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.

Customer Retention Is King: Four Steps to Secure the Throne

This post originally appeared on MarketingProfs.com and is authored by Jerry Jao, a co-founder and the CEO of Retention Science, which provides customer retention solutions to some of the country’s largest online retailers. Twitter: @jerryjao LinkedIn: Jerry Jao 

Blogs and communities are always buzzing about one form of marketing or another. And if you listen closely, you’ll notice that most of the marketing conversations going on—whether they’re about inbound marketing, SEM, affiliates, or mobile—emphasize the importance of getting new or more customers, as opposed to keeping the ones you already have.

The same trend can be seen in the way companies reward their sales and marketing staff. Those who acquire new customers are rewarded with generous commissions and recognition, whereas the ones working to retain current customers get a lukewarm pat on the back.

Now, to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong customer acquisition. However, it’s unfortunate that customer retention isn’t getting the same (if not more) attention from marketers—because retention usually brings in more revenue, at lower cost.

New Business Is Great, but Repeat Business Is Even Better

It’s time for marketers to shift their focus to customer retention and loyalty, instead of putting all their eggs in the acquisition basket. The good news: doing so may actually be easier and far less costly than you think.

Not only is it more expensive to acquire new customers than to keep existing ones (acquisition costs five times more than retention, according to Lee Resource Inc.), but current customers actually tend to spend more than new ones.

And if that weren’t staggering enough for you, consider the Harvard Business School study that found “increasing customer retention rates by 5% increases profits by 25% to 95%.”

Why not crunch the numbers in your own business and see for yourself just how important repeat customers are for your company? Quantify your customer acquisition spend vis-à-vis retention, and take note of the revenue that new customers bring in versus how much your existing customers are spending.

First Step in Retention Marketing: Calculate CLV

Now that you’ve established the significance of retention marketing, it’s time to get started on what you can do to retain more customers. Before you start rolling out customer retention campaigns, though, you need to figure out how much you should spend on your customers to maximize your profits.

The first step in setting a budget for your marketing campaigns is measuring customer lifetime value (CLV). You need to find out how much value each customer brings into your business so you can determine exactly how much you should be spending on them.

You can use a variety of CLV equations to calculate the value of your customers. Management Accounting Quarterly, for instance, shares this formula (PDF), where it incorporates contribution margin, marketing cost, and probability of purchase to calculate CLV.

KISSmetrics, on the other hand, uses three CLV equations and averages the amounts to arrive at a final CLV.

Note that CLV depends on various factors, including business type, the nature of its customers, as well as the industry that the company belongs to; accordingly, there isn’t one universal formula that you can adopt. That’s why you should look into various equations and use the ones that incorporate metrics relevant to your business and industry.

You can also seek the help of companies that specialize in data and marketing and let them create a customized CLV approach for you.

Action Steps to Retain Existing Customers

Once you’ve established your budget, the next step is to decide where and how to spend it. Here are a few ideas to get you going.

1. Personalize

The best way to build loyalty with your customers is to make them feel valued. Don’t treat customers like numbers on a spreadsheet. Regard them as individuals by personalizing your correspondence with them (e.g., emails or website greetings that mention their name), or by adding thoughtful touches to your communications with them (e.g., handwritten notes and birthday cards).

You can also customize the offers or website experiences that you provide. Gather as much data as you can about your customers. Track their site behavior, purchase history, demographic information, etc., and use that data to create personalized experiences for them.

For instance, if you know that the person browsing your site is a female who bought shoes from your store in the past, then you should display relevant product recommendations on your site instead of a generic one-size-fits-all page.

The same goes for the discounts and offers you give out. If the data tells you that Person A has a higher chance of purchasing when given a free-shipping coupon, and Person B will appreciate a 20% discount more, then send out a different offer to each customer to increase your conversion rates.

Consider optimizing the timing of your offers as well. Segment your customers according to the time of day that they made a purchase, and reach out to them when they’re most likely to buy.

2. Track and Test

Remember to monitor the performance of your retention campaigns. If you’re sending personalized offers, be sure to take note of the sales that those offers brought in. When you’re personalizing the timing of your offers or messages, track open rates and clicks, then compare them with those of previous campaigns.

Not seeing the best results? Perhaps you need to resegment your customers, change your messaging, or incorporate more data. It could also be a sign that you need to move on to another type of campaign. In any case, the only way to find out is by tracking and testing.

When you’re at this stage, you also need to make sure that you’re setting the right metrics. Getting 10,000 signups in one day may sound sexy, but if those users don’t amount to actual sales, then it probably isn’t worth tracking.

Always be clear on the metrics that count (it could be sales per customer, or rate of repeat purchases, or something else) and monitor only the numbers that matter.

3. Reward loyal customers

The great thing about loyal patrons is that they don’t just give you repeat business, they can bring you new customers as well. Extremely satisfied customers are more than likely to recommend companies to their friends. Encourage this practice by rewarding the people who send new business your way.

You don’t have to create an elaborate referrals program or offer huge monetary rewards to customers if you don’t have the resources to do so. A relevant offer or a token/freebie that you know they’ll love will go a long way.

Be genuine, and remember that simple, yet thoughtful, gestures toward your customers will be recognized.

4. Ramp up your customer service

Providing excellent customer service should be a no-brainer, but some companies don’t seem to spend enough of their resources on their customer support department, instead pouring everything into Sales and Marketing.

Remember, your sales and marketing team can perform a stellar job in bringing in new people, but if your support reps aren’t doing enough to keep those customers, you’re just wasting your resources.

Again, it boils down to showing your customers just how much you value them. Be respectful, treat them well, and go above and beyond to solve their problems. And if you think about it, the bar for customer service is set really low. People don’t expect much from support teams these days, so if you step up and blow them away with amazing customer service, it won’t be ignored.

Read This Before Blaming Your PR Agency For Lack of Coverage

ImageOn behalf of PR agencies everywhere, thank you Amy Westervelt for your recent tell-all post on why startup companies need to stop pointing fingers at their PR firms and instead learn more about how editors and journalists do their jobs.

Amy is a freelance writer/editor/author and frequent contributor to business publications like Forbes, the WSJ, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Fast Company among others. In her post, “Stop Complaining about Your PR Firm. Here’s How the Media Works,” Amy’s shares nine things about the media “that will hopefully help you figure out how to deal with us (and maybe your PR firm) better.”

One of the bigger challenges PR firms face in working with startups is the clients’ often unrealistic expectations when it comes to media coverage.  The combination of ego, drinking of the Kool-Aid when it comes to their offering/product, pressure by investors, over sensitivity as to what the competition is doing and general ADHD-related behavior can be toxic when it comes to building a mutually beneficial relationship between agency and startup.  Add in the factor of a client who has a fundamental misunderstanding of what compels a journalist to write an article and you have a recipe for disaster.

Any engagement with a new client should include a period of expectations setting that includes how agency and client are going to work together (roles & responsibilities) to achieve the desired results of the communications program.  It’s during an expectation setting session, which should happen in the first week of a new relationship, when the agency account team should be able to find out how much the client actually knows about how the media works.  If the client is a startup, chances are the principals have limited exposure to the media and taking them through a primer would be invaluable to the relationship.

Ms. Westervelt makes a number of great points in her post, and I encourage you (if you’re a PR pro or a client) to read it in its entirety, but for now I wanted to spotlight a handful of her points.

Editors are important.  Freelancers are your best friend. So true. Freelance journalists are more prevalent and more influential than anytime in recent memory.  Unlike a staff writer, a freelancer like Amy may write for several publications. They can make more money by repurposing one article so that it might run in multiple publications, albeit with a different angle and fresh content.

The most important PR move you can make is to build and maintain relationships, and be patient.  Another great point here. Just because your PR firm was able to set up an interview with a journalist for you doesn’t mean that journalist is going to run right back to their office and bang out an article.  “Maybe I’m waiting for a newsy hook to peg it to,” Amy says.  The worse response by the agency is to harass the journalist to find out when the story is going to run “Because his or her client is sending equally as many emails.”

Stop worshiping at the altar of print media.  I think it’s still largely true that a print article is held in higher regard than an online-only piece.  Amy, however, says clients should thank their PR people for getting them mentioned in Time.com blogs.  “You may not get a photo of yourself in TIME to frame for your office,” she says, “but chances are those blog posts will be read more and pay back more over time than that one print hit will.”  Print stories still carry a ton of weight, then again, who buys TIME anymore?

And finally …The press release is dead, please stop trying to revive it.  Like you, I’m pretty tired of reading the press release is dead stories.  They’ve been showing up for years, yet thousands upon thousands of press releases are issued everyday in the U.S. though Amy maintains that “No one in the media reads press releases. Not a single person, I promise you.”  Really, Amy?  Members of the media still look to news releases to keep current on companies and their financials, business trends and for story ideas, among other reasons, including to occasionally mock PR people.

Otherwise, I think Amy’s post is spot on and I wouldn’t hesitate to share it verbatim with any startup.  Would you?

Avoid These Four Agency Client Types at all Costs

boat for saleYou may have heard the expression popular among some boat owners:

The two best days of being a boat owner are ‘the day you buy it’ and the ‘day you sell it.’

Others use a similar expression. Like those who have purchased a vacation home they never have time to enjoy.  Or that convertible as a full-time car (if you drive in New England).  I’ve heard some hackers on the golf course say the same about their Titleist blades.

And it’s been said on many occasions in the PR agency world; on those occasions when a new client turns out to be everything the agency hoped they wouldn’t be – when the two best days are the day the agency wins the client’s business and the day the agency fires that client.

A boat.  A second home. A roadster that’s to die for.  That shiny new client. All seemed like great ideas at the time. All looked wonderful from the outside. And then the honeymoon ends…and you’re in it for real.

For better or for worse, things we learn in life are often learned through trial and error. While we may try to not repeat the same mistakes over and over (there’s a definition for this type of behavior), we sometimes do.

Unlike the regretful boat owner who is typically one and done, PR agencies have histories of chasing bad client after bad client, deluding themselves into thinking that this time things will be different because they will “control” the relationship and not let the client run roughshod over them.

What do I mean by “bad’ client?  Well they come in many shapes, sizes and disguises.

There’s the client whose initial budget is below the agency’s minimum monthly retainer but promises that the budget is going to increase after the first three months or when the next round of funding comes in.  Three months come and go … another three months come and go … etc.

There’s the know-it-all client who has never worked with a PR agency before but skimmed the Public Relations for Dummies Cheat Sheet which has a section entitled, “Convincing Editors to Print Your Press Release.”  Seriously.  This client knows just enough about PR to be dangerous but still doesn’t make the distinction between an article written by an actual journalist and a news release replayed verbatim on one of those free press release web sites.

Of course, there’s the client working at his third start-up, the first two of which had successful exits and were media darlings and who is expecting and demanding the same level of media interest for his also-ran entry into the dying market du jour.

And finally, there’s the worse client type of all: the one who hires you and then disappears expecting the PR program to run smoothly without them having to pay any attention to it now that a firm has been hired.  You know the type … they make a living of hiring and firing agencies as a job protection ploy.  They blow off weekly check-in meetings, rarely return your phone calls or email pleas for information but are fast to get in your face when their company is left out of a story.

But they are happy to take credit for any positive results the agency does manage to generate.  When that happens, it’s time to sell the boat.  Don’t you think?

Size Matters When It Comes to Picking a PR Agency

090831-SmallMediumLarge-4651Public relations agencies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are holding-company owned with offices in 50 countries or more and thousands of employees.  Others are independent and mid-sized with a handful of offices and perhaps a hundred or more workers. And of course there are scores of founder-run, single-office firms and boutique consultancies with anywhere from three to 50 staffers all working under one roof or virtually.

While all of these agency types often compete with each other for the same prized piece of business, they can be very different in their approach to new business, client service and relationship management.

For the prospect, deciding to work with a one-office firm or a large agency with an office in every major U.S. metro area can be a tricky decision as agencies have grown adept at becoming chameleon-like. For example, a smaller agency may try to present itself as bigger and more “scalable”  than they really are when pitching a potentially big client. They will bring up that they work with “partner” agencies all over the world allowing them to send your message out globally.  And a large agency may attempt to present itself as nimble and flexible (with pricing and programs) when pitching an emerging brand with limited marketing dollars.  They will bring up the fact that they have specialized teams working on smaller programs and the promise that you won’t be a small fish in a big pond.

Blah blah blah.

Ok, so perhaps there are a few instances where both the large and the small agency can get the same job done well.  But typically, this won’t be the case.  So to help you decide, here are a few guidelines to mull:

  • if yours is a global company, then hire a global agency with global branded offices. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring in a boutique for specialized work as well. But in my experience, the various global networks of independent PR agencies are better suited for project vs. ongoing work.  I’m sure there are exceptions, but it’s difficult for one agency (the AOR) to control and manage the quality of the work that another agency in another country is doing for a client.
  • if it’s important that agency principals pay close attention to your account, then hire a boutique. Even with many mid-size firms, you won’t see the firm principals very often once the contract is signed unless you insist on it or have a previous relationship.  In most cases, agency principals are too busy running the business to pay attention to client service until something goes wrong.
  • if you are an emerging brand with limited PR dollars to spend for the foreseeable future, hire a boutique or mid-size agency.  Big agencies are working hard to penetrate the emerging brands market, especially in tech, but until they figure out how to make money on small budgets it’s still largely a work in progress for them. Generally, if you’re an emerging brand, the sense of urgency and enthusiasm and attention you’ll get from a smaller firm will outshine that of a big agency (at least once the honeymoon is over).
  • if prestige and name recognition is important to your CEO, then hire the global agency so he/she can brag at the next cocktail party that his PR agency has offices in 75 countries even though the client only does business in three of them. Just remember, someone has to pay for all that overhead.

In The New Normal, Client Retention Means Playing Above The Rim

basketball_rimDenial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

These are the five stages of grief a PR agency (or any business for that matter) goes through when a good client takes their business to a competitor.  Each of the five stages were detailed in a recent post in which I promised a follow-up with a few ideas on how an agency can beef up its existing client retention program (you have one, right?).

The problem some agencies and other organizations have is this:  a short memory. What often happens once the initial jolt and after shocks of losing a good client subside and everyone gets back to business, or perhaps even begins work on behalf of a “replacement” client, is that they revert to some of the same bad habits that got them in trouble in the first place, like ignoring the obvious signs of a failing business relationship.

While many of the keys to client retention in the “new normal” are second nature to many organizations and are seamlessly rolled into how they conduct business on a day-to-day basis — like proactively managing and measuring client expectations, the overall health of the relationship and the value that is being delivered while saying “no” to non-aligned business — there are above the rim ideas that can help lock in a client for life.

For example, how about setting a new standard for quality performance? Name it whatever you want (TQM = total quality commitment?).  Pull your senior client-facing managers together once a month for a couple of hours to probe and to get to the root of client issues and problem areas.  Don’t talk about staffing or utilization or new business at this meeting.  Just focus on the organization’s top clients and use the time to share best practices. Chances are you or one of your peers is facing a client relations issue another had already experienced and successfully resolved.  It’s amazing how many important war and success stories aren’t shared in real-time due to the hustle and bustle of the average work day in a typical agency.  Set time aside for this.

Secondly, consider retaining an independent auditor — someone familiar enough with your business to add real value —  to call on your clients a couple of times a year to nip little problems in the bud.  Quarterly reviews and a relationship management tool like the balanced scorecard can take care of the bigger business issues.  But a five or ten minute call or email questionnaire every six months from an independent professional will solicit from clients the type of complaints they might not normally share with their account team.

And how about a customer advisory board?  A board can be challenging to assemble (and a bit tricky regarding which clients to leave in and which to leave out)  but  can be well worth the effort.  A customer advisory board can accomplish a few critical goals as part of a broader customer retention program:

  • the board should be composed of execs from your biggest customers (customers who deliver the lion’s share of your organization’s revenue).  Even if they don’t want to commit the time, any client will be flattered you asked and just by doing that you have deepened your relationship with them.
  • board members can provide your organization with early warning shifts in their needs as well as emerging opportunities and feedback on new services your firm is providing (or should be providing). And for board members,  membership gives them an opportunity to share best practices, network and build new relationships with other executives in and outside of their industry.
  • By following through on customer advisory board recommendations, you’re ensuring client satisfaction, building customer loyalty and reducing attrition among your biggest revenue generators.

I’m always on the watch for innovations in customer retention programs so holler back.

When Losing a PR Rock Star is a Business Opportunity

946302099_ac888c2d2c_zLosing the rock star employee on a critical account can be devastating to a public relations agency – as least as far as that account goes.

Or, it can be a stellar opportunity to showcase to your client other outstanding staffers who have been living in Elvis’ shadow, new or enhanced service offerings and big, fresh, creative program ideas.

Several years ago while working at a global PR agency, the rock star account supervisor on an $80,000 per month tech B2B account announced her resignation.  Shortly thereafter she headed off to Europe with her fiancee who had just landed a financial services job overseas (there was no hope of keeping her at the firm).

This particular account supervisor was not only doing a superb job leading the day-to-day activities of a seven person team and driving superior results, but she had become the confidante, pseudo girlfriend and “shrink” to the primary client contact.  Their relationship was one of those “good problems to have” because as long as this rock star was engaged on the business, the business was rock solid.

At the same time, the client’s over reliance on this account supervisor — and the fact that I let it happen — was a disaster waiting to happen.  Happen it did. Not fun.

What I did wrong

To exacerbate the situation, I scrambled for a plug-and-play replacement for the outgoing employee instead of taking a step back to think about a more effective, more creative, more sustainable solution.  Instead of looking at the resignation as an opportunity to strengthen the client relationship, I was playing not to lose.

I was shackled to the false security that an old, established way of doing something provides.

Although the client was extremely upset that her account lead was leaving the firm, our relationship was deep enough and the broader team proven enough that we’d get the chance to make things right.  As luck would have it, though, the replacement account supervisor (who had been with the firm for a few years) also resigned about one month into her new role.  It wasn’t much longer before the account went up for review.

If I had the chance to do it all over again, I’d do a few things differently

First of all, I would never allow the rock star to “own” the client relationship.  The rock star and client should have a tight and trusting relationship, but a client hires a team and an agency. This means Elvis needs to proactively share the stage with the team to demonstrate bench strength and true leadership.

Secondly, I would not respond to the rock star’s resignation as if it were the end of the world.  Employees come and go and agency leaders have to plan for the inevitable. Instead of rushing to replace one rock star with another, I’d embrace the opportunity to treat the account like new business.  This could be an ideal opportunity to bring the entire office together, to get everyone involved in reinvigorating an account with new perspectives and to share the enthusiasm with the client.

Thirdly, I would review the staffing on all accounts to ensure the agency wouldn’t find itself in a similar situation with other clients.  I bet there were a number of accounts at the time that would have benefited from fresh thinking, new personnel, or at the very least, an office-wide brainstorm.

And finally, on an account of this size I would invite the client to become part of the solution by inviting her to participate in a discussion about next steps vs. assuming that she was OK with my simply replacing the outgoing account supervisor with another.

Live and learn.  Any tips to share re: how you have handled similar situations?

P.S.  The agency was able to replace the account — dollar-for-dollar– with a competitive business.  Phew.