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You may have the best product in the world, but it means nothing if you don’t win the love of your customers.
Let’s take chatbots: the sleek, time-saving natural language processors that provide 24/7 customer support. In recent years, chatbot startups have managed to bring in millions, riding the wave of the artificial intelligence hype.
The streamlined interfaces and cost-saving benefits of these platforms may excite investors and businesses, but there’s one group that’s not being sold: the customers themselves.
This got me thinking about the similarities between “customer service” and what we call “customer management” in public relations. These two concepts are not analogous, but they both seek to tailor a business to the experiences customers desire.
Over the past 40 years, the average client-agency relationship has declined from: seven years to less than three† Happy customers certainly translate into longer relationships, but getting the first part of that equation right often comes with frustration.
Related: 3 Ways to Connect with Your Customers and Improve Their Experience
It is well known that good customer management is a mix of transparency, reliability, communication and patience. But when you’re dealing with strong personalities and high expectations, these adjectives can get pretty meaningless.
So how do you get those sparks over? Here’s my philosophy on managing customer relationships and some tips on how to win the hearts of your current and future customers.
Manage expectations from the start
A few years ago I was on my first meeting with a new client. I was over the moon to work with them, and vice versa. As the conversation progressed, I got a good sense of their brand and company story. Sparks flew, the relationship was built. But then the client jumped in with a question that caught me off guard.
“So, how soon can we expect a story in The New York Times† they asked.
At that point, I thought back to my reporter days, when my inbox would be overflowing with pitches. Out of about 50 pitches I would get each day, I would follow up on only two or three. Now, an average reporter at The New York Times would probably get about 20 times as many daily pitches.
I decided this was a perfect time to proactively manage customer expectations. I knew that setting realistic goals now would save me a lot of pain and disappointment for weeks, months, or even years.
“You hired us because you want media hits, and we’re going to get them for you,” I said. “But there is stiff competition, and sometimes it’s a game of luck. We make our own luck through our strong relationships and the quality of our pitches. Sometimes we get lucky quickly, sometimes it takes time.”
I also explained that PR is about getting your story out to the people who want to read it, rather than to as many people as possible. The client came to understand that starting with local or niche publishing was a much better strategy than looking for top stores right of the gate. After showing the client our track record and current achievements, I was able to keep their goals grounded and excited about our partnership.
Related: How to Build Long-Term Customer Relationships
Involve customers in the creative process
Creativity plays a major role in the daily work of a PR professional. Consultants and agencies put their entire company into fresh ideas and innovative thinking, but neither do they have a monopoly on the creative process. Your client is a subject matter expert and their in-depth knowledge of their industry can spark incredible ideas.
Recently, we were brainstorming with an investment platform about a few ideas to link the company’s brand to something current and current. Our team struggled to connect the dots. At one point in the conversation, the client mentioned “The Great Resignation,” and it suddenly dawned on me.
People say no to day-to-day work because they want the freedom to go their own way. Well, fine: people also want to take control of their own financial future through DIY investments. A core of inspiration from the client led to a solid pitch with which we could make news.
Entering into lasting relationships with clients often means giving up their knowledge and experience. Plus, engaging a PR agency might be the only time of day when your client gets a chance to be creative, so it’s important to be their sounding board.
Related: 4 Simple Reasons Your Small Business Should Have a Public Relations Strategy
Be the forwarder of your customer’s dreams
You cannot be everything to your customer. There will eventually come a time when they will need a podcast producer, a videographer, an event manager, etc. – roles you may not have the skills or capacity to fill. This is your chance to position your desk as a real asset.
One of the best things I’ve seen agencies do is refer other professionals for free. It may seem like you are driving your customers away, but I think it does the opposite. Customers want to work with you because you are willing to use your network to help them.
This is also a double-edged sword because when you make a referral, you have to rely on your referral’s abilities. Not-so-great service is sometimes unavoidable, and the last thing you want to hear is, “Gosh, thanks for recommending that crappy person.” Ultimately, a bad referral will paint a bad image of you and your business.
When you make a good referral, remember that it can also be a two-way street. By demonstrating your commitment to your customer’s success, you are much more likely to be referred to potential new customers later on.
Ever since I started my agency, I’ve realized that client relationships aren’t all that different from romantic relationships. Make sure the two of you are a compatible couple. Grow together, use these strategies and turn your client-agency relationship into a true partnership.
Related: How to Increase PR Capabilities for Your Business