s come across a verbose PR pro who doesn’t know when to be quiet. You know, the one that cuts you off, interrupts the client, pretends to listen, but then continues talking up his or her idea. Sure, they can talk about their ideas and offer advice on the fly, but it’s the listeners who actually hear and understand what the client really wants. Everyone wants to be heard, especially if they’re paying someone to listen.

We cannot provide excellent counsel without first listening and understanding what our clients have to say. Listening goes far beyond remaining silent while someone else speaks. Listening is about paying attention to the nuances of the conversation, recognizing what isn’t being said, and then applying what you’ve heard to the matter at hand.

Social Media – talking or listening?

As our business – and the world around us – evolves, listening is becoming more important than ever. With Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Whrrl and countless other social networks encouraging brief status updates, we’re overrun with one-way conversations. It seems everyone has something to say, but is anybody listening?

Christine Perkett has spoken about the importance of listening as part of the social conversation for some time. In a 2009 blog post, she commented, “One of the most effective ways to connect with any audience is to show them that you care. One of the easiest ways to show someone that you care is to listen.” This still holds true today, with even more noise entering the market daily.

More recently Gartner’s Michael Maoz shared his thoughts on the lost art of listening. He notes that many of his clients who are introducing social capabilities to their businesses are reaping big points from their customers by simply demonstrating their willingness to listen. Brands that are most successful with social media are those that understand it is a two-way dialogue, and an opportunity to listen to their customers – just on a broader scale.

Listen up

Granted, in the day-to-day life of your average PR professional, social listening is only part of the job. Our clients look to us for ideas, strategy and counsel delivered verbally or otherwise. And we’ll provide it (even those of us that are more natural listeners, than talkers ;-)) but, first, we’ll ensure we’ve taken the time to listen to their needs and concerns carefully, and offer thoughtful advice that helps them to reach their business goals – not just a knee jerk reaction or response.

What are your thoughts on the art of listening? Are we in danger of losing this crucial skill? How do you ensure you’re really listening to your customers? We’d love to HEAR from you in the comments.

Are You Invaluable?

Yesterday’s Boston Globe reported that the jobless plight continues: “5 million Americans have been out of work for more than six months, a record number that forecasts a slow, difficult recovery and a long period of high unemployment, according to Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.”

If you are fortunate enough to have a job or a healthy customer list, are you making yourself invaluable to your employer? To your customers? Are you striving to do everything possible to move prospects from viewing your company or products as a “nice to have” to a “must have”? Are you doing everything possible to ensure your name never appears on the “short list” when management has to think about cost cutting? If not, why not?

Even if you believe that you are in a comfortable place with your job or customers, you should be striving to do everything possible to be seen as invaluable. Invaluable means it would hurt to lose you and – as much as one can be -  that you are irreplaceable. As an employee, you should especially drive to be irreplaceable because with the job market as it is, there are plenty of available workers who will line up to fill your shoes should they become vacant.

A few esy ways to become invaluable:

  • Don’t do what’s asked. Do more without having to be asked.
  • Go beyond the obvious. Attending a networking event? Reading a book? Joining a webinar? How can you bring lessons, leads or other value back to your organization or to your clients?
  • Pay attention to the competition (even if it’s not “your” job). Whether it’s another vendor or an industry colleague, know what they’re doing. Then strive to do more, better. Make suggestions to management to keep the entire company ahead of the curve.
  • Be visible. Visit your clients, ask your boss to lunch, send one new idea a day to your managers.
  • Don’t miss a brainstorm. In fact, suggest them yourself. And speak up during every single one. (Meetings, too!)
  • Be selfless. While it’s hard to think of others during a time when “personal branding” is all the rage, don’t forget about your existing employer or customers. Be sure that your efforts can be seen as mutually beneficial – to both you and your organization (or clients/customers).
  • Forget about your job description. Or at least don’t stay within its boundaries. Offer to take on new projects, grab assignments normally reserved for others when you see staff shortages, etc.
  • Improve, innovate, inspire. The recession can be tough on everyone – including your boss. While it can be hard to stay positive and upbeat, doing so will help you to stand out as a leader. A negative, controversial attitude will only make the situation worse – and it will be remembered. But working hard to improve everything you do, innovate in the way you do things, and inspiring others to do better will help you to be invaluable now – and well into the future.

What’s your advice for becoming invaluable?

PR Agencies Should Not Have to “Return” to Client Service in a Down Economy

We’re excited and proud to welcome our two newest clients – Contactual and Litle & Co. We’re particularly proud of this announcement not only because it caps off another year of growth for us, but because Contactual’s CMO, Karen Leavitt, has returned to PerkettPR for the third time in her career. There is no better testament to our ability to deliver solid business ROI than when clients become repeat customers and continue to hire us as they move along to new companies over the years. Thank you, Karen!

While new client wins are certainly a reason to celebrate, the news also brings us back to a core value that should always be top-of-mind: client service. If we didn’t provide excellent client service we wouldn’t have repeat clients like Karen. I’ve read several articles over the last few months about the “return of client service” in a down economy. While I understand this mantra might be relevant (we can only hope) in consumer-facing businesses such as retail, travel & tourism or restaurants, it seems irrelevant for the PR industry.

If it takes a down economy for you to be treated right by your agency, then you are with the wrong agency. I know the situation – it’s part of what drove me to start PerkettPR over a decade ago: the economy booms, agencies get more incoming business calls than they can handle, they want as much revenue as possible and it drives them to take on new clients without having the proper account teams in place to deliver great client service. Staff is stretched too thin and as a result, service suffers.

In a down economy, when the client roster begins to shrink a bit, agencies are almost, by default, “right sized.” A smaller client roster can enable them to spend more time on each account and clients see an uptick in attention to detail, senior involvement and results. In addition, agencies can take a moment to reflect on what could be improved, what overall client health looks like and which services are delivering the best ROI – to the client and the agency.

So how is your agency relationship? What do you wish PR agencies would do better – now and in the future? Have you taken the time to assess if client service is consistent? Has your agency asked you how they can improve, or offered new ideas for what is certain to be a tumultuous year?

Agencies – use this time to focus on top-to-bottom client service improvements – and make them a part of your ongoing culture. Ask your clients if – and how – their priorities have changed for the year and how you can subsequently redirect communications efforts to ensure they meet their goals. Have you asked clients their assessment of the economy’s effect on their business? The industry? Are you helping them to focus on the most cost-effective campaigns, or have you been moving forward business-as-usual?

Excellent client service should be your staff’s number one priority at all times. If you’ve strayed from this focus in the past, take the necessary steps now to get back on track – and ensure such changes last well beyond the economic rebound.