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10 Rules For Keeping (PR Agency) Clients

For a PR agency, what’s better than winning a new client?

Keeping the ones you have.

Naturally, any good PR firm wants to do both. But it costs a lot more to find a new client than to keep (and grow) current ones.

Research by Bain & Company shows that boosting customer retention rates by as little as 5% grows profits by 25% to 95%. In the PR business, client retention is tied to staff retention, and both impact the health of any creative services agency. There may always be “a hole in the bucket,” as an ex-boss used to say, but client churn is deadly.

So, how do we ensure we’re keeping our clients happy?

Don’t oversell.

Yes, it all starts with the proposal. In any competitive situation, it’s tempting to promise more than may be possible. But smart operators resist that temptation. In my big-agency career I’d sometimes cringe as the firm owner dropped names, bragged about his boldface contacts, and made absurd promises to prospective clients about the results my team would deliver. Years later, I try not to be that guy. In our field, we need to walk the line between being too modest and raising unrealistic expectations. With the latter, even when you win, you lose.

Agree on KPIs.

At a prior agency we had a nifty client selling proposition known as the 10/10/10 guarantee. Here’s how it worked: We’d reserve 10 percent of the agreed-upon fee. After 12 months, if we failed to meet goals, we’d forfeit that 10 percent.  If we exceeded goals, however, we’d pocket the full fee, plus a ten percent bonus. Clients loved it, but they rarely took us up on the guarantee, because their goals weren’t well defined. The ones with fuzzy goals were the most likely to leave. Agreed-upon KPIs is the best way to be aligned and a strong foundation for any client-agency relationship.

Get a fast start.

I’ve noticed a strong correlation between a fast start for a given PR program and the longevity of the client relationship. There’s so much that we don’t have perfect control of, like day-to-day media response or the climate for a marketing partnership. But one thing we can control is a swift and proactive onboarding and planning process. A sense of urgency is an asset in a PR professional, and in any event, a quick start shows hustle. A good onboarding will also lead to early tangible results, which are like money in the bank for later in the partnership.

Dig. Then dig deeper.

Much of our success has started with pulling quality information and insights from our clients. If that sounds obvious, well, yes, it is. But they tend to be busy tech entrepreneurs and executives, and it’s not always quick or easy to identify and translate the most powerful thought capital into results. But the more deeply we dig at the outset, the stronger our foundation is, and that translates into momentum.

Anticipate.

Most people who thrive on the agency side, at least in PR, have a built-in radar for what’s brewing. We become adept at anticipating all angles of a situation before offering advice. It’s directly linked to the curiosity point below, but it’s also a valuable management discipline. At one of my prior positions we adopted the management principle known as “completed staff work” – the commitment that any proposed action or recommendation would be fully vetted and analyzed before management (or the client) sees it and and need only be approved (or not) by the decision-maker. At the time, I was bored and a little resentful that we were made to attend seminars, but the principle still holds today, both internally and with client programs.

Be curious.

Especially about business. Agency people should be valued for our objectivity and depth of experience outside the client organization, yet sometimes we can be insular. Communications is only one function among many in the organization. A degree of knowledge and intellectual curiosity about the overall business, internal processes, and the backgrounds of team members are valuable for laying a foundation and getting out of the starting gate quickly. Also businesses are subject to change, and we can only benefit from being in the know.

Be accountable.

Of course, we all say what we mean and deliver on what we promise, but mistakes happen. Clients will forgive them if the PR team is accountable and honest.

Be a recommender.

Let’s face it; the tactics of media relations and content generation are similar from agency to agency. Many teams are good at the nuts and bolts of PR work. What clients are paying for, and what can set an agency team apart, is objective advice borne from expertise. If arms and legs are all a client needs from an agency, that service is likely to be interchangeable with the next team.

Be responsive.

A former boss of mine launched a three-year study among his agency’s former and current clients and found – to his shock –  that the clients cared less about big ideas than they did about how fast a team member got back to them with an answer to a question, or being on time for calls. Client service is made up of lots of tactical things, like meeting deadlines and returning emails. Proactivity is also valuable; if clients don’t hear from us, they may assume we’re not thinking about them or working on their business. An informal progress report goes a long way.

Choose your clients wisely.

Anyone who’s been around this business a while can look back on failed relationships and realize the red flags were there. We’ll do well to listen to our gut and align with clients who are truly a cultural, experience, and business fit with our own organization.

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