Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The clients that got away

It starts with the old fisherman's story of the one that got away. I'm sure you've had one like it.

Like an NCAA tournament, you've made it past the initial rounds and into the final four. Maybe you know the competition, maybe you don't. But damn the torpedoes, you're on a roll and put on a killer final presentation because you know exactly what to do with this potential client, where to start, how to pitch them, you handle every question like Nadal crushes a speeding backhand rocket, and besides, you like the people you've met every step of the way.

They tell you that as soon as their choice is made, they want to start right away meeting media, becoming thought leaders, and getting all the attention they feel they deserve. In your gut, you know it's do-able because they have so much cool stuff going on.

Your submitted proposal is succinct, shows great value, and you feel like you're locked in like a Vulcan mind meld.

Except amazingly, the potential client has other ideas. Somehow, somebody on the board wants to bring aboard their cousin's PR firm. Or the other firm bedazzles them with all their other "name" clients and glittery awards that the London Boys Choir can be heard ringing from above. Or the CFO insists that the firm with the lowest fee must be hired. My favorite was the Silicon Valley mobile coupon company which went with a firm run by two former banking communications executives simply because they were located closer to them than us in New York (they lasted less than four months).

You can't believe it. It's like you just sang your heart out on "American Idol," Simon Cowell gives you a rare rave review, Paula Abdul wants your children and J.J. Jackson wants to produce your album, but the TV audience picked the goofy dude who can't hold a note because he's so bad he's good.

In the aftermath, you wait to see the winner's first move and one month later, they spring into action... by issuing a paid press release about what a great year their client just had. It's picked up by exactly nobody, of course.

Two more months go by and it's so quiet, you can see the tumbleweeds blowing up and down the PR highway. While you're racking up superb hits for your clients, the one that got away is so dead and gone under the radar that it's as if they didn't hire anybody at all. The only things that show up on Google News about them are their paid press releases, if anything at all.

What do you do when you know these guys hired the wrong firm? How do you make them come to their senses and stop throwing their time and money away and hire you?

Many companies are in sheer denial that they could make such a mistake. Deciding they would be hiring a new firm or adding any PR function at all was a big step, and they're just not ready to admit they blew it. They may never admit it. It's like a gambler who keeps losing money because they are waiting for that one big hand to make them rich... they don't know when to cut their losses and move to another game or table.

I advise not giving up if that client that got away still sticks in your head. You stay in touch. Send articles of value to them ("Thought you'd find this interesting..."). Congratulate them on some award they may have won. Share your valuable blog posts.

Then ask them after five or six months of seeing nothing... oh by the way, what kind of return on investment are you getting on public relations these days? I got that good advice from Ketchum's Paul Wood.

Sometimes the replies are quite honest ("we could use better traction") or they dodge the question altogether (but you know it's bothering them), and other times, they say things are hunky dory, which makes you wonder just how high their standards are, if there's something in the wings or just how truthful that answer is.

For years, I told my staff it was "like holding up a mirror." Of course, they may not like what they see, but will they do something about it?

However, they are still not ready to admit their error. Another month or two goes by. You've kept in periodic touch, and maybe by then, they are quoted somewhere or they are mentioned as an afterthought in another company's news story. Their PR investment is beginning to look like the equivalent of a bait and switch scheme.

I once spent an entire year dropping monthly mailed letters to "one that got away" filled with press clips while pointing out that they were eliciting far less coverage than they deserved. They finally succumbed and we ended up working together for three years.

Sometimes the reception you get can be outright hostile when you drop a line about how things are going. You should not take it personally. They're either mad at themselves and determined to stick to that horse, or other matters are taking precedence. Those are the cases you just have to write off unless they come to their senses and contact you out of the blue. Then you're entitled adjust your fees accordingly for a "turnaround job."

Without being in serious "live presentation mode," you can glean a lot from these clients that got away, such as how they perceive running the business and making a go of it. I have learned a few times that in hindsight, perhaps I was lucky I didn't get the gig because their perception of public relations was so way off base that it wouldn't have been the right fit. Fate has a wonderful way of preventing frustrating scenarios that way.

There are some questions in life that can not be answered, and periodically under that category falls why somebody got the nod over you as the winning agency. From my experience, the agony stings and then you move on.

Nobody wrote a guidebook for selecting publicists, so how can you expect all choices to be clear cut and rationale? My fellow PR bloggers and I have posted plenty of advice about choosing the right agencies, but do you think anybody races online to do that research? Highly unlikely. And you certainly can't teach a CEO or CMO how to choose a PR firm while you are pitching them at the same time.

So if you're brave enough for new business development, make sure you've got thick skin and a serious belief in yourself. Don't forget the fishing poles for the tall tales you'll be telling.

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