Preventing “Death by A Thousand Cuts” in the Agency-Client Relationship

There’s a reason many corporations prefer hiring communications professionals who The Business Lab ending toxic Client Relationships on a positive note - representative and consultant Katherine Hennessy-resized-600have experience working on both sides of the table: as a client and for an agency.

Perspective.

If you have ever been the client, you know what great and lousy client service looks and feels like.  And if you later made the switch to the other side of the table, to a public relations or other type of agency, you then had the opportunity to serve clients with the same level of customer service excellence you expected (and perhaps actually received) from your agency when you were the customer.

Also, it pays to be familiar with the pressures and challenges of working on the inside and you can only get that from working on the inside.  Too many agency employees have an inaccurate picture of what their clients are up against because they have never walked in their shoes.  Perhaps the subject of a future post.

As for me (thanks for asking!), I’ve split my career down the middle with half of my experience as a client and the more recent half serving clients from big, medium and small agencies.  During the client years, I saw agency-client relationships disintegrate in slow increments.  Typically, it was death by a thousand cuts vs. the result of a single infraction. And sad to say, I witnessed the same phenomenon while on the agency side.

In almost every case, it was the little things that built up over time that led to divorce.

If you are currently working at an agency and have never worked on the client side, here are a few timeless tips — in addition to outstanding results, of course — that will help keep the relationship with your customers on the right path:

  • Acknowledge that you received your client’s email or text with a simple “got it” or “will touch base with you on this” or anything that sends the message you are available. A client’s imagination can run wild when their attempts to communicate with you aren’t reciprocated in a timely manner.
  • On the other hand, don’t get upset if your client doesn’t get back to your emails or calls in a timely fashion. The agency-client relationship isn’t always a two-way street and that has to be OK with you or you will make yourself crazy.  Clients spend lots of time away from their desks, confined in conference rooms for meetings that go on and on and on.  And they have their own internal clients to serve and politics to play. Cut them some slack.
  • Call your client.  Email and team conference calls are great and have their purpose. But some of the best engagements and ideas come about when the account team lead and client chat live. Clients enjoy hearing from their agency, even if it’s just a call to check in.  So pick up the phone.
  • Remember that the client hired the agency, not you.  Show leadership by encouraging all members of your account team to be heard on the weekly group client call. Clients want to hear how every member of the team is contributing.  For a client, there’s nothing more uplifting than when on one of these calls a junior person begins to “get it” and shares a brilliant idea.
  • Get the agency’s most experienced people involved with your client’s account.  Invite them to an occasional brainstorm, especially around the bigger initiatives, and then tell your client about it. Most clients recognize that agency management isn’t involved with their account on a daily basis, but many have the fair expectation that senior agency leaders are making a contribution beyond invoicing.
  • Share bad news with your client sooner rather than later.  Whether it’s a missed media opportunity, the resignation of a key team member, etc., clients have the right to hear about it as soon as possible because it impacts their business.  Too many agencies procrastinate when it comes to sharing negative developments with a client.  Most clients, however, realize that despite best efforts, not everything is always going to go as planned. Work together on solutions.
  • Encourage your client to occasionally recognize the account team’s good work. They need and most often will appreciate the heads up. And your team will do their best work for the clients who appreciate them.
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PR As a Top 10 Most Stressful Job…Oh Pahlease

stress-pencil-croppedThe annual list of most stressful jobs is making the rounds and some of my public relations colleagues are carrying the fact that “public relations executive” was ranked by CareerCast as the 6th most stressful job as a of badge of honor.

Here’s the full list, beginning with most stressful job:

Enlisted military, military general,  firefighter, airline pilot,  event coordinator, public relations executive, senior corporate executive, newspaper reporter, police officer, taxi driver.

Outside of the entertainment factor, the annual listing isn’t very meaningful, really.  You can read more about the methodology CareerCast uses for its ranking here. To me, the comparisons are apples and oranges.  For example, an airline pilot charged with transporting 300 souls in a metal vessel travelling at 600 MPH and at 38,000 feet, or an urban firefighter sprinting into a burning apartment building while everyone else is running in the opposite direction, have stress level factors PR people can only imagine.

And it’s ridiculous to think that a big city police officer, who’s pre-work routine includes donning a bullet proof vest and a loaded pistol, has a job that’s less stressful than the PR guy who’s pre-work routine includes reviewing email, checking the charge on his smartphone or taking one last look in the mirror before dashing off to a meeting at Starbucks.

Not to downplay the PR profession by any means.  It’s a fantastic occupation, one that has been my bread and butter for more than 25 years and like any job where demanding, paying customers and deadlines and rejection are involved, it has its fair share of stresses. But it doesn’t belong on the same list as enlisted military, firefighters or police officers.  While we’re at it, add nurses and school teachers to the list but remove event coordinator, corporate executive and newspaper reporter (I was one early in my career and while I was almost punched out by an intoxicated town councilor, I was never put in a position to save lives like our heroic first responders are).

Let’s leave taxi driver on the top 10, though.  Cabbies put themselves in harm’s way every time a new client steps into their ride, especially when it’s an overly caffeinated PR person who just got word that his story idea was just rejected by the WSJ and his smartphone is about to die.

8 Questions To Jump-Start Your Team in 2014

ImageI had been on the hunt for a little inspiration for a team strategy meeting I was hosting at the public relations firm where I was employed at the time.

Since I was still new to the firm and to the client services team there, I wanted to kick off the meeting with something a bit more provocative than some of the traditional ice breakers. Some managers like to kick off a team planning session with ice breakers such as, “tell the group something about yourself that it already doesn’t know about you.”  And let’s not forget the “if you were a dog (or a car, or a fruit, or ???), what breed would you be?”

Jump starters like these certainly can help a group loosen up a bit before getting down to business.  But in this case, I was looking for a different kind of warm up.

In the days leading up to the meeting, I visited too many websites to name here in my quest for a provocative way to get the team engaged and the session off to a fast start. Finally, however, I settled on the following eight questions as a way to stimulate conversation among the team members (my gratitude and apologies to the author of these as I lost track of the original source).

  1. What needs to happen today to make this meeting worthwhile to everyone?
  2. What can I change to help this team function more smoothly?
  3. What is keeping us from keeping the main thing the main thing?
  4. Who needs to communicate more clearly or frequently?
  5. What is waiting around the corner that we need to prepare for?
  6. What can/should we do differently that our customers can’t get elsewhere?
  7. Why would somebody want to join this team?
  8. Why would someone leave?

All of any number or combination of these questions will get most any group talking, in my experience.  What’s really great about them is that they can be applied to most any type of organization — from a family run business with only a handful of employees, to an emerging company with a few dozen on staff as well as to the biggest of teams at a global firm.

And these questions are timeless.  But I think the greatest benefit of this list is the questions are structured to help get a team thinking as a team.

Many organizations are gearing up for their 2014 kick off meetings.  In one format or another, it might be a good idea to consider posing a few of these questions to help get the year off to a faster start by getting everyone engaged and on the same page.

What core questions would you add to this list?