Agency Doctor: Stop aiming to keep your clients happy and start earning their respect

The emotional wellbeing of your client should not be your number one priority - business outcomes should, and your client will respect you for it.

Agency Doctor: Stop aiming to keep your clients happy and start earning their respect

When working at a client agency I will often chat to the account teams about the programmes they are working on. When I ask: "How is the programme going?" I invariably get the answer "I think the client is happy", or words to that effect. I would like to respond: "I didn’t ask about the bloody emotional welfare of the client, I asked how the programme was going," but the consultant in me normally stops that.

What I am always hoping for is a reply that starts with what the programme objectives are and pithy comments on how the team is progressing towards delivering against them – maybe even details of milestone activities.

This concern about the emotional wellbeing of the client seems to stem from the fact that emotional criteria often play a big part in the selection of agencies by clients. The very existence of chemistry meetings is testament to this. The day-to-day management of the account often revolves around a personal working relationship – far more open and social than you see in other advisory-based sectors.

Plus, of course the clear majority of PR consultants like to be liked. Few join to write business plans. We are by nature outgoing, communicative types.

But living a work-life whose success is reliant, in a great part, on how your client is feeling is not good business.

So how about 2018 being the year you shift from aiming to keeping your clients happy to earning their respect?

You may not think this is a big shift, but it has significant implications for how you set up client programmes, handle the client relationship and take decisions in your agency. To start with, you will need to have measurable objectives for all your client programmes. No real excuses here – the PRCA and AMEC have produced numerous simple free guides to evaluation.

Secondly, you will need to negotiate. Those requests for out-of-scope work must be dealt with professionally. Spending time on work that won’t deliver on core objectives ultimately damages your reputation in the eyes of the client and, of course, hits your margin.

You will also need to drive cultural change in your agency. Simply saying yes to clients is a hard habit to break.

As the agency or client lead, you will have to make some difficult decisions. In a sector where supply outstrips demand, price pressures are tougher than ever, so it is always hard to turn down an opportunity. But it’s clear that a prospect taking this approach doesn’t respect you before you start working together. What will their attitude be once you have hit a few of the inevitable bumps in the road that PR brings?

So why not start 2018 with a shift in mindset? Remind yourself that you run a professional agency, your team does great work and can demonstrate value. You have the right to be paid for the work you do and to make a profit. Respect will follow from right-minded clients, and you’ll have some fun.

Richard Houghton is a business consultant:

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