Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Organic Growth

Earlier in the week, I suggested that there are three sources of growth for your public relations firm: 1) New clients 2) Organic Growth 3) Client Retention. In my last post titled: Why Did You Lose A Client?, I offered a blame-free, open approach to exploring why some client relationships go bad. The primary objective of such an exploration is to learn - to learn how to pick clients who are a good agency fit from the start; how to identify signs of eroding trust; and how to provide the level of client service excellence that inspires clients to stay with your firm. Winning new business is important, but if you are just replacing revenues from lost clients or shrinking client workloads, it can make the hamster wheel look inviting.

I've been reading quite a bit of Peter Senge's work lately, particularly about Systems Thinking, which he defines as "seeing interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains; and seeing processes of change rather than snapshots." A linear thinker would tend to look at agency revenues/growth as a linear equation:

New Business +Organic Growth+Client Retention = Agency Revenues/Growth

I put "New Business" in bold because most agency leaders regard it as the primary driver of agency growth/revenues which is why business development/prospecting receives so much attention. One can't miss the linear cause and effect; it makes perfect sense. Right?

Using a systems model, I might look at it this way:

Rather than invest so heavily in business development (prospecting) initiatives, I would focus primarily on Client Service Excellence. When one looks at how most PR leaders think about agency growth (linear thinking), they don't see client service as a growth driver - which is why in most agencies it receives such little attention and why a systems model can be so illuminating. The cause and effect of investing in client service is neither as obvious nor as immediate as traditional prospecting. In this diagram, you not only see the relationship, but also you discover its reinforcing nature. Client service excellence will lead to better client retention, more organic growth, a reputation that will attract new clients, and strong revenues and growth that will allow you to reinvest in your client service program...and so it continues.

Since organic growth is arguably the strongest metric you have to measure client service excellence, then think about one change you can make tomorrow. Celebrate the expansion of an existing account with the same exuberance as you do when a new client joins your agency roster. Show your team that organic growth not only matters, but serves as the ultimate compliment to your effectiveness as a firm.

To be clear, I'm also a huge proponent of prospecting as a business development tool - but just imagine if while you were prospecting, you were doing so for an agency which enjoyed a reputation for delivering the world's best client service. For my money, it wouldn't even be a fair fight!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Why Did You Lose A Client?

I've always been perplexed by a PR agency's often "over-the-top" emphasis on finding new clients and keeping the new business pipeline as full as possible. Not because it's not important, but because it overshadows two other critical aspects of agency growth - client retention and organic growth. Focus on all three and you'll grow your business exponentially. Just imagine how impressed prospects might be by your agency's stellar client retention and organic growth numbers. They may conclude that you can actually deliver on what you promise. It's hard to imagine a more powerful value proposition.

This week, rather than focus on finding new clients, I'd like to address the other two legs of the stool. For today, let's start with client retention. Now there are a number of reasons client relationships go bad. The problem is most agencies don't take the time to really sit down and talk about what happened. Several years ago, I developed what I believe to be an appropriate CSI tool - The Client Relationship Autopsy - a blame free, open approach to looking at why you lost a client and what you can learn from the experience. Here's a basic outline that I suggest you adapt and adopt at your own firm:

The Client Relationship Autopsy

The client relationship autopsy is a delicate process and not for the squeamish, but it may be one of the most valuable exercises you'll ever undertake as a communication professional.

Why?! Why?!

Learning from the failed relationships of the past can be invaluable to building successful ones for the future. The more you know yourself and the dynamics of your client interactions, the healthier it is for everyone. The process will help you choose wisely when it comes to adding new clients, and it will help you glean insights for improving existing client relationships.

The Event

For whatever reason, at whoever's initiative, a client relationship dies. It could have been triggered by one or a combination of things: a mistake, misunderstanding, change of personnel, new agency infiltration, differing expectations, boredom, difference of opinion, billing dispute, definition of success, and the list goes on.

Step One - Talk To Your Team

Explain that as of today, the agency will no longer be working with Client X. While there may be an obvious cause of death, it would be a serious mistake not to look deeper. Remind them that this is a client the agency spent a great deal of time and money trying to secure - that when the team won the business, they cheered as if their country had just won the World Cup. Ask how they feel about how such a once celebrated relationship that had so much promise ended before its time - and possibly in such a gruesome fashion.

Cause of death isn't actually so much about the cause, as the reason. A person may have died from a virus, but how did he catch it? That's what we want to understand.

Let the team know you plan to more clearly identify what, if anything, about the relationship could have gone differently. Was it a bad match from the start? Did we not meet their expectations? Did they not meet ours? Where did it start to unravel? And if we recognized and acknowledged that moment of unraveling, could we have done something that would have made a difference? Explain that you look forward to their honest insights. Clearly underscore that this process is not about placing individual blame for the past, but helping the agency reflect and make improvements as necessary for the future.

Step Two - The Investigation

The former client isn't dead, only the relationship. That means you can call and ask to set up a meeting. I would wait a few weeks to let tempers, disappointment, and some measure of reflection find their proper place. Be clear about your intentions and the mutual benefits that may be gained by talking about your past working relationship. It may assist your former client with selecting a more appropriate agency in the future and help you improve your processes. If it has to happen by phone rather than in person, then it's better than not at all.

Use this meeting in large part to gather a sense of expectations versus results. Your notes from the meeting should be combined with employee interviews and a thorough review of the work product and associated client correspondence, including all billing letters. Only after reviewing all the forensic evidence can you begin the process of drawing conclusions and filing the autopsy report.

Step Three - The Autopsy Report

The autopsy report should include answers to the following questions:

Time of Death (When was it really over, not time of notification)

Day the Relationship Was Pronounced Dead (Notification/Death Certificate)

Genetic/Historical Influences - Chronicle of past client behaviors such as bad credit history or a pattern of burning through agencies. Quite frankly, issues you may have (or in many cases should have) known before engaging the client in the first place, but either ignored or minimized.

The Match - Were you ever really meant for one another to begin with? It’s important to know yourself and to carefully assess your new prospect, regardless of how much you may believe you want the business. If during the new business pitch, the prospect team members offer disturbing information regarding what they are like to work with - believe what they're telling you!

A Review of Strengths and Weaknesses of Your Team - In large part, look at this in terms of how certain team members matched up with the client contacts, both in terms of personality types and industry sector. It's possible that personalities played a role, or you have a staff member who’s terrific in some industry sectors and not as enthusiastic and arguably less effective in others; it may be helpful to take note.

A Review of Processes - Many agencies can be very specific regarding how they like to work and are often “less flexible" in dealing clients who may want to work differently. You either find a way to be more adaptable in your processes or, if you find it crucial to function in a very specific manner, you should clearly articulate the benefits of your working relationship style and make sure it's a good fit from the beginning.

Cause of Death - Did internal issues make the relationship susceptible to external influences? Was there any possibility of resuscitation between TOD and Notification? Identify the root causes of why the relationship went bad.


Once you've examined all the evidence and determined the cause of death, develop a set of strategic considerations and conclusions, and take action as appropriate. Develop your own version of the client relationship autopsy and make it part of your routine. Collect these reports and watch for recurring patterns over time. We all lose clients, but we can lose fewer of them if we choose wisely from the start and pay close attention to the relationship. Finally, don't wait until the relationship dies to evaluate it, but if it does, don't miss the opportunity to learn from it either.

*Image from

Friday, April 16, 2010

Client Service and Follow Friday

Chris Brogan recently offered an excellent suggestion for the Twitter practice called Follow Friday (#FF) - the weekly ritual of recognizing others on Twitter.  It's one that allows us to do a more thorough job of thanking those who provide such great value and insights and introducing these fine people to Twitterers who may not already follow them.   Since Twitter limits us to 140 characters, I have taken Chris' advice and listed many of this week's Follow Friday favorites right here on my blog post.  Since there are so many people to whom I owe so much for their many contributions to me and the Twitter community, it may take me a few weeks to #FF everyone, but here's my first installment:

@chrisbrogan, @edwardboches, @dmullen, @arikhanson, @TDefren, @strategicsense, @JKWLeadership, @angiechaplin, @bnjacobs, @johnhurst, @bcarroll7, @ThePRDoc, @almcfarland, @maggiesthinkin, @PRSSASDSU, @PRSrbija, @BiancaPuopolo, @lpverzosa, @remund, @sherrilynne, @BitaEhsanipour, @rlcandey, @pdncoach, @DannyBrown, @ruthseeley, @Gema_Maria, @KristinLoe, @ccduong, mandyboyle, @msebastian, MarkRaganCEO, @jonathanvolk, @LIW3, @karamlm, @CommAMMO, @prblog, @profgalloway, @PhilReinhardt, JKWinnovation, @vedo, BarbaraNixon, @rdfrench, @ScottMonty, @PhilipTater, @PROpenmic, @chipgriffen, @Will_Lukang, @shonali, @stuartfoster, @BrendanCooper.

A big Follow Friday to the 50 people listed above!  Have a great weekend!

*Image from

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Beware Of Geeks Bearing Tips

Today's title is a reference to the line, "Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts" which comes from the story of Troy and how the Greeks used a wooden horse to trick their way into the city. Sophocles described it as, "foes' gifts are no gifts; profit they bring none."

While I don't believe everyone who writes an article that offers 5 tips for this or 10 tips for that is necessarily a geek or one's enemy, I would argue that we should read such articles with caution. They typically address symptoms and almost never crawl inside underlying causes. Worse yet, they rarely ever transform how we practice our profession over the long term.

Can they be helpful from time to time? Sure. Do I read these articles just like everyone else? Of course, (heck, I've written a few, although I try to avoid it). It's hard not to. I'm an avid reader - the undisputed king of the "tips" article! Let's face it, any headline that promises a simple, numerically organized way to address a timely, complex issue can be hard turn away from. That's why writers write them and readers read them.

That said, even when we read a tip that really connects with us, its utility is too often short-lived. As good as the advice may be, we can't help but resume our familiar ways of doing business. Because I understand that "tips" articles will continue to be written for many decades to come, I only suggest that we balance our "tips" fascination with a deeper dive into underlying causes and the mindset that drives our basic assumptions. Only then do we stand a chance of converting short-term tips to life-long best practices.

Hmmm.....Sounds like a good article:
Five Ways To Convert Short-term Tips To Life-long Best Practices

Monday, April 12, 2010

Client Service Champions Or Just Measurers?

Spring is a good time to undertake a client service survey. You're far enough into the calendar year to evaluate agency and client performance, and it's early enough to take stock of your relationships and make adjustments (even course corrections) if necessary. If you plan to conduct your own survey to measure client satisfaction, then don't just look at it from a standpoint of asking for data. Use the fact that you're conducting the survey as a means to strengthen your client relationships. Here are a few thoughts to consider:

· Thank your clients for their business. We don't do so often enough.
· Send the message that client service excellence is a priority for your firm. Don't worry about overpromising or raising expectations. Clients want to know you care and that you're trying your very best on their behalf.
· Keep it brief. The fewer the questions the better. You don't need to ask 50 questions to demonstrate your priorities and engage in a meaningful conversation.
· Don't be afraid to ask. Sometimes agencies get bashful about asking for client participation, making the excuse: "my client is too busy." Rubbish. It's like saying you won't invite someone to a party at your home because you determine that they may not be able to make it. People like being invited and can get really offended if they're not. Be sure to ask; they'll appreciate it, even if they are too busy. This is also where keeping it brief helps.
· Involve all your client contacts. Don't just ask your primary client contact. Ask everyone who works with your firm - on all fronts. Also remember that the secondary contact of today may be the primary contact tomorrow. Talk to everybody.
· Share the results. Let your clients know that you'll share the results with them. Do not make the mistake of asking for their opinions without follow-up. If you have already done so in the past, I can better understand why you'd be afraid to ask again. This time, promise to share the results, and be sure to follow through on that promise.
· Develop an action plan. Regardless of how good the results, develop an action plan, or at the very least a communications plan. Revisit the plan and discuss progress once a quarter.

Show your clients that you're not just client service measurers; you're client service champions. By doing so, you'll strengthen your client relationships beyond measure.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Brighter Future For Client Service?

Clive Thompson wrote a terrific piece in Wired Magazine in August 2009, citing a five year study conducted by Dr. Andrea Lunsford at Stanford. The Stanford Study of Writing was a substantial undertaking where, between 2001 and 2006, she led a review of more than 14,000 student writing samples - everything from academic papers to Twitter updates. The results not only dispelled fears among many about the evolution of our language, but also provided illuminating insights about the future of client service.

I hear people lament the demise of the English language all the time. They speak to how texting, tweeting, and other such practices are contributing to poor grammar, marginal spelling, and an inability to express oneself "properly" in the written form. Lunsford disagrees. She claims, "I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization." And as Thompson points out, "For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions."
*Image from

Friday, April 2, 2010

Top Five for Client Service

Ever since I started writing my client service blog, I've always paid attention to where Client Service Insights (CSI) placed when the words client service were typed into a Google web search - not a blog search, but a web search. The first time I ever found it, CSI was listed in the middle of page 26. I can't even believe I was still searching at that point. I guess I just became curious as to how far down it would eventually appear.

Over time, I watched it move up to the number one unpaid listing on page one. This was at a time when I was posting practically every day. Now I post an average of once a week, but remain in the top five on page one - today CSI happens to be listed second. I raise this issue for two reasons: 1) It speaks to how easy one can associate their organization with key brand attributes; and, 2) it's interesting who appears in the top five for client service. Let me review the top five:
  1. - a collection agency
  2. - a blog about client service excellence focused primarily on PR firms and other professional services firms
  3. - an interesting service because it's actually kind of a Better Business Bureau that offers info to firms about potential good and bad clients
  4. - a book said to contain 58 things every advertising and marketing executive should know
  5. - one of the premier management consulting firms in the world
It's a mixed bag for sure. Client service should be known by the company it keeps, and for your firm to be known for client service, it may be time to take ownership of the term (and other terms that best describe your brand). If it's good enough for McKinsey, I'm wondering which PR firm will be the first to crack the top five.

*Image from Olympic SEO Blog


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