• 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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  • 20Oct

    There are many times that I see public relations as a relatively thankless job. As with many professions, your bosses or clients typically call out what went wrong with a program or campaign or when the results are lackluster. They seldom let you know when you hit it out of the park and do outstanding work – after all, isn’t that what they are paying you for?

    client-agency-relationshipsHowever, one of the things that clients often fail to understand is that any successful PR or marketing support team is only as good as the collaborative support they receive. If they don’t give you sufficient support and information, then the results will be only as good as you can deliver without setting the right objectives and doing the right data gathering from the outset. I have a couple of clients who make our regular strategy call a low priority and just assume that the program can bump along without much input. The real problem clients are the ones who expect I am supposed to read their needs and fill in the gaps to make the program work in a vacuum. As with computing, if you put garbage in, you get garbage out.

    I spotted an article in Ragan’s PR Daily last week that addresses some of these issues. The idea is that as an external consultant, you need to be a collaborative partner with your clients, and that’s a door that swings both ways. You not only need to give your best expertise and effort as the contractor, but the client needs to be forthcoming with any relevant information and concerns, and set an expectation that you can both agree upon so the desired results of the program are set in advance and measurable. Here is some wisdom from the nine tips on how to promote good PR/client relationship from Ragan’s PR Daily:

    1. Communicate goals and expectations. You need to agree on the objectives of the program and the key performance indicators, i.e. how to measure success, in advance! If you deliver a huge clip book for a product launch, for example, but all the client cares about is coverage in Gizmodo which didn’t cover the story, then you failed, no matter how many articles you generate. However, if the client didn’t clearly set Gizmodo as a priority, the failure is theirs for not communicating expectations.
    2. Commit time to communicate. This is a two-way commitment between the client and the consultant. You both need to set aside time to discuss strategy, tactics, and reaffirm goals and expectations. Your team can only be as good as the quality of information and access given, so make time to talk on a regular, scheduled basis, as well as with ongoing email, instant messaging, whatever it takes.
    3. Be respectful of agency time. Many PR firms bill by the hour, and others, including mine, bill on a retained basis, although I track billable time to gauge performance against the retainer. Clients need to be respectful of agency time. If they take up all your time for too little return, you will be less inclined to go the extra mile when they really need it.
    4. Demand feedback. Feedback needs to come from the client about performance, but the client also should rely on the PR consulting team to provide independent input on media perception, brand reputation, and what the market buzz is saying about their brand. The PR firm’s role is to provide neutral insight into brand reputation, and the client should be open to feedback.
    5. Be transparent. The client needs to communicate business goals and impediments to success in an honest, frank manner to get frank feedback. The PR team is working under confidentiality, and to be effective they need to know the good, the bad, and the ugly.
    6. Manage expectations. One of the reasons I try to work only with senior decision makers is I know I will get the straight story on what the expectations are for the program. Most programs fail not because of execution, but because the objectives for the program weren’t well defined in the first place. You may reach the defined goal, but the end result may not be what the client really wants because they failed to set the proper expectations.
    7. Give credit where it’s due. Positive feedback helps fuel the PR team. We all like to be praised for doing a good job, and I know I work harder for clients who appreciate the work. I always praise my team when they perform, and I love to get praise from the client when we do a good job. It really fires up the team.
    8. Challenge the PR team to deliver more. Ask for new ideas and creative input and you’ll get it, and more. The more interesting the project, the better the effort.
    9. Be a strategic partner. Okay, I know that all agencies say they are strategic partners for their clients, but that strategic relationship only works if there is mutual respect and shared goals. If your client can engage in a way where you feel invested in their success as part of the team, then the performance and results will be that much greater that if you are just asked to handle the block-and-tackle tasks.

    Successful PR and marketing programs are build on successful client communications and a mutual commitment to achieving results. It has to be a cooperative effort where both parties commit the time and resources necessary to make the relationship work. Lack of commitment and lack of communications will be sure to have a negative impact on any program.

    (With special thanks to Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications, who authored the original article for Ragan’s PR Daily and for the blog MENG Blend.

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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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  • 12Apr

    Flying Solo Caution SignPublic relations is a creative job. You have to be able to look at a client’s product or service, assess market needs and news angles, and find a way to build market awareness with his target audience. It’s not always an easy task and it requires innovative thinking, solid storytelling – creativity! Good PR and marketing also require solid teamwork. You need to be able to engage with your clients to agree on market objectives, key messages, market differentiators, everything. You need to work together with senior decision-makers to agree on strategy, execution, deliverables, and ways to measure success.

    Creativity and teamwork are not good bedfellows.

    I have the privilege or working with some very smart and dedicated people. And that means we have some very heated discussions on how to do things to achieve an end result, right or wrong. One of the challenges in being smart and creative is that you can see multiple ways to solve a problem or achieve an objective. However, your ideas may not jibe with someone who is equally intelligent and brings a different perspective. So good PR also requires good diplomacy and a willingness to compromise, even when you are convinced you are right. There is little room for ego if you run a service business.

    So I was interested to spot a blog post by Kimberley Weisul on BNET today, “Why Smart People Make Lousy Teams.” Citing a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College, the findings demonstrate that smart people don’t necessarily play well with others. For example:

    Intelligence does not affect team performance. There is no connection between smarts and teamwork, so throwing smart people at a team-driven problem isn’t going to help you.

    EQ is more important than IQ. Good communications, good coordination, and stronger emotional intelligence (EQ) tend to promote good teamwork. If you have people who are good at reading and responding to other’s emotional needs, your team will deliver better performance. Even a single contributor with a high EQ can make a big difference.

    Strong personalities hurt team performance. Groups where a single strong personality or decision-maker dominates the conversation don’t do as well as groups where team members take turns. Strong leaders are less effective in group decision-making.

    According to the research, the easiest way to create more emotionally intelligent teams is to include women:

    Women are often perceived to be more socially sensitive, and more communally-minded, than men. To the extent that’s true, it’s easy to see how it could be helpful in a team context. And in the experiments, the researchers found that teams that included women were more socially-sensitive, and better performing, than then all-male teams. (No word on the performance of all-female teams. I’ve reached out to the researchers about that, and will update if I hear back.)

    Without revising any additional scientific research, I think I can safely say that the male ego plays a role here. Working with male CEOs and executives, particularly at start-up companies, has taught me that even though they are paying for your counsel and expertise, you have to tread lightly and be judicious with your opinion. (I find women executives are, indeed, more open to new ideas. I also think that’s why women gravitate to public relations.) To be a successful CEO requires a certain amount of hutzpah, and the conviction to stand your ground when everyone else tells you that you are wrong. Sometimes such egos get in the way of success and sometimes they fuel that success; it depends on the situation. But whenever you are dealing with a strong, charismatic leader, the concept of teamwork changes dramatically and the work becomes more of a parade than a huddle. If you can’t follow the leader, then you should bow out.

    And that’s where a different kind of creativity comes into play. You need to find new ways to deliver through compromise. No matter how good your approach or ideas, if the client says no, then you have to achieve the goal within whatever restrictions you have to deal with. Being in a service business means you have to fulfill the wishes of the client as well as the requirements of the project. And when the two seem at odds, it’s time to set aside you IQ, crank up your EQ, and deliver the goods.

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  • 29Mar

    peanut-butter

    Forrest Gump believes that life is like a box of chocolates, and I see consulting as like a jar of peanut butter. Some people like their smooth and some like it chunky (my preference) but the challenge is not to spread yourself too thin.

    Consultants face an ongoing challenge in terms of work balance. You should be spending about 20 percent of your time on new business development, and the other 80 percent of the time on keeping your current clients happy. But when that 20 percent of effort yields multiple projects simultaneously, then you need to be prepared to step up and deliver advice and services that have value; deliver the chunky stuff so you don’t have to spread the creamy peanut butter too thin.

    Granted, having more work than you can handle is a good problem to have, sort of, but it can backfire if you don’t manage the work appropriately. If you overpromise and under deliver, it will affect your professional reputation, and probably cost you a lot of current business. If you overcommit and then work yourself too hard to get the job done, which leads to second-rate service and ultimately burnout.

    So how do you spread yourself appropriately to make sure you are optimizing both time and money? Here are a few strategies I have used in the past:

    Set up a monthly work calendar. I recommend to all my clients to establish a “scope of work” for each month, outlining objectives and tasks to be completed. As part of this exercise, you should establish your own time estimates to assess how much time you need to allocate. Granted, priorities will change during the course of the month, which means as you add new tasks you take other tasks off the agenda. This exercise is not only about creating a roadmap for yourself as to what you can reasonably achieve during the month, but it’s also about setting expectations for the client.

    Touch every client every day. It’s so easy to focus on projects that are interesting or that have seemingly more urgent deadlines. Therein lies a common consulting trap – oiling the squeaky wheel. If you only pay attention to the clients and projects that are demanding your attention, those other tasks that support the less demanding clients will fall by the wayside. If you touch every client every day with some communication, task, or even checking in on work in process, you can stay on top of your client work.

    Keep track of your efforts. I like to bill on a retainer since this makes budgeting simpler for the clients and eliminates billing surprises. That doesn’t mean you don’t keep track of your work. I keep timesheets for all my clients, retained or not, to determine whether my time budgeting is on target and to determine if one client is demanding too much of my time. If you keep track of where your time goes, it is easier to identify where the problems are emerging in time management so you can either reset expectations or realign your hours.

    Get help when you need it. When the floodgates open and new business comes pouring in, I know many consultants turn away business based on their availability. A better strategy is to take on the projects and enlist partners to help. I have operated a “virtual” agency model for years and for larger projects can bring in one of my peers to help with the day-to-day tasks. You can scale if you have help and assume a project management role, assuming you can continue to maintain the quality of the work.

    Know when to say no. There are times when a giant project might land in your lap that is tempting and lucrative. You need to ask yourself a few leading questions before you accept the contract. Will it jeopardize your other work? Will you be able to continue to build your business while you handle this mongo project? What about when the project is completed; will you still have enough work? I find that putting all your eggs in a single client basket can be fraught with risk.

    Get rid of the dead wood. If you have new work coming in the front door, consider kicking the dead wood out the back door. There are always some clients that you will never satisfy or that aren’t a good fit. Either your work styles don’t align, expectations aren’t set properly, or you just don’t have the right tools to deliver what they need. If, like a bad job, the client isn’t a good fit or they are too demanding, taking on new business gives you an opportunity to clean house.

    Follow the money. As part of your housekeeping, take a look at some of your less lucrative clients and determine if new business opportunities give you a chance to renegotiate or change the terms of your contract. Even fun contracts can prove to be a loss leader in terms of time and energy. New, more lucrative contracts will give you a chance to change or end a less profitable client relationship without risk.

    Successful consulting is a a continuous balancing act. Knowing when to streamline your operation and how to balance dueling priorities is the key to consulting success. So keep it crunchy and don’t spread yourself too thin.

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