A down economy should prompt more investment in client service

It's no secret that the struggling economy has impacted the PR sector. Conversations with agency CEOs and corporate-side communicators reveal that while it's not time to panic yet, marketing budgets are being frozen or whittled down and AOR RFPs are not as plentiful as they once were.

It's no secret that the struggling economy has impacted the PR sector. Conversations with agency CEOs and corporate-side communicators reveal that while it's not time to panic yet, marketing budgets are being frozen or whittled down and AOR RFPs are not as plentiful as they once were.

In such an environment, as agency CEOs will say time and time again, organic growth becomes more vital than ever. It's also cost-efficient for the client, as it is far more expensive to conduct an RFP – considering the manpower and time investment – than to just expand a successful partnership with an existing firm. When speaking to corporate-side PR practitioners, I'm sometimes surprised that it's not new media expertise, global presence, or creativity of the campaigns that are cited as the primary reasons for staying with an agency. As one corporate contact told me recently, it's often hard to distinguish firms based on their actual campaigns. Instead what resonates most with companies is a simple tenet of any business: outstanding client service.

I've never practiced PR, much less worked at a PR firm, so I don't know exactly what it's like to serve a client. Yet I've worked with many outside vendors during my career, so I've been a client before. As such, I can empathize with the feeling of frustration that clients sometimes express in working with firms. Given my experiences, here are some “golden rules” of client service:

Leave the vanishing acts to magicians. Nothing will piss off a client more than having the “dog and pony” show with senior executives pitching throughout the RFP process, only to find out that an AE will be the day-to-day contact on the account, while those senior executives are often MIA because they are too busy with bigger and, therefore, presumably more important clients;

Communicate, communicate, communicate. You do it on your clients' behalf, so keep them in the loop, too. Be it a change on the account team or a day off, don't leave clients in the dark. And while a phone call is a great touch, always back it up with an e-mail for the record;

Know the business. You must understand not only your client's business, but also the overall industry. Certainly at the start of a relationship, the client bears some of that responsibility to educate. But once the grace period is over, it's the firm's job to know everything inside and out and get any new team members up to speed. Your purpose is to make clients' lives easier, not harder.

While many of these points are related to the day-to-day management of an account, the consistency of execution sends a signal about the firm's overall leadership – and in today's economic climate it's important that clients get the right message.

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