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You might have the best product in the world, but that doesn’t mean anything if you’re not winning your customers’ love.
Let’s take chatbots: The sleek, time-saving natural language processors that offer round-the-clock customer support. In the last few years, chatbot startups have managed to rake in millions, riding the wave of the artificial intelligence hype.
These platforms’ sleek interfaces and cost-saving benefits might tickle investors and corporations, but there’s one group that’s not sold: customers themselves.
This got me thinking about the similarities between “customer service,” and what we in public relations call “client management.” These two concepts aren’t analogous. However, they both seek to align a business with the experiences customers desire.
In the last 40 years, the average client-agency relationship has fallen from seven years to less than three. Happy clients certainly translate into longer relationships, but getting the first part of that equation right is often fraught with frustrations.
Common wisdom tells us that good client management is a mix of transparency, reliability, communication and patience. But when you’re dealing with strong personalities and lofty expectations, these adjectives can become pretty meaningless.
So how do you get those sparks flying? Here’s my philosophy on managing client relationships and some tips on how to win the hearts of your current and future clientele.
Manage expectations from the get go
A few years ago, I was on my first call with a new client. I was over the moon to work with them, and vice versa. As the call progressed, I got a good sense of their brand and company story. Sparks were flying, rapport was building. But then, the client jumped in with a question that caught me off-guard.
“So, how soon can we expect a story in The New York Times?” they asked.
In that instant, I thought back to my reporter days, when my inbox would be full to the brim with pitches. Out of the roughly 50 pitches I would get everyday, I’d only follow up on two or three. Now, an average reporter at The New York Times would likely get around 20 times as many daily pitches.
I decided that this was a perfect time to start managing the client’s expectations proactively. I knew setting realistic goals now was going to save me a lot of pain and disappointment weeks, months or even years down the road.
“You’ve hired us because you want media hits, and we’re going to get those for you,” I said. “But there’s stiff competition, and sometimes, it’s a game of luck. We make our own luck through our strong relationships and the quality of our pitches. Sometimes we get lucky quickly, and sometimes it takes time.”
I also explained that PR is about getting your story out to the people who want to read it, rather than just as many people as possible. The client began to understand that starting with local or niche publications was a far better strategy than shooting for top-tier outlets right of the gate. After showing the client our track record and current performance, I was able to keep their goals grounded while keeping them excited about us working together.
Bring clients into the creative process
Creativity plays a massive part in a PR professional’s daily work. Consultants and agencies stake their entire businesses on fresh ideas and innovative thinking, but equally, they don’t have a monopoly on the creative process. Your client is a subject matter expert, and their deep understanding of their sector can spur incredible ideas.
Recently, we were working with an investment platform, brainstorming a few ideas to link the company’s brand with something topical and current. Our team was struggling to connect the dots. At one point in the call, the client, off the cuff, mentioned “The Great Resignation,” and all of a sudden, the angle hit me.
People are saying no to the day job because they want the freedom to forge their own path. Well, fine: People are also looking to take control of their own financial future through DIY investment. A kernel of inspiration from the client led to a solid pitch we could use to make news.
Forming lasting relationships with clients often means deferring to their knowledge and experience. Besides, engaging with a PR agency might be the only time of day your client gets a chance to be creative, so it’s important to be their sounding board.
Be the expediter of your client’s dreams
You can’t be everything to your client. There will eventually come a time when they need a podcast producer, a videographer, event manager, etc. — roles you might not have the skills or capacity to fill. This is your chance to position your agency as a true asset.
One of the best things I’ve seen agencies do is refer other professionals, free of charge. It may seem like you’re driving your clients away, but I think it does the opposite. Clients are more keen to work with you because you are willing to use your network to help them.
This is also a double-edged sword, because if you do make a referral, you should trust in your referral’s abilities. Not-so-great service is sometimes unavoidable, and the last thing you want to hear is, “Gee, thanks for recommending that lousy person.” Ultimately, a poor referral will reflect poorly on you and your business.
When you make a great referral, remember that this can also be a two-way street. By showing your commitment to your client’s success, you’re far more likely to be referred to potential new clients down the road.
Since launching my agency, I’ve realized that relationships with clients are not all that different from romantic relationships. Make sure the two of you are a compatible pair. Grow together, and use these strategies and turn your client-agency relationship into a true partnership.