Client relationship management: many happy returns?

We’re on chapter 12 of #FuturePRoof and it’s time to discuss client relationship management. We need, want and should even relish negotiation, budgeting and contracts, because they’re central ingredients in achieving happy clients and happy agencies.

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You’ll learn:

·         How concentrating on contract detail can forge a stronger client relationship and secure larger budgets
·         Why client paperwork needs to be regularly reviewed
·         The importance of negotiation as a management team skill

It seems I get to write the sexy chapter then.

There are few in the communications business, surely, who relish negotiation, budget-setting, contract management and tackling the intricacies of achieving client satisfaction. We’re communicators, so it’s not the sort of stuff that puts a spring in our step.

Hold that thought though: negotiation, budgets, contracts and client satisfaction. We have four means to an end there – the desired outcome being sustained client satisfaction, or even delight, or amazement, at the results generated and the returns on investment achieved.

So we do need, want and should even relish negotiation, budgeting and contracts, because they’re central ingredients in achieving happy clients and happy agencies.

I’m not saying they’ll ever be fun. But they’re all part and parcel of what we need to work towards in making communications – and for that read public relations in the broadest sense – better valued and a tangible commercial, political or personal asset, rather than an instrument of hope.

Happiness and hope

Ouch. The H word. Yes, for me the one thing that has forced shaky foundations for the thornier elements of contract negotiation, investment and the mechanics by which clients engage PR agency to work on their behalf, has been hope.

If we’re truthful with ourselves, the world in which media relations in the pursuit of positive publicity and negation or avoidance of negative ink was the primary proxy, was a world based, ultimately, on hope. We hoped that what the agency could achieve would influence people, would build reputation and would in turn persuade people to try, buy, recommend or change.

There were of course many other contributing factors, not least the behaviour of the organisation or individuals in the public eye. But still, when push came to shove, anyone negotiating a contract or committing to invest money knew, deep down, that this was a punt. They hoped positive publicity would occur, they hoped people would read, see or listen to it, they hoped they’d understand it and pay attention, and they hoped it would lead to outcomes.

To put this in perspective, the same can, or could, be said of many other organisational investments. Sales teams were hired in the hope they would sell things, for instance.

What goes in, what comes out

What has changed of course is the ability to correlate what goes in with what comes out.

To determine strategy based on being able to listen harder to expressed demand, to deploy strategy in the form of planned activity, and to adjust as and when required to try to drive more or different outputs and outcomes.

It may all sound a bit military, and the reality of course is that real life is never as clinical due to the fragmented and diverse media environment and, well, life and world we live in just not being like that.

How does this all tie into how we can take a more progressive approach to the nitty gritty of client/agency engagement then? For me, it all comes down to being able to not assure outcomes, but to move beyond hope to partnerships through which definitive advantage is gained for the organisation investing the money.

Whether or not they ultimately sign off PR investments, they are responsible for them. Ask most of them what the purpose of that spending is and the answers are likely to severely undershoot what the agency or communications team is actually trying to achieve. In all likelihood, many probably still see PR as ‘making us look good in the media and keeping the bad stuff out’, though appreciate that changing media has put this in a broader context.

The finance acid test

The finance head may not be our primary client stakeholder, but they’re an important acid test of whether the value of more progressive and commercially-aligned communications activities is clear to the business, appreciated and even coveted. Getting the finance person to willingly invest more in communications because it’s delivering measurable advantage is a state of affairs that communications leaders and agency heads would surely love to come to pass.

We know media, while continuing to evolve rapidly, is now two-way. We know that the route to #FuturePRoofing PR, or its continued evolution into something higher-prizes, lies in the ability to better prove its value. And we can see, surely, that the quest for value isn’t one dimensional, that it involves the full circle of what we do, from audience understanding and insights to strategic development, creative ideas, strong execution and more commercially-attuned measurement.

Underpinning that, as a core ingredient of how we achieve client satisfaction, delight and amazement, is the paperwork. The stuff that binds one organisation to another in an agreement of partnership.

So that paperwork needs to not just reflect but commit to what we can achieve today, and needs to be reviewed regularly so that it will be able to commit to what we’ll be able to achieve in the future.

Rather than stating that an agency will “carry out public relations services” and then list either categories or deliverables, we will need to move towards contracts that state not only desired outcomes but how we will measure them and what the financial implications are of achieving those outcomes. In doing so, we will need to be clearer and sharper on what investments will not aim to achieve definitive advantage but make a tangible, or even intangible, contribution towards some commercial, personal or governmental aim.

Commitments and confidence

Those commitments will need to be frank and pragmatic, but given they are legally binding will need to be made with the conviction that they are realistic and achievable. Commit at that level, and in that way, and budgets can then be aligned to those clear deliverables and the pursuit of definitive advantage.

Negotiation, too, will change as a consequence. The over reliance on hope has long been the Achilles heel of contract negotiation, along with a lack of confidence, though the two are in my view often entwined.

Imagine, though, a negotiation environment in which the seller is committing to definitive advantage through clear returns on investment and the ability to chart outcomes against budgets. There is less grey territory to negotiate over, and the focus becomes more about the volume of money assigned rather than the value of different elements of activity.

The ability to commit contractually to the achievement and improved measurement of true value through the paperwork in turn can lead to PR services being not only a more strategic asset, but more valued over time and more worthy of increased investment. A lot to tackle then, and implications for practically every area that our work touches, but a clear foundation for happy clients - and therefore happy agencies - because of many happy returns on investment.


Steve Earl. Entrepreneur, former journalist and self-confessed cycloholic Steve Earl runs Zeno’s European operations. As co-author of Brand Anarchy and #BrandVandals, both published by Bloomsbury, there is little he doesn’t know about reputational risk and the opportunities for progressive PR.

Twitter: @mynameisearl