As much as its staff's ability to produce effective outreach efforts and cultivate strong media ties, the need to provide consistently excellent client service is essential to the well-being of any PR agency.
"Everyone says they want to deliver great client service, but what does that mean?" asks Melissa Lackey, SVP and COO of Standing Partnership PR. "How do you define that for your organization?"
For her firm, Lackey says, outstanding client service revolves around honesty, integrity, respect, and excellence. To relay these principles to both staffers and industry peers, she's come up with an analogy based on The Wizard of Oz: Great service requires using one's brain (Scarecrow); demands the courage to give clients answers they may not like (Lion); and should always be delivered directly from the heart (Tin Man).
If there's even one trait her firm can't live up to, it refers the client elsewhere, Lackey stresses.
"[When] we're not able to adhere to [these] values - or clients aren't - we have a very candid conversation and will help them find a different organization where they would be more comfortable," she adds. The firm has sacrificed some accounts with this approach, Lackey acknowledges, "but more relationships stay intact."
Though Edelman hasn't devised its own classic-film analogy, it is committed to strong client service, notes Central US region president Nancy Ruscheinski.
"We owe our staff to teach them how to be good listeners, how to ask probing questions, and how to anticipate what clients will need in six months," she says.
To achieve these goals, Edelman offers its executives comprehensive client-service training and a client relationship management (CRM) course. For each account, one exec is charged to oversee the agency-client relationship; the largest accounts merit a dedicated CRM manager, and a global chief quality officer travels throughout the Edelman network to add a layer of client-service attention.
"All of this helps keep client service a laser focus in everything we do," explains Ruscheinski.
Not only does keeping such close watch allow the firm to monitor the evolution of each client's needs, but it also helps develop or reinforce resilient agency-client connections. That's especially valuable on occasions when Edelman simply doesn't agree with a client's proposed course of action. In fact, pushing back can be a reflection of exceptional client service.
"I don't think clients are looking for 'yes' men," says Ruscheinski. "We can usually find an alternative rather than an outright 'no.'"
Excellent service does strengthen the agency-client relationship and creates partnerships that endure, agrees Ken Luce, head of Weber Shandwick's client relationship leader program.
"'One-size-fits-all' is not the best way to look at a client-service question," he notes. "The most important thing when talking about the general 'going above and beyond' is the makeup of the individual service of the business."
No matter how above and beyond a firm drives itself, at day's end, a PR agency's client-service success stories can be told in part by its long-term account roster.
"That longevity, being able to go through the good and bad with clients," says Luce, "is the ultimate measure of client service."
Regularly take stock of each client's needs, and how they can best be met
Say 'no' when a client's request is not in its - or the firm's - best interest
Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach: CRM should be customized, creative, and flexible