3 secrets to long-term PR agency client relationships
Seasoned PR pros do these three things to deeply connect with clients.
As veterans of healthcare PR agencies, we can say with confidence they’ve done a lot of good work in the world. However, there’s always room to do better, so when I was founding PR-it, I was on a mission to find out how. I asked 15 CEOs, marketing directors and comms heads from start-ups to non-profits to publicly traded Fortune 500 companies what they would change about their healthcare PR agency relationship if they could wave a magic wand.
Quality of work was the first thing that came out of almost everyone’s mouth. Once the ink was dry on a renewal contract, clients perceived work quality to decline as seasoned consultants spent less time on their business, teams were overstretched, and inexperienced professionals were left to their own devices to execute. Most of the interviewees claimed it was not uncommon to receive final work that was error-ridden and that their feedback wasn’t thoughtfully followed, but rather incorporated verbatim even if it was general guidance, not line edits.
It was abundantly clear that clients resented redoing their agencies’ work. After paying thousands or millions – it’s not unreasonable to expect a job well done. What’s shocking, is that it’s not uncommon for clients to be billed hourly by agencies for fixing their own mistakes!
Hot on the heels of quality, was strategy. There was a consensus among the group that there’s a lack of creative or fresh thinking brought to their accounts, especially in highly regulated industries. There was also an overall lack of strategic insight brought into planning or day-to-day problem solving.
Clients are often swamped with internal stakeholder management and don’t have the capacity to keep their finger on the pulse of what’s new and innovative. They expect their agency team to stay abreast of developments in their sector and the communications industry to consistently bring smart and fresh ideas to the table. Of course, clients have their own ideas and the final say, but they want their agency partners to challenge and inform their thinking.
It’s probably not unexpected that knowledge is next on the list which is why the strategy and work quality is slipping. Clients in technical industries were particularly irked when their agency team didn’t understand their data. And of course, if you don’t understand the data, you have no hope of communicating why its significant or newsworthy.
Seasoned experts have generally amassed a fantastic amount of insight from working with similar companies in the past or representing a client for multiple years. The problem is, there’s not enough of them to go around. Most agencies staff up their teams with less experienced professionals who do the heavy lifting with a couple seasoned experts guiding the work. Why? Because they make the greatest profit margin on those with lower billing rates and client budgets generally can’t afford seasoned consultants doing the work 24/7 at rates traditional agencies have to charge to cover overheads.
This leads into the next wish which is to have a more experienced team. Many of the executives interviewed were convinced that if they had received more time and attention from their seasoned team members, then they wouldn’t need to wish for #1-3. While this may be true, the traditional agency business model makes it difficult to staff this way, even if a client could suddenly afford it. High staff turnover at junior levels often exacerbates the issue by eroding the number of team members who have amassed institutional knowledge about the client’s products, sector, and branding requirements.
And lastly, everyone touched on efficiency in some capacity. Large companies want their agencies to collaborate more seamlessly to realise workflow and cost efficiencies while smaller organisations would just be happy to spend less time and money on account administration. Casting my mind back to my agency days, I remember trying to run the infrastructure of a client account on a shoestring because no client (even huge ones) wants 10-20% of their budget spent on status calls and Gantt charts.
Ultimately, clients want their agencies to be true partners – extensions of their team. While this can be tricky for consultants juggling multiple accounts, the best way to keep clients happy is to genuinely care, dig in, show them that you’re living and breathing their business and making errors a rarity versus the norm.