Why your client can handle the truth

There’s no reason to withhold bad news from clients, or to avoid talking about the hard realities of the PR industry. Consider these tips about these tough conversations.

Are you afraid of your clients?

Most people’s knee-jerk answer to that question would likely be “no.” However, if you were to reframe the question, the answer might be different. Are you afraid of telling your clients the truth? Or, more specifically, are you afraid of telling your clients hard truths?

There would probably be fewer PR pros saying no to each of those questions—and for good reason. Agencies are not in the business of trying to make their clients feel stupid or unhappy. Therefore, massaging the truth—or simply leaving some of the harsher truths out—seems reasonable.

What many agencies don’t realize, however, is that this fear erodes trust and, slowly but inevitably, leads clients to look for other agencies.

Client-agency relationships are getting worse on average. Many of the problems in a relationship with a client can be boiled down to a lack of trust and transparency. It’s time for agencies to stop being afraid of their clients and to start opening up—even when the message might seem harsh.

Be direct

Many agencies make the mistake of letting the client guide the process instead of the other way around. Your clients might know what they want, but that’s very different from knowing how to get there.

In PR, a client might want to target a specific message to a key audience, but it’s the agency that has the actual experience and knows whether that messaging will work. Unfortunately, many PR agencies will go ahead with misguided messaging if it’s what the clients want rather than risk rocking the boat. This is bad for the client and, ultimately, will damage a client-agency relationship.

If an agency puts out an ineffective message—even if it’s supplied by the client—the outcome of the results will be your fault. Refusing to put forth a message the client wants might lose you that client, but it’s better to lose a client than your reputation.

Where agencies fall short

It can be very difficult to critique the creative style of a client. However, letting a client with bad taste run the show will damage you and your client, even if it seems like you’re just letting go an inconsequential thing such as the layout of a website. It’s important that you, as the expert in these matters, advises and directs the client on better decision-making.

Return on investment is another area where agencies need to take more ownership. Some business owners are not particularly good businesspeople, and a marketing agency could be doing a great job and getting a big ROI, but if the client doesn’t understand the campaign, it could want to walk anyway.

Another area where agencies need to take a bigger lead is tracking results. Often enough, the client won’t actually follow up or use the program the agency requires. This can cause a huge hang-up for agencies, but it’s hard to call out clients for doing something wrong. Telling them you don’t believe they are using the program to measure your campaign is tough, but it will hopefully lead to further discussions that allow you to dig deeper into tracking and, ultimately, develop a stronger relationship.

Promoting transparency

Your clients hired you to get good results, not to stroke their egos. Not every client responds well to honesty, but most clients will appreciate an agency does the best work possible for each and every client.

This doesn’t mean you have to gain a reputation for being mean to clients. It’s all about openness, transparency and respecting the time and reputation of everyone.

Follow these three steps to strengthen your relationship and boost trust with clients:

1. Agree on cooperative transparency.

Although most clients will claim they appreciate transparency, that doesn’t mean they are used to receiving it from their agency partners.

Make it clear from day one that your agency will be transparent and honest, even if it’s uncomfortable. Then, encourage your client to do the same with your team. Set up the expectation that both sides should know exactly where the other is, and you’ll find that those hard conversations are much easier to navigate.

2. Solicit feedback.

Ask directly for feedback, and provide several avenues for clients to provide that feedback in case they don’t feel comfortable criticizing a certain team member.

Surveys are a valuable tool for client relationships. They provide a structured, low-pressure way for the client to tell you what’s working and what isn’t. You’ll be surprised by what a survey can illuminate.

Don’t just seek feedback and leave it untouched. Be sure to address that feedback by making changes to eliminate pain points or amicably address identified issues with the client in order to find solutions that work better for both of you.

3. Stage monthly calls.

Require clients to get on a call with you at least once per month. That way, there’s a regular appointment on the books that gives you the opportunity to go over progress and plan the next steps in your relationship. This keeps everyone on the same page and opens the door even wider for honest and fluid communication.

The monthly call has great power. It can repair damaged relationships and build trust that might have been lost. A client sitting and stewing about what work you might or might not be doing for them is not a happy client. Hop on the phone and let the client know about your efforts. Keep those conversations open, honest and solution-focused, and you’ll be on your way to strong, fruitful relationships.

Shay Berman is the CEO and founder of Digital Resource, a full-service digital marketing agency located in South Florida. A version of this story originally appeared on the Cision blog.

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