4 ways to avoid choosing the wrong client

In the rush to compete for new business, take time to ask yourself: Is this new client the perfect fit for your firm?

The phone finally rings after hours, sometimes days, of not ringing at all.

Your receptionist jumps to answer it, and it sounds to her like a “live one.” She summons you to the phone. You take the call, you write down the specs, and when the prospect asks you to prepare a proposal or an estimate, you jump.

You have incredible “hope-ium.” Wouldn’t it be great to have another client on your roster?

You win the contract. Now you and your staff are thrilled—that is, until the job actually begins. Then all these questions start circling your head: Should this client be in your portfolio? Is this client going to produce turnover and decrease productivity because it just isn’t the right fit? Does this client really “get” public relations?

Agencies are always competing for new business, but we rarely look at the other side: Is this new client the perfect fit for your firm?

Here are some suggestions on what you can do to ensure you have a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship with your clients:

Understanding goals

Our firm always ask where the potential wants to be in five years. (We ask our staff that question. Why wouldn’t we ask our potential clients, too?) This question typically evokes an interesting answer.

Sometimes the client tells you he wants to build a business and then sell it. He may say he wants 50 percent growth in less than a year, or he may say that he wants to take the company public, if it’s not already public.

Then it’s up to you to ask: Are his goals realistic? Can you get a handle of the project? Do you think your firm can really help him achieve his goal(s)? What public relations tactics will he need to get there? Does he have the budget to make it work? Is he really an expert in his industry?

Setting expectations

Sometimes, we tell the prospect that we can do more than we actually can for the number of hours allocated toward the project. So how do we set realistic expectations without losing the job?

For example, if the prospect expects to have five national media placements within the first month, and that prospect doesn’t have anything substantial to deliver to the media that would entice them to run a major story, then perhaps this client is not for your firm.

As hard as it is, PR professionals have to set realistic expectations for expected ROI. If the prospect is not happy with what you are offering, that potential client is probably not the right fit for your organization.

Communication and respect

It’s important to set a standard of communication and respect between your client and your team. Be sure to look at cues early in your relationship, and address issues right away.

If, for example, the potential client is incredibly demanding in the beginning of the relationship, can you imagine what he will be like months into it? Or if the prospect doesn’t get back to you in a timely manner from the get-go, what will happen when you have an immediate deadline with a reporter? Ease of communication and mutual respect are two important factors when it comes to building a solid foundation for your relationship.


Within the last few months, I’ve seen a shift: Many clients don’t want the traditional retainer arrangement any longer.

I’ve also noticed many agencies that do stick with their retainer arrangement will eliminate extra billable hours. I’m not sure why or how they can do that.

One prospect said another agency told her that for a $3,000 monthly retainer, she would have an unlimited amount of hours. The only criterion from that agency’s standpoint was that the client would be bound for a year. After a year, the agency would re-evaluate the relationship and perhaps readjust the fee.

Why would the agency want to lose money on the first year when the first year is the most crucial to sustaining a lasting relationship? Isn’t it better to be transparent about how much time and effort a job takes from the get-go?

Getting excited to bring in a new client is typical. However, bringing in the wrong clients usually doesn’t work out for either party. If you qualify your prospects and set realistic expectations, understand their business goals, and are transparent at the beginning, you will sign up happy clients that value your expertise and stay with you for a long time.

Hilary JM Topper MPA is the president/CEO of HJMT Public Relations. For information or for free e-papers, visit HJMT.com, follow Hilary on Twitter @Hilary25, or subscribe to Hilary’s personal blog, HilaryTopper.com.

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