Clients are the best teachers: 3 lessons learned

PR pros can learn a lot from their best clients. They can perhaps learn even more from the very worst.

Ah, clients. Their success is our success, and their misery is ours, also. As an owner of a young agency, I know client relationships often become personal. After spending months working with you, clients can feel more like friends or family. We’re pouring all our brainpower, resources, and energy into helping them grow, rooting for them to win like a proud mama bird. Not all clients are created equal, though. The best are generous, appreciative, and inspiring. The worst are impossible to satisfy, unavailable, and downright cruel. All have taught me valuable lessons, and here are the top three I’ve learned: 1. The time to act is now. Whisper App is one of the hottest mobile apps in the marketplace, and CEO Michael Heyward taught me this very useful lesson. My firm was part of Whisper’s small founding team, and we made big decisions daily. Heyward’s decision-making process was both audacious and inspiring. It was not unusual for him to say things such as, “Let’s get 100 college representatives hired on by next week.” These abrupt, large-scale requests would cause my team’s jaws to drop, but ultimately—and shockingly—most of them worked. Under his leadership, I watched Whisper grow to be a multimillion-dollar company. I’ve adopted his “act now” attitude and applied it not just to business but also to my personal life. I used to spend hours deliberating over tiny decisions, from which top to buy to which person to hire. Now, I just make a choice and bulldoze ahead. 2. My company comes first, yours second. A client had a big press announcement coming up, and we were sending out an embargoed release. The night before the story was set to break, I overheard the CEO talking to a journalist at a publication that did not agree to our embargo. Minutes later, the story went live on its website. All hell broke loose. My journalist contacts shunned me—they thought I had leaked the story. When I confronted my client about it the next day he refused to apologize, justifying his behavior by saying that what he did was in the best interest of the company and asking, “Wasn’t that my goal, too?” This betrayal put me in a terrible position, because I knew I had to quit though I really didn’t want to. Despite the callous behavior of the CEO, I had worked with them for over a year, investing time, energy, and, quite frankly, a lot of love into their account. Plus, quitting meant not only losing my monthly retainer but also losing equity. I was forced to choose between standing up for my company and maintaining my integrity or sweeping this offense under the rug. I chose the former and learned a very hard truth: Although your clients may feel like friends, your own company must always come first. 3. When in doubt, trust your gut. When I was starting out in my career, I was trying to get a client into Seventeen magazine. Seventeen has always been a favorite publication, and I knew I had the perfect pitch for them. I sent it along to their editors, and one of them wrote back expressing interest. I was so excited I was shaking. (Clearly, I’m in the right profession.) She asked whether this client expert wanted compensation. My gut reaction was to respond saying, “Of course not! We’re just thrilled for this amazing opportunity!” But being green, I called the client to discuss. As a strong businesswoman, she was firm on the matter: She wanted to be paid. She listed a few other requests as well, and I hesitantly obliged, believing all along that this was not the best course of action. A few days later, the people at Seventeen told me they had decided to pass. The client didn’t ask for much money, and I knew it wasn’t about that anyway. We had lost the opportunity because we weren’t appreciative. Seventeen had been on my PR bucket list; I could have kicked myself. Looking back, I should have put my foot down and explained to my client that in this situation, it was in her best interest to forgo payment. I had enough wisdom and experience—along with a strong gut instinct—to know that we should thank them and ask for nothing more. In the end, there was no dollar amount that could be applied to such an opportunity. Both in business and in life, that gut instinct is always right. Sarah Rose Attman is founder and principal at Sarah Rose Public Relations, a boutique agency that works with a variety of clients nationwide. Follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.


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