Laura Petrolino

Why Tough Love is Necessary for Successful Client Service

By: Laura Petrolino | February 13, 2017 | 
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Why Tough Love is Necessary for Successful Client ServiceValentine’s Day and client service just go together like cupids and harps, roses and chocolate, diamonds and engagements, candy hearts and Sponge Bob valentine’s…..and all the other wonderful, cheesy, and extravagant Valentine’s Day traditions.

That’s why I always get super excited when this day of looooove rolls around, because I adore my analogies, and Valentine’s Day just swims with so many for client service.

Two years ago I discussed how communications pros could woo the love of their lives (which is still the most useful post I think I’ve ever written).

Last year I talked about customer retention strategies, and this year my Valentine’s Day post is about tough love, and how it’s one of the most important elements of exceptional client service.

Tough Love in Client Service

Tough love is an important element of any relationship.

After all, if you can’t count on the ones you love to tell you like it is, who can you count on?

The same holds true for our relationship with our clients.

It is our job to tell our clients where there is room for improvement within the organization.

It’s also our job to tell them “no” when they are heading down the wrong path or distracted by an idea which doesn’t support their goals.

We must support them in the creation of the most optimal situation for their business as a whole (including their communications program).  

That’s a win/win for everyone.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Telling clients things they don’t want to hear isn’t fun. And it requires four very important elements:

  • A trusting relationship
  • Good communications skills
  • A comprehensive understanding of their business and industry
  • A solution first message strategy.

So let’s talk about each of these four elements.

Client Service and Trust

It will come as no surprise to anyone the number one element of a successful client service relationship is trust.

If your client doesn’t trust you, and vice-versa, there really isn’t a foundation for a productive partnership.

You have to earn your client’s trust through your communication and your action.

From the beginning of our client relationships we make sure we:

  • Set expectations: They know what to expect, when to expect it, and what our process is.
  • Are completely transparent: This applies to process, measurement, and both successes and failures. We speak directly to what we are doing and why, follow it up with measurement and success metrics, and proactively address when we make a mistake or are not meeting our goals for one reason or another.
  • Communicate openly: We create an atmosphere where we can have open and honest dialogue with our clients, and likewise they feel like they can do the same with us. We never want to have a client stop working with us and hear after the fact they did so because of a situation that could have been resolvable had it just been addressed when it first developed. This type of open communication is key for long-term successful relationships.

Good Communications Skills Aren’t Implied

Communications pros often assume that because they work in communication they are good communicators.

This is false.

You might be skilled at communications strategy, fantastic at social media campaign execution, and write content like a pro.

None of this means you are a good communicator.

In fact, some of the worst communicators I’ve ever met work in communications.

The difficult thing is often the worst communicators think the are the best (and that’s probably why they are so bad, they lack the self-awareness to take responsibility for how their words affect those around them).

My best advice is to constant work to hone your communications skills.

Study it like you would any other skill and work to improve daily.

You can never, ever, ever, ever be a good enough communicators. You can always be better.

Client Service Requires 360 Vision

You can’t service your client productively nor speak to their opportunities or weaknesses, if you don’t understand their entire business and the industry they operate in.

To me this is what is most fun about working for an agency—the ability to learn a lot about a variety of industries.

One hour I work in healthcare, the next in tech, later in the afternoon I’m in the arts or manufacturing.

This also means you must operate as if you are an internal team member.

You need to know as much (but normally more) as any team member working inside the organization about the organization and the industry.

Otherwise you are unable to identify or correct issues which stunt growth.

My guess is about 90 percent of all problems that prevent you from maximizing the success of your communication program occur outside the communications department.

But you won’t know that if you don’t have a comprehensive view of the ecosystem.

Solution-Focused Communication is the Heartbeat of Client Service

And that brings us the final criteria needed: Solution-focused communication.

When you go to a client with a problem, you need to accompany it with a solution.

That’s part of your job.

You must identify problems and support solutions.

Now the solution might not be totally in your control.

You might not even have enough information at first to offer a full solution. But you need to support the process of resolution.

To do this you ask the right questions and lead a productive discussion around the issue.

Bring problems to clients.

Tell them when they are doing something that’s hurting their goals.

Tell them no.

Be transparent in areas where the organization needs to improve.

And do so in a solution-minded way.

That’s how you practice tough love.

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks.

  • paulakiger

    There are some sweet takeaways in this post, Laura. I’m in a loop right now with a client (I’m not the project manager) where we are struggling with the fact that the client circumvents the PM by either going to me (“below” the PM for lack of a better word) or to our CEO (“above” for lack of a better word) no matter how often we say “all communication has to go through the PM) and for all the world it reminds me of a parent/child relationship where the kid goes to the parent they think is going to give the most favorable answer. Until the parents team up and present a united front (which turns out to be surprisingly hard to do no matter HOW tenacious you are as parents about sticking to a party line), something is bound to happen that is not necessarily in the interest of the family as a whole.

  • Pete Salmon

    I think you practice what you preach Laura, which is a rarity in the world today it seems.

    • Ahh…well, thank you! That’s a really nice compliment!

  • Great four point outline. I’m such an advocate for your last point; most people can point out a problem, but few will offer a solution. So I live by this so strongly, I will never just highlight a problem, I will always make sure there are a few ideas for a conceivable solution. For one, doing this saves a lot of time, imagine all the meetings with clients and staff where just problems are highlighted as opposed to highlighting and then discussing potential solutions. Thanks for the post Laura

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