Monday, August 02, 2004

Cultivating References

In this biz, it's all about having respected people vouch for you. That whole credibility thing. Our clients need customers to verify the veracity of their claims, thereby allaying concerns of potential buyers. In PR parlance, it's called third party validation.

PR firms need to do the same thing. When engaging in the RFP process, one of the last things a company does before pulling the trigger on an Agency of Record is to check the firm's client references. If an agency can't scare up at least a couple of happy clients to sing its praises, that agency is in deep, ahem, trouble.

Now, suppose two firms are jockeying to win a company's PR business. Let's further suppose they are neck-in-neck in the race. Each firm has a great, experienced staff. Each firm has senior leadership involved in the accounts; each has an attractive billing model (flat-fees win the day over those money gobbling T&M plans); and each has plenty of relevant experience in the space.

What gives? Who do you run with?

Successful PR agencies are filled with talented achievers who keep clients happy (hence the glowing client references). But truly enterprising firms also keep the press and analyst communities happy, which can and should tip the scales in their favor.

We recently pitched a piece of biz in the online advertising space. This company had talked to several firms, most of them credible. In we marched with our team, a solid proposal, and a humble-yet-confident attitude. After all of the basic get-to-know-ya, what-are-your-services questions were out of the way, the conversation turned to reporters. Specifically, who do we know?

At this point all eyes turned toward our experience account manager, who proceeded to list all of the publications and accompanying writers relevant to this prospect. But that's not all. She also mentioned their respective likes and dislikes, their deadlines, what they're currently writing about and how to get their attention.

"You know XX personally?" asked the CEO, his eyebrows raised. "I mean, you've talked to him a few times?"

"I talk to him at least once a week," replied our Account Manager. "In fact, he'd be glad to serve as a reference."

Of course, the CEO thought this was next to miraculous, considering the reporter in question was numeral uno on his target list. That we could serve up his favorite target as a reference was a thing of beauty, and a clear differentiator.

The bad news is, we couldn't take on the new client. We discovered a competitive conflict, and decided not to walk that line. When I called to break the news to the prospect, it was clear they were disappointed, and had in fact already decided to hire us.

"Please keep us in mind if things should change," the contact said. "We'd love to have you."

There's a switch.

Having client references on hand is one thing. Having editorial references is quite another, and any firm worth its salt can offer up a satisfied reporter as a third party validation of its services.

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