Proving Your Worth: Managing Client Expectations

Your phone rings and the person on the other line exclaims: “We are pleased to inform you that we have chosen your firm as our agency of record.” Walking up and down the hall, you congratulate staff on a job well done, put the full team in place and discuss launch activities.

The next steps after winning a bid are central to the success of a program or campaign. Now that you are hired, what does the client expect you to deliver? What do you need to achieve for the effort to be considered a success? An organization has made the choice to invest in your firm and now you will need to devise a plan to deliver that return on investment.

Indeed, when clients are dissatisfied, it is almost always because the agency did not meet their expectations. As Pam Jenkins, president of Powell Tate Public Affairs, regularly reminds her account leaders, “One of the biggest mistakes PR professionals make is to agree to unrealistic expectations to close the deal with a prospective client. This is sure to result in a short-lived client engagement and a damaged reputation.”

The outset of a client relationship, as early as the pitch itself, is the time to agree on clear, achievable and measurable goals. Particularly during tough economic times, clients need every dollar they spend to deliver results. And with resources limited and competition fierce, it has never been more important to establish a strategic foundation for every PR and communications program, including clear definitions of success that are attached to specific metrics. Even when the client’s objectives seem intangible—for example, the objective of many of our clients in Washington, D.C., is creating “a better environment” for their policy issues— the smart practitioner will translate those objectives into goals, strategies and tactics that can be measured.

Here are tips for building a strong foundation of strategy and measurement:
•    Envision success: Upon engagement (or even before), discuss the goals of the organization and what an ideal win would be. Ask the client to envision what success looks like. Push them to be specific. If, after a year of work, the engagement has met their expectations, how will their world be different, and how will they know that it’s different? Make lists by tactical categories: How will media coverage or relationships be different? How will social media be different?

What will be different about the knowledge, opinions, attitudes or behaviors of key audiences and stakeholders? What assets or resources will they have that they don’t have now? Encourage your client (and your own team) to be aspirational and imaginative, and to dream big.

This exercise is well worth the time and effort, even when the vision far exceeds what is realistically possible and affordable. It often does more than anything else to clarify, both for client and agency, what the real objectives are, what is and is not realistic, the specific results that agency will try to deliver and what can and should be measured.

•    Negotiate the win: Now that you’ve fully described what the ideal achievement would be, work with your client to align it with the realities of time and budget. Of everything described, what are the aspects of the vision that you and the client agree can both be achieved and measured? Try to agree, at least tentatively, on how those aspects will be measured. This means having measurement expertise in the room, as part of the discussion from the beginning. These aspects become the practical and measurable goals of the engagement and it is now up to your team to design the right strategies and tactics to achieve those goals and to deploy the right tools for measuring their success.
Bonus tip: When possible, engage a neutral facilitator to lead a half-day strategic planning meeting, both to collectively envision success and negotiate the win. This often kick-starts clarity and agreement around expectations, and has the added advantage of helping to build a strong client relationship, anchored by trust and collaboration, from the beginning.

•    Map the metrics: With clear, measurable objectives agreed upon, use a template such as the one illustrated in the sidebar, to match the right measurement tools to the strategy. “The key,” says Jennifer Sosin, president of KRC Research, “is avoiding two extremes: at one extreme, relying on a single measurement tool to tell you everything; at the other extreme, trying to measure everything.” Pick and choose the tools that, when combined, will tell your client and your own team whether you’re delivering the agreed upon win.

•    Schedule: From reaching media, to penetrating target audiences, to slowing legislative activity and raising consumer awareness, it is important to set check-points and milestones, and to ensure a steady flow of information from practitioner to client. From the beginning, agree on a timeline of deliverables for the client. Commit to reporting results at regular intervals, whether weekly, monthly or quarterly. Regular assessments of progress will yield a more efficient and effective program by illuminating what is working, what needs more focus and what has changed in the environment.

•    Keep stakeholders engaged: Another benefit of regular reporting is that it provides your clients with tools and documents to keep information flowing throughout their organization, to internal stakeholders. Indeed, it is up to you—the PR professional—to ensure that a constant flow of information is being shared with key decision makers outside of your day-to-day relationship.

Bonus tip: Even when the client doesn’t request it, develop PowerPoint slides that summarize the win, the strategies to be deployed to achieve the win, the metrics and the reporting schedule, to provide your client with a powerful tool to manage internal expectations and build support for the program.

By setting up goals, engaging stakeholders, tracking progress and measuring success you are guaranteed to more effectively prove your worth to your clients. A strong foundation of metrics will allow you to:
•    Show your professional value: You have worked so hard for your client, and now is the time to quantify the results. You now have the tools to showcase your professional value, especially during this difficult time when return on investment has never been more important for our industry.

•    Avoid scope drift: Without a baseline from which to measure, clients will oftentimes put forth superfluous ideas, goals and side projects that steer the campaign away from its core objectives. This is called “scope drift.” Clear goals and a set of regular metrics are your best defense.

•    Adapt to changing environment: In the rapidly changing environment in Washington, D.C., we must be prepared to evolve or modify a campaign to adapt to shifts in public policy, economic environment or other factors. Adjusting or redefining metrics will allow for smooth transitions and shared expectations.

•    Identify new opportunities: A foundation of research, metrics and results will allow you to proactively identify where the client could benefit from additional services. Using the metrics to show a lack of market penetration, third-party engagement or other results will open the doors to additional business opportunities.

This is article was written by Victoria Sneed is executive vice president of KRC Research in Washington, D.C. and Erin Tassey is vice president of Powell Tate in Washington, D.C. It currently appears in PR News' Guide to Best Practices in PR Measurement, Volume 4. To find out how to order the guidebook or get information on it, go to