Standards: Why aren't your clients satisfied?

A new study shows many clients are not happy about the level of service their agencies provide. Mark Johnson asks how PROs can improve.

Every PRO will have asked themselves at some point in their careers: 'Are my clients really happy with my work?' Client satisfaction is the lifeblood of the consultancy business, but while some might well be musing over it every now and then, relatively few PR agencies seem to be monitoring how they are meeting the expectations of clients.

This has been most starkly revealed in an independent survey by marketing services consultancy Results Business Consulting, in which 70 client companies graded their marketing and PR agencies by various parameters of customer satisfaction. Even the most positive results showed that only three quarters of respondents were satisfied with the attitude their agencies had towards their business, with a worse score on how clients felt their agencies understood their business.

High-quality strategic thinking scored even lower and when it comes to stewardship things quickly fall apart. Only 65 per cent said their agency shows good initiative and only 67 per cent said their agencies manage the business proactively on their behalf.

So what exactly is going wrong? Results Business Consulting managing partner Jim Surguy believes many agencies lack a broad vision for their clients.

'There are a lot of well-managed PR agencies,' he says. 'But they think too narrowly.'

Although the survey results also cover client views of direct marketing, advertising, PR and marketing services, Surguy says the results are a fair reflection on PR.

Among his criticisms of PR agencies are that they remain too reactive when clients are seeking support that will 'bring the fight to them'.

He also identifies a lack of strategic thinking and far too much emphasis being placed on commoditised press relations, with weaknesses in recruitment and a lack of understanding of clients' business imperatives. It is no-holds-barred stuff.

'The weakness in PR (compared with other marketing services) is that it is still unable to provide measurable statistics for where the money is going. Clients want to know this. They want more accountability, and they want more measurability.'

Ensuring client satisfaction is no easy science. For every one that demands regular updates, another wants their agency or in-house folk to take it out of their hands. After all, that is why they have a PR operation in the first place.

Managed expectations

Surguy says more agencies must tackle the issue by adopting systems to manage service expectations. Staniforth Public Relations pioneered one such system, where management of relationships is conducted using a points-scoring system so clients can review the agency's performance on several levels. As a result the agency came top in PRWeek's client satisfaction surveys from 1996-99 and its commitment is ongoing. Staniforth head of London office Justine Rawlins says: 'We see clients face-to-face on a regular basis. We never let it get to the stage where it is a complaint.'

Apart from these regular feedback sessions, the agency also insists its clients take part in quarterly and annual reviews. One of the lessons the system has taught Staniforth is what it terms 'an enlightened pragmatism'.

'We never overpromise and deliver consistently,' says Rawlins. 'As a result, a ten-year relationship is not unusual for us.'

Another example of a PR agency that has pushed for performance reviews and appraisals is Four Communications. Its 'fair deal' policy has been in place since the agency's inception at the end of 2001. It is aimed fundamentally at transparency for its clients. And Four managing partner Nan Williams says the benefits of the system work both ways. 'If I was a client, I would want service levels, fees and so forth set out very clearly from the beginning. We've found that when it works well, it makes the relationship better,' he says.

One of the tenets of Four's system is that clients are made aware from the start exactly which consultants will work for them. Jemma Smith, communications manager at Four client The Association of Payment and Clearing Services, says such guarantees help cement a client/agency relationship.

'On previous occasions, I found the team you started off with was not always the same as the team you continued to work with over the course of time. The senior team disappears altogether,' she says. 'With Four, senior staff who pitch are very hands-on with the account. That makes a tremendous difference. You have a relationship built up over time and you get the relationship you paid for.'

Consistent demands

Other organisations outsourcing PR seem to be making similar demands from their agencies. 'Clear campaign briefs and objectives with regular review meetings are a must,' says Department of Health communications directorate head of campaign management Wyn Roberts. 'I ensure these actions are recorded and promptly circulated. The result is that agency performance has improved through a deeper understanding of our business needs.'

The obvious danger agencies face when they lose the energy and enthusiasm for an account is that they end up losing the business. But it may not all be bad news for PR agencies. Agency Assessments International is a consultancy aimed at providing services to advertising, PR and marketing agencies and their clients. Its founder, David Wethey, runs its Sea Changes programme - originally designed for advertising agencies and their clients.

Today it is also used by PR firms. It tackles issues in the client/agency relationship, focusing on performance, innovative remuneration solutions and scope of work.

Wethey says: 'PR agencies are no worse than ad agencies - indeed they tend to be more goal and performance-focused. I think ad agencies can learn from the PR industry.'

PR agencies need not carry the can for marketing and ad failings, although as always, they have their own role to play to make sure the client/agency relationship is as harmonious as possible.

CASE STUDY: EDELMAN'S QUALITY PROGRAMME

JANICE ROCHSTEIN

In 2001, Janice Rochstein was appointed chief quality officer at Edelman, responsible for client relationships. Her brief is to manage its Quality Programme, conducting ongoing analysis of the firm's service.

Her main task is supervising the firm's Client Relationship Assessment System - an online questionnaire, available in eight languages, of 39 questions - that is triggered on the anniversary of the contract between the agency and the client. It measures client satisfaction and recognises employees' contributions. 'A client in Shanghai has the same service as a client in Sao Paulo or San Francisco,' says Rochstein.

New clients receive the questionnaire twice a year for the first year then annually thereafter. Project clients receive the survey upon completion.

The results go back to Rochstein, who then communicates with the client leader, office MD or global practice leader, either congratulating success or offering solutions where issues remain unsolved.

In a recent case, Edelman's contact at a major tech client left the company and the post went unfilled. During that time, more junior staff completed a feedback form. 'We found they had been shielding us from dissatisfaction.

So we went in, sorted it out, and found the quality of the relationship was the problem rather than the work. We've been addressing that and we fully expect a better score next time,' says Rochstein.

For a global agency trying to keep track of performance the data gathered is proving valuable. More than 700 reviews are already in the system with 40 forms being added each month.

NEIL LOVELL

'There is always a danger that an agency will sell you something and then sell it to 12 other clients. The framework we use for managing all of our agency relationships at RAC is based around what we expect - timescales, points of contact and details on fees. We have a very strong view that agencies should work in harmony with the in-house team. We do brainstorming to make sure agencies understand our business and marketing strategies as well as what we are planning for the future. It's about attention to detail and effort, rather than opportunities to see and other measures of coverage.'

Neil Lovell, director of corporate communications, RAC.

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