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Hi, I'm Tom Woolf and I have been practicing public relations and offering marketing communications strategies for 20 years. And I'm still learning from people like you. Drop me a line!

  • 08Feb

    The only constant is change. And when it comes to client relations, sometimes one of your outgrows the relationship and it comes time to break up. Breaking up is never easy, but when you know the relationship is no longer working, then you have to face facts and tell your client, “I’m sorry, but it’s over.”

    I have had a lot of those moments in the past few weeks. With the coming of the New Year, there are changes in strategy, budget, staff, and what used to be a great working relationship suddenly changes. Here’s a litany of my recent client break-up experiences:

    1. New company direction and budget reset for 2012 – marketing and PR support is no longer a priority.
    2. New marketing executive who decides to bring in his own team.
    3. Economy has reduced the client’s budget to the point where you lose money working for them at a reduced rate.
    4. The client’s demands are starting to take up more of your time, but they won’t  allocate more budget and they are increasingly slow to pay your invoices.

    breaking-upAny of these sound familiar? Working with clients can be a lot like dating. As long as the relationship has mutual benefit then you continue to work together, but if one or the other party becomes disenchanted, well… I actually see it as part of my mission to help my clients outgrow my services. If I am good at my job, the client company’s business will expand to the point where they need more marketing and PR resources, which means it’s time to hire more in-house staff or bring in a bigger firm. I’m always satisfied when that happens because it means I have done my job and they client has evolved to the next level. It’s all part of the business lifecycle.

    Still, breaking up is always hard to do. When it becomes clear that the working relationship is no longer of mutual benefit, it’s time to part company. Sometimes you will find that a client wants too much, or is detracting from more profitable work, or is just too difficult to work with. Pareto’s Principle of 80/20 indicates that 20 percent of your clients probably make up 80 percent of the workload. They also should make up 80 percent of your profits, but not necessarily contribute 80 percent of the headaches.

    When it’s time to say goodbye, it’s always difficult. You don’t want to turn away business, even if it gets in the way of finding something more lucrative. Somehow, the idea of firing a client seems to bad for business, when in reality, getting rid of a bad client is the best thing you can do for your operation.

    So how do you do it? Be professional and be up front. We all like to avoid conflict, and that leads to unclear communications and passive-aggressive behavior that just makes things more difficult. You want to end the relationship in a way that you both have respect for one another, and so you can use that soon-to-be-former client as a reference later on. Here are some tips I’ve borrowed from Nellie Akalp of CorpNet that you should find useful.

    1. Remove emotion from the equation. I know I tend to get pissed off at clients for any number of reasons. Don’t make decisions when you feel angry or hurt; it will be the wrong decision. Instead, assess the client relationship calmly and rationally and weigh the pros and cons before you decide to part ways. If you find your ego being bruised time and again by the same client, then listen to your instincts.

    2. Honor the contract. My contracts have a termination clause – typically from two weeks to 30 days. Be sure you have fulfilled your part of your contract and honored all of your obligations. It’s good business and will help you secure a reference if you need one, and keep you out of trouble. Beside, it’s just the right thing to do.

    3. Schedule a meeting. It’s so easy to send an email or leave a voice mail message. It’s also a cowardly way to avoid confrontation. Schedule a personal meeting or at least a phone call to explain your position, come to a mutual understanding, and discuss any transition. Meeting face-to-face may be uncomfortable but it’s the right thing to do. (You wouldn’t dump your girlfriend with a text message or PostIt would you?)

    4. Be succinct. Don’t rehash all the reasons you are firing the client, or all the good work you have done in the past. What’s the point? Just keep it short and sweet.

    5. Give sufficient notice. Don’t walk out in the middle of a project. Don’t leave the client in a bind by dropping everything. Honor the spirit as well as the specific terms of your contract and provide the best service you can right up to the end. That shows professionalism and a genuine desire to see your client succeed.

    6. Help with a transition. Offer alternative resources. Prepare all the material you need to help the client hand off the work to another resource. Acknowledge your contribution by offering to pass on what you have done and what you have learned so others who follow don’t have to start from scratch.

    Once you recognize the party’s over, leave gracefully. The professionalism of your exit and how you choose to terminate a client relationship says a lot about you, your firm, and your professionalism, and may make the difference in building your brand reputation or making an enemy with unkind words that may follow you to your next gig.

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  • 11Dec

    Many thanks to Alison Kenney and Lindsay Olson for this week’s blog post on Lindsay’s PR recruiting site, Six Things You Didn’t Know About Solo PR Practitioners. In her guest post, Alison offers six reasons to hire a sole public relations practitioner. As Alison notes, each PR consultant has his or her strengths and unique talents, but she has identified six universal truths about PR soloists:

    1. Solo PR consultants are self-motivated. This is a given since when you work for yourself, whether you are in PR, a freelance writer, or even painting houses for a living, if you aren’t self-directed, you won’t stay in business long. PR soloists are virtuosos at many tasks, including finding and pitching their own business, which requires many of the same skills required to promote yours.

    one-man-band-1289602. PR soloists can become dedicated partners. This is a little known fact for those who have never retained a PR consultant. Most PR consultants who have been doing it for a while like what they are doing, and they like working for themselves, which means they do make great partners because they want to work with you, not for you. They like working with short-term projects or projects with a limited, well-defined scope because they know they can excel at those types of projects. They can work closely with your marketing team in ways that a larger PR firm can’t.

    3. You can find PR consultants to fit the need. Not all PR soloists offer the same services. Some like to do everything from strategic development to execution, and others like to fill in for a missing team member of help with specific projects like writing white papers or product launches. PR practitioners come in all shapes and sizes, so you can find one who fits your needs.

    4. They take their work personally. I like to work as a consultant because it suits my temperament and allows me to deliver well-thought-out, well-executed projects because I am responsible for strategy as well as the hands-on work. I take my work personally because I have to answer to my clients directly, without an agency to run interference, and I have to use my past performance as the means to sell future and repeat business.

    5. Soloists have a niche. PR consultants often have a handful of skills at which they are particularly skilled, as well as the PR basics. the good consultants know what they are good at, and that’s what they sell.

    6. There is no such thing as a truly “solo” PR professional. Every PR consultant is the product of his or her professional experience, drawing from past PR agency work, professional affiliations, clients, and contacts. Most PR consultants I know use a “virtual”agency model, tapping their network of friends and fellow consultants to find the right resources for any project.

    Those are the common traits that Alison identified for PR consultants. Of course, there are many others that I often cite when I talk about PR consulting.

    7. What you see is what you get. One of the things that used to irk me when I worked with larger PR agencies was the “bait and switch”; the firm would bring in the senior practitioners with years of experience to sell the business and build a program, but once the contract was signed, the actual work would be turned over to the junior team for execution. The challenge with the agency structure is that the senior staff is actually too valuable to actually do the work. They are much more valuable closing new business and running the agency. Within the agency, the goal is to rise above doing the day-to-day client work. With PR soloists, it’s exactly the opposite. When you hire a PR consultant, you know they are the ones actually doing the work they promise.

    8. You pay for results, not process. A curse of the agency business is the billing process. Most agencies work on the billable hour, and even those that don’t use billable time against a retainer model to measure employee productivity. A large part of the agency business model is proving their raison d’etre by generating reports and spending an inordinate amount of time proving their value. When you hire a good consultant, they’ll concentrate on getting the job done and not wasting time justifying the invoice.

    9. You get more flexibility. Part of the idea of being a business partner is adapting to the needs of the program. Sole practitioners are much more nimble at adapting to their client’s needs, suggesting ways to improve the program and achieve the target objective without a lot of internal discussion to realign the agency team.

    10. You get better, dedicated service. I also believe you get a lot more loyalty from consultants. After all, you are one of a handful of clients who make up their entire business. The stakes are higher when you are a consultant, and you have a greater vested interest in keeping the clients happy.

    11. You save a lot of money. The savings you get versus the quality of service is not to be discounted. Consultants operate with much lower overhead and less infrastructure so you are paying for their expertise, not for maintaining the office for their staff and their administrative overhead. Consultants can generally charge a more cost-effective rate and offer better service because they have less overhead.

    So overall, you can get more from PR consultants. You get experienced professionals willing to work hard and apply all their expertise. You get a business partner who is committed to helping you succeed because your success reflects on his or her success. And you get more value. When you bring a PR soloist in to solve the right kind of problem, chances are you’ll get superior results.

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  • 30Sep

    The challenge with being in a service business is, well, providing the best customer service. And providing the best service often means doing what’s best for your business and not necessarily what the client wants. After all, as a consultant you are the expert in your field, and the client is paying you for your expertise. In essence, they are paying you to disagree with them when necessary, and that is not always pleasant.AliceTeaPartyClose

    During my years working with different PR agencies I have worked with a number of difficult clients. My agency bosses always emphasized to me that the client is always right, even when they are wrong, and there have been many instances when I have been put in an uncomfortable situation because the client asked for six impossible things before breakfast, and the agency bosses were too concerned about losing the account to say “no.” (Note that this is not universally true, and that I have had some wonderful bosses in my day who would never ask me to compromise my professional integrity.) However, one of the advantages of running your own business is you get to say “no” when you want to, and you get to decide what’s impossible, what’s not, and what can be delivered before breakfast.

    The truth is, you run your business, your clients’ don’t. Granted, your clients pay the bills and keeping them happy keeps the lights on, but if you have a client who asks you to do something unethical or illegal, or even unpleasant, then you have to ask yourself how far you are willing to go to keep the customers satisfied.

    I have been following a lot of commentary these past two weeks about Netflix decision to split its streaming and DVD businesses, and the backlash over the latest changes to the Facebook interface. These changes have created a number of pissed off customers, which has generated a lot of negative traffic on the Web. As Eric Brown noted, however, in a recent blog post for Social Media Explorer entitled “Always Listening to the Customer is a Race to Mediocrity”:

    Perhaps we can all do a better job delivering news, however no one knows or sees what that Entrepreneur, CEO, or Business Owner sees. No one has the information he or she has to know why they made the decision they made. And here is another dirty little secret, your customers haven’t a clue about what your the next innovation or product release should be. Even the best evangelist, if they really exist don’t know the next answer, otherwise they would be the Entrepreneur.

    Your customers don’t have your best interests in mind, and they actually don’t really care if you stay in business, no matter how loyal they are. You have to determine your own future, which means you often have to make tough decisions to protect your business. You have to assess whether a client relationship is going to cost you more in the long run than it’s worth to you. And there are different ways to assess costs, whether the client is not respectful of your time which means you can’t service other clients; whether they aren’t respectful of your ethics which could damage your reputation; or they are just too hard to work with which will cost you your sanity.

    If you give your client your best counsel and they choose to reject it, that doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. But you don’t have to watch a train wreck either just to have the satisfaction of saying, “I told you so”; that won’t help your professional reputation. And you don’t have to be a slave to your clients, or let them abuse your professional relationship by demanding more than you are willing to commit to, or they are willing to actually pay for. It’s still your business, and sometimes you just have to just say “no!”

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