Fire a prospect before hiring a client

Posted by on Aug 26, 2012 in Client Talk, General, Lessons | 0 comments

Fire a prospect before hiring a client

Recently I had an experience where I chose to pass on a prospect to avoid a nightmare client. This experience made me stop and think hard before going with my gut. Some would say that I passed up potential business.

When a relationship is right, you sense it from the get go. The perspectives and education of both parties in their respective fields is clearly understood on both ends.

The same goals are understood and shared; there is mutual respect, curiosity and the perspective education by both parties in their respective fields is clearly understood on either end.

I have worked with both entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 C-levels. I have dedicated the last 22 years to one profession and now teach it. I am reminded how much I love working with entrepreneurs because of their innovative ideas, their ‘fire in the belly’ and unquenched curiosity for life. Steve Jobs called it “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” After he gave this commencement speech at Stanford in 2005, I became an entrepreneur and started The Ballast Group a year later. He described why he “dropped out of college.” This post describes why I “dropped a prospective client.”

Recently after multiple conversations with a tech-startup CEO, I did something for the first time since I started my business. Even though the company found me and initiated the dialogue, I found myself having to define and restate the value of PR. I mentioned the third party credibility and the relationships that had to be built before journalists or producers would be interested in what this company’s message or value proposition was. A lot of planning and prep are necessary to tell the right story to the right people.

Most good journalists and editors will first see value to a story idea. Then they decide to write with a vengeance to find balance to all sides. Finally they share this story with their worlds. This news is frequently initiated by a PR professional. The end result carries more clout than tooting your own horn using a website or an advertisement. News speaks louder because someone else said it was newsworthy and unique. Our clients have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, CNN HeadlineNews, and US News & World Report.

I reminded this CEO that “in advertising you pay, and in PR you also pray”. Nothing in PR is guaranteed. There’s a reason that PR has been around since the Rosetta Stone and that the Roman Catholic Church is a huge practitioner. There is so much beauty when it works. These ‘pay or pray’ words became the catalyst for me deciding to pass on this prospect before the company became my client. Why? The CEO insisted he should not have to pay for advice and planning, “only the results.” Am I a risk taker? You bet. Would I entertain the thought? Absolutely. Yet there are many reasons why success-based fees fizzled for clients and PR agencies years ago. So who takes the risk?

The value that this CEO associated with a placement in the New York Times was $1,000 for a mention and $3,000 for a story about him and his service. “Where is the disconnect?” I wondered. I responded, “I’m not sure you want to pay success-based fees given how costly it is to buy your way into a global publication. It’s much more of a challenge to get a credible third party to talk about you (PR) instead of talking about yourself (advertising). I asked him what a one-page space in US News & World Report would be worth. (It costs upward of $250k.) “I’ll take a success-based fee for getting you placed there” I said. Unfortunately his budget did not match the value for this kind of fee.

When you compare these ad-dollar equivalency values to PR results, working your way onto those pages by storytelling is clearly the best and most effective choice for exposure and validation. How often does a company have a budget to pay six-figure success-based PR fees? Add a favorable impression, mention a brand name, quote a customer, place a compelling photo, and drop in a link to your site. Your ‘ad’ just got 10 times more credible and equally expensive. If anyone asks you as a PR pro for success-based fees, what are you willing to do?

This particular company is in professional services. I asked if they give their planning and prep services away for free or are they only paid when a legal dispute settles favorably for their client. “No,” he answered. The last time I checked, PR is a professional services industry too.

Here are five things to be aware if you are questioning a prospect before taking that company as a client:

  1. Know that the working relationship is just as important as the work. Either the chemistry is there or it’s not. You can’t buy or sell chemistry. Politely walk away…and fast.
  2. Aim for fostering long-term, trusted partnerships. We have clients that have been with us for years. Apply a philosophy that each party recognizes the other’s strengths and expertise to plug it into the project where it matters most. If they are incapable of doing that then walk away.
  3. Ensure that each party sees fair and equitable reasons for being engaged in the project. Don’t let resentment build over the perceived value of PR or for the amount of fees to be paid for professional services.
  4. Go with your gut. If showing a potential prospect the value of PR in the early stages appears difficult even though you were solicited because they know they “need PR,” imagine the difficulty of working day in and day out with this company. Time could be wasted debating tried and true PR philosophies rather than making good things happen and moving forward for results.
  5. Learn that sometimes the best thing to do is not to do anything at all. Hire slow, fire fast is good for employees who don’t impress. But for potential clients, firing before they become a client if the synergy is not there provides the time and energy for the relationships that matter. Agree to disagree and wish them the best.

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