Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Conference Reports

Part six of our series may not cover the most exciting aspect of good client service, but a necessary one - and not for the reason most people think. Many regard conference reports as insurance policies or even "gotcha" documents during times of disagreement. If someone can hold up a piece of paper to prove someone misremembered something three months earlier, then that's when conference reports can come in really handy. I'm not sure that holds up very well. Sticking an old conference report in your client's face to prove you are right, can often help you win the battle, but you'll likely lose the war. You can learn quickly that simply being "right" isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Conference reports have a much more practical and useful purpose, and that's to keep everyone on the same page if you will, while your project is in progress, not something to pull out of a folder when it's too late. Written conference reports can and should provide clarity for both you and your client. Use them positively and consistently, and you'll reap the rewards for it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Never Stop Bringing New Ideas To Your Client

No matter how often they say no. No matter how much they complain that it's not in the budget. Bring new, creative ideas to your clients - all the time! You just have to be willing to hear 'no" and hear it often. But you cannot be worn down because the day you stop bringing new ideas to your client, will be the day someone else will.

Regarding budgets, consider small budgets not as obstacles, but creative weapons. When we were little kids and wanted to give our mom or dad a birthday card, we lacked the money (or at least I did) to buy a card at the local store. Forced to seek other means, we found crayons, paper, old magazines, glue, etc. and we concocted something more special and more personal than Hallmark could ever create. It's no different servicing clients, but now you get paid for it. How great is that?

Companies hire agencies for the power of their ideas. The more ideas you bring, the more fun for you and the more value for your client.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dig Deeper

Regard the T-shirt featuring the little boy as this blog's attempt at third grade humor to discuss part four of our series. Don't let the metaphor dissuade you from reading on.

You'll come across many clients during your career who talk in PR terms they regard as familiar, but if you take them literally, you could be on the road to disaster. Ask questions. Dig deeper to determine what they really want so you can recommend what they actually need.

The most common case is the client who wants to make an announcement, but asks for a press conference. Your choices are two-fold: respond as if you work for Taco Bell (no disrespect to TB intended) and just deliver the order; OR.... ask about the specifics of the announcement and determine the best way to deliver the news.

If you take the Taco Bell approach, you stand a good chance of holding an unsuccessful press conference and looking like the kid on the t-shirt. If you take the PR professional approach, then you will learn the particulars of the announcement and delicately frame your recommendation. If you go this way, you and your client will be the better for it.

While I could regale you with endless stories of clients who insisted on press confererences only to fall flat on their faces, I thought the "dig deeper" metahpor was more persuasive.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Definition of Success

For part three of seven, here's an all too typical scenario that illustrates a common problem with the working relationship between clients and PR agencies: The client and the PR firm meet and agree on a plan of action to launch a new company initiative. Three months later, the PR firm and the client meet to evaluate the effort. The PR firm believes it's done a great job yet the client is disappointed. How could this be?

As often as the client and PR firm looked at one another and nodded in apparent agreement at the start of the project, they never REALLY discussed the client's definition of success and how it would be measured. The resulting disconnect isn't pretty and causes more breakups than any of us would care to count.

So what can you do? How can you assure that you and your client are really on the same page at the beginning and throughout the project? The answer is simple: Don't gloss over what you regard as mutually understood!

Be as specific as possible about the objectives, timing, measures, etc. at the start. Take the initiative by driving that conversation. It will not only help you come to a mutual definition of success, but it will demonstrate that you actually welcome accountability. But BEWARE... your work isn't done just yet. Client expectations can and will change over time. Staying attuned to this dynamic will require your engaging in an ongoing dialogue about expectations and goals. The wrap on PR people is that we don't like to be held accountable. I'm not sure we mind being accountable, but we have to do a better job of clarifying what that means for all parties involved.

Agreeing on the definition of success is key.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What's Your Client's Motivation?

Part two of this seven-part installment (to which I will contribute more frequently, I promise) covers the importance of understanding client motivation as a key component to delivering great client service. Rather than assume "why" your client is moving ahead with a PR campaign, just ask. And once you get the answer, keep your eyes out for other signs along the way that may offer additional insights into what's driving the effort. It will help you and your client move together more productively and provide you with important information about a topic we'll cover in the next post - "coming to agreement with your client about what success looks like." Since I'm a big fan of storytelling and its powerful illustrative properties, here's one on motivation:

Many years ago, I met with the Regional CEO and Marketing Director of a major financial institution who informed me that he made a healthy six-figure commitment to being a regional sponsor of World Cup. As I heard the news, we discussed the opportunity with great enthusiasm, only to be told of course that the company would not provide any additional funding beyond our current fee to leverage the sponsorship. We were to create something from nothing.

I thought it was a bit odd at first because both of these guys were sophisticated enough to understand that the sponsorship investment alone doesn't buy you much. Unless you're willing to leverage the sponsorship with a significant commitment of time and money, then one typically doesn't enter into a sponsorship agreement like this in the first place.

We came back with a creative, high-profile plan that cost no money because we concocted a way to keep it within our fee structure and "self-fund" any of the out-of pocket expenses. The response? Tepid at best. My instincts at the time told me that it wasn't because he didn't like the approach. (It was actually really cool!) There's was something more to this; I just had to learn what it was. Fortunately, I had sources within the company who I could trust (always a big help by the way) so I asked around regarding the prevailing belief among the rank and file about the World Cup Sponsorship.

Here's what I learned: It was understood by the employees that the CEO had "zero" interest in leveraging the World Cup Sponsorship on the bank's behalf. The only reason he agreed to become a regional sponsor was because one of the perks was tickets to the regional games and to the finals in LA. I learned that the CEO's son was a big soccer fan. (See where this is going?) The CEO wanted to treat his son, among others, to a trip to the finals in LA. This was a surefire way to make that happen.

Rather than get into the myriad reasons why this is unethical and rather unbelievable on so many levels, it explained why our program was not enthusiastically received. We were given a next to impossible task for a reason. He approved it, reluctantly at first, but over time I think the CEO realized it offered him good cover. It made it actually look as if the sponsorship was designed to really benefit the bank in the first place. For our part, we enthusiastically executed the plan in an effort to give shareholders some return on the investment, despite the CEO's motivations, and to build our own case study for the future.

In this instance, would it have changed our initial approach? Probably not, but because we had a better understanding of the motivation, it allowed us to make subtle adjustments in the way we interacted with the client. This not only encouraged them to embrace the program, but helped improve the overall relationship long-term.

Unless you understand the motivation for one's actions, either directly or indirectly, you risk reinforcing benefits that your client doesn't really care about. And if your client won't be straight with you, then ask around!

As for the CEO's son, he got a touch of the flu and never made it to the finals. Too bad ; - )

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Learn Everything You Can, Then Ask Great Questions!

Last month, I responded to Kelli Matthews' request to offer some client service advice to her students. I thought I'd spend the next few weeks crawling inside each of those seven pieces of advice to illustrate the points more completely.

The first point is to learn everything you can about your client's business. There's nothing that will impress a client more than someone who has come prepared - whether it's to a new business pitch or a client meeting. Of course the point of being prepared isn't to regale your prospect or client with your new-found knowledge, but to use the information to ask better questions. By asking questions that are above the basic and beyond the obvious, you'll save time, impress your client, and leave the meeting with the kind of insights that will help you craft truly outstanding PR recommendations.

Early in my career, while I was with an agency in Providence, Rhode Island, there was a prospect interviewing agencies. Four of us told the president of our firm that we'd like to participate in the agency review. He told us not to waste our time because there were going to be too many agencies involved, and we knew little to nothing about their business. We persisted and he finally said, "Fine, but do it on your own time."

We took it on as a personal challenge. He was right about the number of agencies and our lack of knowledge about the clients' business, but as far as we could tell, the other agencies had just as many competitors and didn't know much more than we did. So back in the days before Google, we found trade association material, trade magazines, etc. and compiled about 500 pages of research on the company and the industry. We all took it home over the weekend and everyone on the team read every page. We met on Monday to prepare for what was to be our "get acquainted interview" or phase 1 of the review process on the following day.

After compiling all this research a great part of us wanted to show the new prospect how much homework we had done. Instead, we chose to resist that temptation. We made the decision to hide all of our research and bring only yellow pads and pencils to the meeting. Our strategy was simply to have everyone on our team equally prepared, so that it didn't appear one person was knowledgeable while the others were just along for the ride, and to ask better questions than our competitors. We believed that if we asked higher level questions, we could advance to the next round. That was our goal.

About 30 minutes into the meeting, the VP of marketing for the prospective client reached over his head and slammed his pencil down onto the table exclaiming, "How in the world do you know so much about our business?" The question was like a hanging curve ball just ready to be hit out of the park. We of course replied that we don't believe the client should pay for our learning curve and that being well prepared is not only what we do as an agency, but it's part of who we are and that we'll continue to keep learning when you become our client. The meeting continued for another 45 minutes as everyone on our team asked more questions and listened intently to their responses.

At the end of the meeting, we invited the prospect to lunch at a local restaurant where we learned we were the last of the seven agencies he and his team were meeting in the first phase. By the end of lunch, he declared an end to his search and awarded us the business. You should have seen the look on our agency president's face when we returned to the office to tell him we had just brought home a seven figure account.

I was in my twenties at the time, and ever since then, I've never underestimated the power of coming to a meeting (client or new business) well prepared to ask good questions. And now, because we have tools like Google, it's never been easier to become knowledgeable. Fortunately, clients are as impressed today as they've ever been with people who are well prepared. And by the way, we also learned there's no such thing as a "get acquainted interview." I trust our competitors may have learned that lesson also.


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