To develop loyal clients, it takes the extra effort

During a recent client/agency performance review, the client summarized the state of the relationship with his current PR firm by saying: "What you have is a satisfied client. What you don't have - yet - is a loyal client."

During a recent client/agency performance review, the client summarized the state of the relationship with his current PR firm by saying: "What you have is a satisfied client. What you don't have - yet - is a loyal client."

This story conveys a familiar issue in some agency/client engagements - that is, getting beyond providing simply strong work for fair value that engenders a client's respect, and providing the value-added service that results in long-term client loyalty. Below are three things that can help achieve this critical shift.

Provide real insight - and do it without asking

Understanding the client's business is one of the "costs of entry" in most client/agency relationships. But the best unions happen when the firm goes beyond industry knowledge to offer real insights about a client's business, the stakeholders most important to it, and how the insights can translate into strategic communications suggestions.

An observation made at a CMO Roundtable hosted by the Council in July revealed both the frustration of some marketers and the opportunity PR firms now have: "I really don't care where you're coming from - PR firm, ad agency, interactive, or wherever. I want you to tell me about the people who buy my product and the world of communications in which they live." Providing that level of insight and market intelligence will help make a firm indispensable to its client.

No Substitute for Creativity

Client satisfaction reports conducted by many titles often show that most PR firms score well in the majority of relationship categories, especially service and collaboration. The areas where there is usually room for improvement are those related to creativity or innovation.

To clients, creativity these days means more than developing high-visibility events. And it's not confined to marketing communications, as some might think. In the area of corporate communications, more clients are seeking a higher order of thinking. They want creative solutions that support their pursuit of key business objectives.

Creativity in this context might include a novel approach to using the court of public opinion to force a settlement in a litigation dispute; an innovative theme or positioning statement that helps align an organization behind a company mission, or gleaning insights from corporate reputation research that helps a company speak in a new vernacular to its various stakeholders. The concept here is to help a client think differently about their world.

Holding Yourself Accountable

Agencies and clients should each have a firm grasp on the relationship's direction. Through regular meetings and other types of communications, they should both know its strengths and weaknesses at any given moment. To go the extra mile, though, this kind of informal feedback needs to be supplemented by a formal review process.

Most firms, according to a recent Council survey, have a formalized approach to evaluating their client relationships. To make this practice more pervasive, the Council's Client Services Committee is developing a client/agency assessment tool and best practices document designed to help firms and clients evaluate and assess the relationship.

Today's PR firm can't afford to just be "good enough." Insight, creativity, and engaging in proactive relationship management that stresses accountability will help develop and sustain a loyal client.

Harlan Teller is chief client officer, US, and senior managing director, Midwest operations, at Financial Dynamics. He also chairs the Council's Client Services Committee.

The Council is dedicated to strengthening the recognition and role of PR firms in
corporate strategy, business performance, and social education, serving as an authoritative source of information and expert comment and helping set standards for
the PR industry. For more information about the Council of Public Relations Firms,
call 1-877-PRFIRMS or visit our Web site at www. prfirms.org.

This column is contributed and paid for by the Council of PR Firms.

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