Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
Call it quaint, call it delusional, but the phrase “back to normal” has never sounded so luxuriant and thrilling. It practically sends shivers up my spine. For nearly two decades, I have run a boutique PR firm that specializes in reputation management. Prior to 2020, my work took me across the globe constantly. As such, you might have guessed that I’m not one terribly well suited to confinement. During the depths of lockdown, I was one of those extroverts who qualified for a friendly mental health check-in.
That said, the pandemic posed a unique challenge to those of us in the client care game: How could we ensure our customers felt tended to and doted upon — and that all professional services had been fully rendered — without face-to-face interaction? Some refer to it as a “feeling” and others a “vibe,” but chemistry is what sparks a productive relationship in PR. Certain clients are great fits for certain agencies; it’s something no algorithm can account for. Yet, our lives and professional practices were reduced to digital platforms last year.
My own firm instituted a carousel of rotating client check-ins over Zoom that replaced those luncheons. I lived more or less with my phone headset glued to my skull. Critically, we pivoted into content generation, focusing more on thought leadership than on press releases and pitches. Podcasting, which had been a successful side project of ours for some time, suddenly became one of our principal offerings.
As we come to the point where reopening is all but imminent, I must say that the pandemic forced us to create a better business model. Based on this experience, here’s my advice when it comes to approaching client care post-pandemic.
Focus on content generation.
By putting our energy into content generation first and foremost, we’re tasked with listening to our clients’ needs at length. By coming to a consensus about the words that must build their brand, we can be more intimately involved than we would be when simply pitching their projects and writing up press releases. This allows for a more seamlessly synergistic relationship — even without the face-to-face meeting, the client feels more heard.
The first step in content generation is to come up with deliverables that make sense. Have a strategy before diving in. This means not simply defaulting to a rote menu of podcast production and blogs, but considering audience and message, then tailoring platforms accordingly. In the brainstorming phase, be careful to gauge what the client is willing to take on, but also where it would serve them to be pushed harder in opportunities that will yield returns, even if it’s new territory for the client.
For this reason, it’s essential to have proven creative professionals on staff or on retainer who can guide clients past the limits of their comfort zones, whether in writing, audio or video. Given the competitive gig economy, it’s also imperative to give those creatives the support they need so they’re able to focus on showing up for the client and leveraging their craft to the larger goal of content creation, rather than getting bogged down in administrative tasks.
Network with intent.
This sense of strategy goes for networking, too. Don’t simply throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. Rather, have a dedicated social media specialist or team work with the client on targeted goals around a plan with the proper scope and goals. While this might seem obvious around social media platforms and certainly was a common practice prior to the pandemic, I learned how much this holds true for podcast production, too.
Content generation is a form of networking, so treat it as such and make sure the client is aware. When making that initial list of deliverables around content generation, make sure that the client knows this, too, and that the networking aspect of content generation is at the front of everyone’s minds from the start.
Yes, a large audience and a bevy of followers are great but don’t make the mistake of focusing on these numbers alone. Often the real point of even an entire podcast is reaching a select few. Identify them and figure out how best to reach their ears and their eyes. Effective networking is a targeted effort that takes all parts of client strategy into account. Being intentional is also a great way to avoid burnout — both for your own team and for your clients.
Don’t micromanage your team.
That burnout is real; Zoom fatigue is more than a catchy headline. While my own firm has relied on Zoom to maintain a meaningful connection with our client base, I’ve learned to be careful with whom is included in those meetings. Yes, a kick-off meeting is a great opportunity to involve the whole cast of characters, but after that ensemble appearance, scale it back.
Those creatives you hire to help with content generation don’t need to be on every call. It’ll only wear them down and possibly create more billing headaches for you than you’d care to have. Your social media team can also have its own check-ins with clients. And, once they get the hang of a client’s voice, it’s a fair bet they can check-in only now and then. Decide what kind of maintenance a client will need and be flexible. Communicate often with your team about how best to manage your list, but do so in a non-intrusive way and trust the instincts of the team member who has had the most contact with a client.
In a decentralized office setting, client care lives and dies on your ability to delegate and trust your own team. Manage them enough to be certain they’re interfacing with the client and the client’s team enough to ensure goals are met, but give them leeway so they don’t get worn down in meetings and are left with no time to complete their own work. Let them decide if a client needs to be chased or will feel hounded.
In short, the business models and approaches have changed. Do I miss the old one? You bet. But, at the same time, I’m hesitant to jettison what we built this year — it would be foolish to forget the lessons of 2020.