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Your Firm is a Resource for Clients – Are You?

November 4, 2010

“Voice from the Trenches” is written by Alex Moore. Alex is a freelance writer, the Marketing Coordinator at Prellwitz Chilinski Associates, and a Consultant with Reilly Communications.

As “in the trenches” coordinators, we’re constantly touting our firms’ collaborative ability. Whether we’re emphasizing a longstanding client partnership in an RFQ package, describing our “client-focused approach” to service on our web sites, or even helping a principal get acquainted with LinkedIn and Twitter, we’re great coaches when it comes to relationship building.

But we’re not always great players.

Booked solid with in-house efforts, marketers often stand on the sidelines when it comes to client collaboration. We write about the great partners our firms make, but don’t engage in client partnership ourselves.

That’s unfortunate, because forming relationships with our clients’ marketing folks offers great personal and professional benefits, from wider PR reach to better understanding of our industry and the people driving major decisions (like hiring your firm). Plus, whether you’re “in the trenches” or in the corner office, these relationships can be established no matter where you stand in your firm.

There are plenty of opportunities to build relationships with your clients, but the trick is to steer these connections into mutually beneficial outcomes, avoiding dead-ends and one-sided projects that cost time and turn into headaches.  I’ve had both experiences, and the difference between a powerful, lasting connection and a fool’s errand is smaller than you might think. It’s a matter of a few critical communications at the start of the client relationship. Here’s what I’ve learned about getting things off on the right foot.

Make the Call!
The first order of business in relationship building is to reach out in the first place. Any project milestone – the initial deal, a groundbreaking, a ribbon cutting – offers the opportunity to connect and start a dialog, and there’s value in client communication no matter how new you are to A/E/C marketing.

I typically introduce myself through a simple inquiry related to my core job description –something as simple as collecting project data for a fact sheet.  Next, I’ll mention I’d like to help align my firm’s strategy with theirs, and inquire about the bigger picture: The client’s general marketing plans and messaging for the project. That typically helps me get connected with the decision maker.

Get Specific.
After first contact, ask your client for help with advancing an internal effort that your client can help with. I generally keep it super simple – like adding a quote to a press release, or inquiring about photography cost sharing.  Next, instead of letting the conversation end there, offer a suggestion for working together – maybe it’s working together on an award submission, or sharing information for proposals. That sets a relationship in motion more effectively than a passive close like “let me know how I can help.” Whatever your approach to following up, be specific. If you introduce concrete ideas, you’re more likely to steer things toward a successful outcome.

Think Billable.
Now that you have your client’s ear, consider your joint marketing effort in terms of your timesheet. If there’s no obvious account to bill your work to, there may be no real business case to be made for the effort (other than building goodwill with your client). Likewise, if a joint project will require continuous input – like a blog or an ongoing PR campaign – the number of hours you’ll bill for it may outweigh the benefits. In both scenarios, it may be best to nix the effort. Thinking about the project’s impact on your schedule and timesheet before you commit to it will help you make the right call.

Be Transparent.
Finally, let The Powers That Be within your firm know about your client outreach early and consistently. Bring it up at your weekly meeting: “I spoke with Jane in marketing from client X last week about Project Y. They’re launching a new blog. I thought maybe we could send them some photos or renderings so they could have a post on the design.  What do you think?”

Don’t be shy. Looping your team, and all the final decision-makers, into your ideas early, and CC-ing them on your client communications, will help you refine your ideas and approach. At the very least, it will help you avoid a wild goose chase. Remember, they know the client better than you. But not for long!

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