Your Mother Was Right After All – An Ounce of Prevention is Better

You win some. You lose some. Although that does not sound like a particularly inspiring corporate motto, it probably fits most firms. One day is filled with the excitement of landing a new contract. Another day is dragged down by a client giving notice. 

Fortunately for us at R&J Strategic Communications, the wins outnumber the losses. But this article is not about how good and how smart we are; it’s about those times when we’ve fallen short.

Everyone in the PR business has been through the loss of a client. Client terminations happen for a wide variety of reasons, far too many to mention here. For us, sometimes a client’s termination was expected. More often, the news left us wondering what really happened. For the sanity of the firm’s partners and the sake of the staff, that needed to change.

Our first thought was that we needed to know the real reason(s) clients left. That way we could make changes to prevent it from happening again. Our second thought was more of an Ah Ha! moment. What if we could identify problems before a client leaves? That way we could make changes and ideally avoid the disruption of a terminated contract.

We knew a traditional satisfaction survey wouldn’t fit our clients. No matter how we tried to design one, it was impersonal. Worse, we knew it wouldn’t provide the real answers we needed.

We concluded that one-on-one, individual interviews would be the best method to assess client satisfaction. It would allow more of a conversation than a traditional survey. Clients could steer the interview based on open ended questions. We would understand their priorities, rather than forcing them to rate ours. Further, we could gather detailed information on a variety of subjects and ask follow-up questions to clarify our understanding.

We began with the plan to do these interviews internally. It seemed logical, but soon became obvious we were seeing only part of the picture. We heard that everyone was happy. Everything was good. There was no room for improvement. As much as we all wanted to believe this good news, it didn’t ring completely true.

So we reevaluated our approach. We decided the method was sound, but we had to find a different way to break through the clients’ barriers. We concluded that while we couldn’t get the real, honest and unvarnished low-down ourselves, perhaps an independent third party could. This would allow our clients to share their attitudes, opinions and experience with someone who was interested, but not emotionally or financially involved. The third party gave clients the feeling they were sharing information with a colleague or friend, not complaining or criticizing us directly.

We hired a boutique specialist marketing firm that conducts executive level peer-to-peer interviews. The particular firm we hired for this billed themselves as being adept at identifying not only the keys to client retention but, significantly, to new business sales. They refer to their work as “business autopsies,” but in our case, our intention was to do this examination while our clients were very much alive (and still paying their retainers). More importantly, we wanted this initiative to generate good will among our client base. Hiring an articulate, informed professional was crucial.

Despite this realization, there remained a certain amount of trepidation about letting an outsider loose with our clients. But early in the process, that fear was erased.

It turns out that our clients were pleased that we invested in a professional firm to discuss their experience. Interviews were scheduled in advance and usually conducted by phone at a convenient time for each client. We had asked clients to allow fifteen minutes for the conversation, but several ended up happily speaking for close to an hour.We had certainly achieved our objective of avoiding a survey that was viewed as yet another intrusion or nuisance. On the contrary, we found that clients had become engaged with the process and discussion topics.

The initiative evolved into a three-step process. First, clients who were designated as “at risk” were targeted for immediate remedial action. Second, each account team received specific feedback on their performance according to the client contacts, without revealing any specific information that would compromise the confidentiality or integrity of the interview process. In this step, all the big and small factors that delight and frustrate clients were listed. Some were simple, others more involved, but all were identified as important to our clients. Third, from an analysis of all the client interviews, we identified overall perceived agency strengths and weaknesses. This became a foundational tool for long range planning, market segmentation, messaging and new business sales.

Almost immediately, the current client interviews generated results. We identified two unhappy clients. Each had already begun to open the door to leave us. Our intervention changed their minds and saved both. By doing that, the program immediately repaid our investment.

Admittedly, just learning that any client was unhappy produced a prolonged wringing of hands and deep introspective soul searching. But as much as the truth stung, it was a lot less painful to acknowledge our limitations and correct mistakes than to have to replace the business. New business sales costs are high enough and new clients sign on at unpredictable times, not to mention how much more gratifying two steps forward are when you aren’t simultaneously taking one backward.

We recognize that we will never meet our goal of 100% client retention (no agency does). But with our recurring client evaluation process, day to day operations are more predictable and we have greatly reduced our expenses for antacid and aspirin. As potentially painful and frightening as it may seem, I nonetheless recommend this process to all agency owners.