Monday, September 25, 2006

Are You Succeeding? Ask the Client!

"How am I doing?" It's a question the former New York City Mayor Ed Koch asked his constituents constantly. He really cared about meeting their needs.

But according to three leading public relations professionals in top positions at Mastercard International, Pfizer and Booz Allen Hamilton who were part of a panel on client satisfaction I moderated the other night for the New York Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, too few public relations agencies are asking their clients that all-important question.

That we want happy clients is a given. Happy clients deepen their relationships with us and stay longer. They are less price-sensitive and more likely to recommend our firm to others. Research shows that happy clients tell four to five others about their positive experience. Unhappy clients, on the other hand, tell nine to twelve of their friends and colleagues how bad it was!

In the next couple of weeks, I hope to discuss some of the drivers of a happy client-agency relationship, as discussed by our corporate-side experts. Today, I want to talk about how an agency asks that all-important question: "How are we doing?" In my opinion, there's a distinct process that can help ensure that the question is asked in the right way and with the right frequency.

To drive clients from merely satisfied to "totally satisfied," we introduced in 1988 our Quality Commitment Program (QCP), an important part of our continuous quest to find better ways to do what we do ... from the client's perspective. Free of cost to the client, QCP represents the agency's investment in the relationship and a tangible demonstration of our client-centric culture.

Our quality initiative encompasses "report cards," a gap analysis and a creative strategy session. Once or twice annually we solicit written client evaluations of our performance and -- in a monthly meeting moderated by the firm's senior management, along with the relevant account team -- we compare the client report card to written account team evaluations and perform a gap analysis. We find out answers to such questions as: Are we achieving agreed-upon goals? How does the client rate our work? Is the client getting value for the money?

The program is managed by an independent auditor, a veteran in our industry and an expert in the field. He also calls our clients periodically (even in happy situations, sometimes you have to solicit complaints to move the needle from client satisfaction to client delight).

Does it work? Our clients say, "Yes."

Larry Hyatt, CFO of O'Charley's, a near $1-billion chain of 352 casual-dining restaurants in 17 states, fields guest satisfaction surveys to his company's 10 billion guests a year. He says he also appreciates it when his agency, Makovsky + Company, asks for feedback. He calls it "time well spent."

Last year's Managing Customers as Investments -- a book by Sunil Gupta and Donald R Lehmann, both professors at Columbia Business School -- contends that the value of its current and future customers is a proxy for a large part of the value of the firm. If you believe that, you've got to do everything it your power to keep those assets happy!

What are you doing to keep your clients happy?

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