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The ties that bind: Building better client relationships

September 2, 2008

Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Ken Jacobs

The following article appears in the August 2008 issue of PR Tactics.

For those in PR agencies, clients are our lifeblood. Indeed, many corporate communications leaders run their departments as internal agencies, treating various brand and corporate partners as valued clients.

The ability to build and manage strong client relationships, more art than science, is one of the most important skills today’s communications practitioners can master. The following tips will help you build client relationships that are stronger, beneficial and reciprocally satisfying.

The stereotypical, cringe-inducing PR practitioner talks constantly, hardly catching a breath and barely allowing the client to speak. Don’t let this be you. The most successful practitioners in our field employ the No. 1 rule for building client relationships: They listen.

We can only be valued counselors and partners in building our clients’ businesses if we frequently ask the right questions and listen carefully to the answers, using what we learn to craft thoughtful, practical and valuable recommendations.

Next time your client is sharing critical issues with you and solutions are formulating inside your brain, don’t automatically share them. Listen and then listen some more. Quite often, the most important client insight is the one they’re about to tell you. Make sure you hear it.

Understand their world
Before we can offer truly strategic counsel to clients, we must understand their worlds, inside and out. Particularly at the beginning of a client relationship, it’s critical to read what they read, attend the conferences they attend, visit the blogs they visit and, most important, talk to them. That’s the only way to fully understand their marketplace issues, competitive pressures, measurement standards and definition of success.

Understand their fears

Respected industry leader Steve Cody, co-founder and managing partner of Peppercom, says understanding client business issues and designing tailored strategic solutions is one of the best ways to ease client pain. The more we create strategies and campaigns that help our clients — and their bosses — the more success we’ll have becoming a valued partner.

Use their language
Let’s assume you’ve followed the aforementioned advice and have deepened and broadened your understanding of the client’s world. Now take the added step of using language that shows the client your understanding.

Talk about share of market in addition to share of voice. Focus not on the coverage you’ll generate or the bloggers you’ll reach, but how your efforts will affect consumer attitudes, behavior and sales. Show your knowledge not only about public relations, but also about the other marketing areas that propel client business success, from sales promotion and advertising to trade relations and customer relationship management.

Never forget that without clients our profession, your agency and perhaps your position wouldn’t exist. Without being overly self-effacing, showing your clients you appreciate their business is a smart way to generate more of it.

When a client’s competitor wins a share point, it should bother you. Let your client know it, and be ready with ideas about how to change the situation.

Be proactive
When you review the many studies on client satisfaction — and if you haven’t recently, you should — many clients report they are dissatisfied that their firms are not more proactive.

Don’t wait for your clients to ask about the newest trend. Constantly and consistently invest in gaining knowledge so you can recommend innovative approaches, whether it’s the latest iteration of social media marketing, the newest method of results measurement, or the most up-to-date way to determine and defend your clients’ reputations.

Another way to be proactive is to manage the clients’ deliverables. Quite often, we can’t do our job without help from the client — getting copy approved, obtaining critical data or just getting the corporate spokesperson to the studio on time. When clients fail to do their part, few remember or care that it was their fault, making it essential that you use strict deadlines and gentle reminders to assure that they provide what you need to execute with excellence.

While the best programs are created and delivered in partnership, the truth is that the majority of our clients want us to drive the PR initiatives.

Become strategic
Another hot issue in client satisfaction studies is that far too many clients feel that the guidance they get from their PR partners is more tactical than strategic.

Stop lamenting the communications assignments given to management consultants and others. Instead, ensure your work addresses the strategic issues our clients face and will generate not only positive communications results, but also have a positive impact on your clients’ organizational objectives. Encourage your clients to measure your work on those terms.

Change with them
Don’t make the mistake of worshipping at the altar of the PR program that you wrote some six or nine months ago.

While you certainly need to execute flawlessly and meet success metrics, your real value comes in the extras you provide.  Are you crafting more effective solutions to your clients’ problems? Are you attuned to which issues have grown more important since the PR program’s writing? Are you looking for the new issues and trends that could have future impact?

To earn high marks in client service, the answers to all of the above must be a resounding “yes.”

Your clients’ priorities change. Stay focused and let them guide you. Most clients will care far more about how your solutions built their business and managed their issues, than whether you executed every aspect of the program.

Be the call your client wants to take
Your clients may get hundreds of calls a week, from their bosses, those they supervise, their clients and other marketing or communications firms that would love to take your business.

To make your call one they appreciate, call with ideas, insight or news. Offer solutions. Listen. When needed, provide a sympathetic ear. Be ready with a humorous story. This is a tough business. Clients remember those who make it easier.

Articulate your standards
Research indicates that when we put our goals in writing, we’re more likely to meet or exceed them.

So put your client service standards in writing. Display them throughout your office. Share them with your team. More important, share them with your client. Let them know the superior service you provide.  Ask them to let you know if you’re ever underdelivering.

And remember  to stay a step ahead, constantly beat expectations, consistently overdeliver and always be selling.

Create win-win situations
Often we must have difficult conversations with clients, sharing a recommendation that they don’t wish to hear, renegotiating a deadline or rejecting a recommendation that we believe is not in our client’s best strategic interest.

If you’re focused on winning these conversations, you are in danger of losing the client relationship. Instead of having a competitive attitude, walk into every difficult client conversation or negotiation dedicated not to win, but to create a win-win situation.

Go to them
Finally, get off the phone, shut down Outlook, turn off your BlackBerry and hold face-to-face meetings with your clients at their headquarters as frequently as possible. Face-to-face interaction not only reinforces how much you care, but also encourages clients to talk about special needs and challenges that won’t be mentioned in a phone call.

The hands-on approach creates opportunities for introductions that just won’t occur if you stay in your own office, and allows us to be seen — literally — as a trusted counselor by others at the client organization.

Most of all, remember that in client relations, what you do is far more important than what you say. These tips will reward you with enhanced client relationships, which will pay measurable dividends for both agencies and corporate communications departments.

Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting, LLC, which helps PR agencies and corporate communications departments enhance staff performance, motivation and retention via training. He can be reached at


rachel waller says:

This article is helpful in the sense that it shows a PR person, or a student like me the correct and down-to-earth way to treat clients. It points out ways to earn a clients respect by listening to them, encouraging them, and offering helpful advice. It also points out that clients are under a lot of pressure, just like anyone, and we as PR people should strive to be a breath of fresh air for our clients.

Sept. 2, 2008

Gurmeet Dhanowa says:

Excellent stuff! The points are very practicle, down to earth and easy to understand. It helped me a great deal as an HR trainer. Thanks a ton Mr Jacob!

Sept. 4, 2008

John Lonsdorf says:

Ken doesn't break any new ground here. There are neither "ah HA!" revelations nor head-slapping "should have had a V-8" moments here. That said, this is EXACTLY the kind of informaiton we as PR practitioners need to be reminded of regularly. It is far too easy to take the client for granted, and before you know it, you have slipped into the rut that leads to only one destination -- to where the agency ends up fired. I plan to share this with my entire staff and to challenge them to honestly assess whether or not they see any of these behaviors in themselves. Ken (as usual) hits the nail on the head.

Oct. 9, 2008

Ken Jacobs says:

John, I value your perspective, as always, and am pleased you thought the article was worth sharing with your team. If after the meeting even one of your staff had a "V8 moment" and recognized that they hadn't consistently delivered the five-star client service for which your firm is known, then the article did its job. I appreciate your taking the time. kj

Oct. 13, 2008

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