Superior Client Service is Key to Successful Professional Services Relationships

"Ken Jacobs"

Ken Jacobs

An interview with Ken Jacobs, principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting, LLC, who advises companies and agencies on improving their working relationships.

How can a professional services firm have a more productive and positive relationship with clients?

There are four keys to success to effectively manage the relationship:

  • Always know client expectations of you and your organization. Make sure you’re meeting, and preferably, beating them.
  • Know how the client perceives your organization’s performance. Have a procedure in place to encourage your client to give you this critical feedback. You can’t fix it if you don’t know what’s broken. If you wait until the client is unhappy, it may be too late.
  • Focus on having an honest, open and regular dialogue. Be willing to hear what you don’t want to hear, but need to hear. At the same time, be willing to tell the client what they might not want to hear, but need to hear.
  • Perhaps, most important, become a partner in the client’s success, and not just a provider of professional services.

What can cause a client/firm relationship to go bad and how do you fix it? 

Relationship Gone Bad

Relationship gone bad

So many things can go bad, and they’re often tied to lack of communication. You can’t meet a client’s expectations, or address their concerns and disappointments, if you don’t know what they are.

Flexibility in doing so is paramount. Don’t ignore your “gut” feeling that something in the client relationship needs to be re-set. Pay attention to clients: Surprises are for birthdays, but not for managing clients.

If things go wrong, you must pounce. Get to the root of the problem, and go into action mode to create a solution. Slow and steady does not win this race!

How do you differentiate a tough client from an abusive client?

It’s difficult to define an abusive one but as a Supreme Court justice’ said about pornography, “I know it when I see it!”

Tough clients set high standards for themselves, their organization, and, it follows, for your organization. They challenge you and your team to do your very best work and accept nothing less. They’re always thinking of what’s next, and expect you to do the same. I’ve had tough clients, and they made me better at my game.

An abusive client is entirely different. They’re toxic. They may treat you well, because you’re the organization or team leader. But they’re rude, insulting and bullying to your troops, who feel that they have no option but to accept this behavior.

Tough or Abusive Client

Abusive clients demand changes, late or early conference calls, and absurd deadlines, simply because they have the power to do so. They act as if they believe that because their organization is sending your firm a check every month, they can act in a way that’s simply unacceptable.

If you allow this to continue, your team will start to doubt your leadership, because you haven’t protected them from this abuse.

Even worse, they may start to question if they wish to work for your organization.

Do you really want to give an abusive client that kind of power over your firm?

What are the triggers that lead a client to fire an agency, or other service provider?

Sometimes it’s simply that the chemistry that appeared to be there during the “pitch,” or at the start of the engagement, doesn’t hold up when the parties actually work together. Sometimes a new senior client leader comes in with a previous favorite firm. On occasion, the firm gives counsel that the client simply doesn’t wish to hear.

When these things happen, there isn’t much the firm can do to prevent getting fired.

Triggers to Fire Service Provider

Triggers to Fire Service Provider

Clients also fire agencies for other reasons, including missing deadlines, not behaving in accordance with the highest of ethical standards, not putting the right people on the account, not providing thoughtful, forward-looking counsel and not promptly addressing client dissatisfaction.

These situations can often be avoided if the firm remembers these essentials:

  • Excelling in your area of expertise is merely the point of entry. You keep clients over the long-term by providing superior client service. And always remember it’s the client who defines this.
  • You need to be diligent in assuring that your clients are more than satisfied. Do so by eliciting their ongoing feedback about your performance.
  • Keeping lines of communication open is an active, not a passive task, and it’s the firm’s job to drive the communication.
  • Trust your “gut.” When things seem to be going well, but your gut tells you otherwise, it’s a red flag that you need to re-examine the relationship.

Do these things and you’ll greatly decrease the chance of your firm getting fired.

When should an agency fire a client?

At first, it seems to be the easiest thing in the world to fire a client.  But one has to carefully consider the ramifications on anticipated income. What’s more, you don’t want to send a signal to your organization that the way we handle tough situations is to walk away.

First, I’d meet with the client. (This is no time for email solutions.) What’s their sense of the situation? They might be dissatisfied with something, and their behavior is just a manifestation of this dissatisfaction.

You’ve got to dig deep to determine what’s not working. Is it the product? The process? The personnel? Be willing to change, within reason, what they perceive is wrong, remembering that client perception is everything.

Sometimes, the client is satisfied, but has no idea that his or her behavior is negatively affecting the team until informed by the firm’s leader. This is when having the diplomatic-but-direct conversation is essential.

When I was in the public relations agency business, I faced such a situation. A client, who had been a charm to work for, suddenly became difficult about everything. We reviewed our recent product, our process and our personnel, and couldn’t find anything that would warrant his changed behavior.

When to Fire the Client

When to Fire the Client

After an honest discussion, the client acknowledged he was experiencing a painful personal problem, and hadn’t realized his anger about it was resulting in his mistreating the agency team.

This discussion led to two powerful and positive outcomes — the client treated his team with greater care, and the team, armed with this critical information, treated the client with greater patience and understanding. As a result, the relationship actually grew stronger.

Don’t be shy about letting the client know that their satisfaction is paramount, and that you’ll go to the ends of the earth to make this happen. (It sometimes amazes me that professional service firms don’t make this point until it’s too late.)

If it’s not getting better, discuss other possible solutions with the client. Do this at least two more times.

This tends to work with the toughest clients. With a truly abusive client, it most likely won’t.

But you know you’ve done your best. If at that point the client’s behavior isn’t improving, it just might be time to apply the adage of “three strikes and you’re out.”

What is the role of training in improving client/agency relationships?

Training can play a huge role in enhancing client/firm relationships.

The reality is most of us come to this business well trained in public relations, advertising, promotion, law, accounting or whatever professional service we’re providing.  But we’re not trained in the area that can fuel firm and individual career success  — improving client service.

Client service training can cover many topics, including better understanding client values and career goals; how to make it personal; how to manage and exceed expectations; how to improve listening; and how professional service firms can learn from and apply the client service lessons from companies known for over-the-top customer service, like Zappos, Ritz-Carlton, Apple and Nordstrom’s.

It’s an ongoing process for both client and the firm to manage the relationship so it is working smoothly and successfully. After all, that’s what everyone wants.
Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting, LLC, which helps public relations and other communications agencies grow and manage business, and improve team performance, communications and leadership skills. It does so via consulting, training, and coaching.

He has presented workshops on these issues at the North American meetings of IPREX Global Communications Network and the Public Relations Global Network (PRGN), at the Counselors Academy Spring Conference, and at agencies nationwide. Ken tweets at https://twitter.com/KensViews and can be reached at ken@jacobscomm.com.

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