Friday, January 9, 2009

University of Oregon Doesn't "Duck" Client Service

At the end of last year, Kelli Matthews asked me to write a post that offers some client service tips to her class - PR Campaigns, the capstone PR course in the School of Journalism and Communications at the University of Oregon. In the class, the students work in teams of 3-4 providing their services to not-for-profit clients that don't have internal PR support within their organizations. I hope this post is not only helpful to Kelli's students, but also reinforces some basics for veteran PR pros as well.

Learn everything you can about your client's business before you meet with them. You have vast resources from which to draw to prepare for your first client meeting. The point isn't to show them how much you've learned by reciting facts about their organization, it's to allow you to absorb what they're telling you more easily and put you as an agency team in a position to ask better questions. (Don't ask questions such as: How many locations do you have? or Where are they located? You should already know this information.) By being truly prepared, you'll walk away with a better understanding of what they want, and the client will be impressed with your level of sophistication based simply on the quality of the questions you asked.

Understand what is motivating their desire to embark on a public relations campaign. It's helpful to know the true motivation for the initiative. Sometimes they'll tell you the truth and sometimes they won't, but ask the question. Over time, you'll come to understand what's driving their foray into PR. This will offer you helpful insights into the next point about success.

Ask them to explain what success will look like to them. In other words, ask your clients to project ahead and have them offer you a picture of how they will evaluate the success or failure of the PR campaign. When you don't reach agreement on what success looks like, then more often than not, as time goes by, the agency team thinks it did a great job and the client is disappointed. It's because you didn't come to agreement at the start of the relationship. Agree on measurable objectives to evaluate your success.

Listen to what your client says, but dig deeper to understand what they're really asking or saying? You'll find that clients believe they know more about PR than they really do, which often results in them talking in PR terms that may or may not be appropriate for the situation. For example, a client may ask you to organize a press conference. Often, what they're really asking is to make an announcement. Your job is to learn as much as you can about what they want to announce. After listening to what they have to say, you may determine there's a better, more effective way to announce the news than the "press conference," saving your client (and you) the embarrassment of having no one show up to the event. Let them tell you "what," but you should offer your best counsel as to "how and why."

Bring new ideas to your clients. The more you learn about their business and their objectives, the more possibilities you'll discover. This will let them know that you're proactively thinking about their business. Undoubtedly, you'll bring great ideas to your client that will be rejected. Don't be discouraged, keep them coming!

Follow up client meetings and phone calls with written conference reports. The strength of your relationship with your client is based largely on frequent and clear communication. Document the substance of your conversations and send them to your client in the form of a conference report. Providing such a review in writing can help avert misunderstandings down the road. It helps you clarify what you all thought you heard. It's an invaluable tool.

Let your client know you care about results. To be a true partner to your client you have to be accountable for the successes and the failures. PR teams can have a habit of trumpeting their successes, but shying away from facing a situation that may not have gone so well. When something doesn't succeed as you had hoped, initiative the conversation with your client, discuss the problems, and talk about how to make it work better next time.

It all boils down to being well prepared, asking good questions, listening to the answers, understanding what's motivating their use of PR and what success looks like, offering fresh ideas, facilitating frequent and clear communication with your clients, and letting them know you have a stake in the results. Best of luck this semester. I'm sure your clients will be the big winners!

While I've offered some broad basics, feel free to provide your client service tips as well.


  1. These are great tips for students! As a recent UO SOJC grad I left UO thinking I could change the world with my passion for social media. One thing I've learned in the "real world" is making sure you understand your client, and are strategic about the way you present your ideas- this is KEY! I'm working on my first big "out of the box" pitch to a client and it's challenging to restrain myself and my ideas to feasible tactics that are "doable" for the client.

  2. Great post, Leo, should be required reading for all assistant consultants/account executives/whatever they're calling entry-level positions in PR firms these days. ;}

    Doing one's homework and not relying on the client to provide all the info at briefings is probably the most important point - especially for junior folks who may never have dealt with anyone at the C-suite level. Gracious though some of them may be, the wrong question from a junior at a meeting can jeopardize an entire account.

    I did a post about client service on my personal blog, modifying a really good questionnaire that deals with all aspects of service - from the first phone call to invoicing for a job well done.

    With your permission:

  3. Love this bit of advice: Ask them to explain what success will look like to them. So critical!



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