Monday, March 14, 2011

Make your long term (PR) relationship work: top 3 tips

I was talking to a much-loved female relative last night about her upcoming 50th wedding anniversary. That conversation, and others in the last few weeks with the C-suite executives in our client organisations, have caused me to reflect on the nature of success in long-term client partnerships - why it works or fail, and specifically, how we and our clients behave to achieve great PR results.

We've been fortunate to enjoy long-term relationships with several highly valued clients. Each of these relationships has seen ups and downs. Each has experienced highs of sensational results, intimate client relationships. Each has seen times when we thought it might not be forever. And yet, more than five years later, here we still are. Together. Happy. And still working at it.

Similar, albeit a tenth of the time-span, to my dear female relative and her husband. Yes, the punch-line is about the similarity between long term relationships in our personal and business lives.

Here are our team's top three observations about what makes a long term relationship work with your PR firm.

1. Shared committment
We're in this together, through thick and through thin, to achieve something wonderful neither of us can do solo.

Sound like a modern day marriage vow? Not really, it's more like a mission statement for a client relationship. Here's what that looks like in terms of behaviour...

- Have a clear, agreed picture of success
- Keep an eye on whether, as a team, we are achieving a consistently high level of success
- Hold each other accountable to achieving what we regard as success
- If so, persist to overcome issues when (as they will) they arise

At work , as at home, we've all found that if we and our client do not have a clear and shared picture of success, the relationship doesn't travel so well. We pull in different directions, and do not agree on something very fundamental - are we winning or losing here? Are we, for example, jointly shooting the lights out or are we burning budget for no great outcome? Overall, there's the good old "gut feel" barometer to tell is how we're doing. Beyond that, and essential to success, are metrics - observable and ideally independent data - that give an objective read on the success of the relationship. And of course, there will be times when we either don't agree, or something goes wrong. Because all humans are both uniquely wonderful, and fallible. As and when we make mistakes (minor ones we consultants hope) or our client does, it's important to fix it and move on. This of course is only possible if we are consistently good at what we do, professional and pleasant to deal with.

2. The kind truth
Frankly we do give a damn. Enough to tell you when it's...well...NOT working. 

Patrick Lencioni's observations about "naked" consulting, include this idea: tell the kind truth. In his book Getting Naked,  Lencioni talks about the kind truth that our clients need to hear, but perhaps don't want to...or perhaps it's that we consultants don't want to call it out for fear of damaging the relationship - and losing the revenue! And perhaps there are things we have to hear as consultants to help us continuously improve. Hearing even the "kind truth" can be painful. Growth, as professional services expert Michael Kean says, is painful.

Sometimes as consultants (actually often!) we need to hear things that we don't want to - about our behaviour, skills or delivery. BlueChip aims to ask for this feedback...unafraid of the answers we need to hear in order to keep improving what we do for clients. Is it scary? Yes. Do we always hear good news? Not always. Is that helpful to our growth personally and professionally? Absolutely.

But the rub is this: we need permission to give feedback also. A wonderful client recently asked us this:

"What can we do better as your client? Is there feedback you need to give us?"

And you know, there are things our clients can do better on occasion. It's our role to ask if they want to hear it, and to kindly share what we see as the "truth" of our relationship. Such caring frankness builds trust, respect and the preconditions for it does in friendships and other relationships. Uncomfortable to start with, but more rewarding long term.

3. Keeping it fresh
One downside to long term relationships can be simply the "sameness" that comes with working with the same team, on the same in and day...out for years. 

An issue in relationships as in long term client engagements! So, to deal with the easy bit first, what do we do to keep it fresh?

Keep it interesting: we bring new insights, experiences and approaches to the relationship; and ask our client to do the same. 
We ask ourselves "would this article I found interesting be useful to my client?" or perhaps "this piece of market intelligence is helpful to our shared goal - let's share it". We actively seek out insights, experiences and approaches that help us "keep it fresh" in our long term relationships.

Does that mean change for changes sake? No. It means preserving the innately valuable aspects of what we do, but always questioning where we can change for the better. Holding tight to approaches that reflect our values and help clients build their reputation...and selectively, often in consultation with clients, continually upgrading the service approach.

Of our clients we ask "what's happening in your business? what are the major challenges or opportunities". Now often, the answer is unchanging. But sometimes something fundamental has changed. And that change, we need to know about.

Invest: in the relationship and the future
Good friends, our loved ones, and really good consultants, give a little...and when you really need it, they give a lot. And you trust them enough to ask for the help you need, when you most need it. Sometimes the investment isn't ever paid for - it's just about helping when it's most needed.

Ask: are the goalposts still the right ones?
Sometimes the goal posts need to change. As the environment changes we reset (if it's needed) the strategy - lock, stock and barrel or perhaps more appropriately goals, strategies and tactics. It's great to meet the goals of the program, but not so great if the goals are the wrong ones because they're not reviewed properly or often enough.

My 50 years married relative would probably suggest another key attribute of her, and our long term relationships. Tolerance. Sometimes we really do get on each others nerves. Let's face it, we spend plenty of time some point I'm going to irritate you...and at some point I'll possibly find you challenging.

And at those times? We're both well served to practice tolerance. At work as well as at home!

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