Here at Solo PR Pro, we often hear from communications consultants who are confused about what to provide prospects and clients – and when. To address these questions and more, we've produced this ultimate guide to mastering the client lifecycle.
The trajectory of the communications client lifecycle typically follows a standard pattern of phases and steps. And these steps are best taken in a specific sequential order to foster and manage successful client relationships over the long-term:
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With every client, there is an arc to the relationship that spans from the very first inklings of the new business lead through to qualifying the opportunity, determining additional staffing (if needed), submitting a proposal, signing the contract, onboarding the client, crafting and agreeing upon a plan, executing on the plan, measurement and reporting, invoicing, and proposing new programs.
While traditional customer lifecycle documents and graphics often focus only on the client acquisition phase, we are firm believers that approaching all stages of your engagement with the client as one continuous cycle is the best way to keep and grow your business.
To help you deftly navigate the path of the client lifecycle every step of the way, the stages – and helpful resources for each – follow:
1. New Business Lead Acquisition (via networking, inbound, etc.)
All independent consultants must continuously work to generate lucrative business leads and find new clients, and there are many ways to do this. Although everyone has preferred methods of acquiring new leads, we have identified foolproof excuses to network and proven ways to find new clients.
It is advisable to engage an array of new business activities in concert to ensure you’re keeping the new business funnel fed. Solo PR Pro’s groundbreaking Compensation Survey Report provides insights into the new business strategies that work best for the most successful consultants.
2. Qualify the Opportunity
When you have a prospective client, it’s important to vet them to decide whether they are someone you truly want to work with. Before expending time and energy on a proposal, it’s best to pre-qualify your prospect to determine whether the organization is a good fit for you both on a professional and personal level.
Using a pre-qualification questionnaire* as a guide for your conversations also allows you to gauge whether this is a truly viable opportunity, or they are the proverbial “tire-kicker” – those who don’t know what they want, or who may be trying to get free advice and knowledge with no intention of ever signing a contract with you.
This often-overlooked step can be the difference between a successful consultant, and one who gets so bogged down in new business and/or difficult clients that they have a hard time making ends meet. Don’t get so excited about the potential of new business that you neglect it!
*An asterisk denotes premium content for members of Solo PR PRO Premium. If you aren’t a member yet, get immediate access by joining the only premium membership site devoted entirely to communications consultants like you.
3. Optional: Determine Staffing
As you analyze the opportunity, give careful consideration to whether you can handle adding to your roster of current clients and manage the overall workload. Plan ahead with an hourly projection worksheet* so you can determine whether it’s time to bring on additional team members/subcontractors.
If you do decide that you need to bring sub-contractors onboard, we’ve outlined everything entrepreneurs need to know about subcontractors. You’ll typically want to outline the team in your proposal, so it’s important to take care of this step first.
Proposals and plans are two different things, and crafting powerful proposals* challenges many communications consultants – veterans and newbies alike. One of the biggest errors consultants make is thinking more is more in every proposal situation. There can be great variability in terms of their format, style and length – review these key elements that to give yourself an edge over the competition.
Solo PR PRO Premium offers a 57-page ebook on proposals*, as well as a downloadable timeline template* and value statement cheat sheet*. If you aren’t a member yet, get immediate access by joining us today.
It’s also critical to view the proposal as a foundational step in the process with your hopefully soon-to-be client. The program elements you outline in the proposal are the starting point for discussions/negotiations that will determine what is in your contract, how you’ll structure your invoices, measurement and more. Give some thought to the big picture lifecycle when crafting your proposal, and you’ll be ahead of the game!
5. Contract and Deposit
The importance of having a written contract in place can’t be stressed enough. Many consultants learn this lesson the hard way – please don’t be one of them.
The free Solo PR Pro ebook, Get It In Writing! The Consultant’s Guide to Contracts, provides a detailed guide. First published in 2011 by Solo PR Pro founder Kellye Crane and co-author Jenny Schmitt, of Cloudspark, this no-cost ebook – with 45 pages of advice and 9 full contract examples – has been accessed more than 10,000 times! For Solo PR PRO Premium members, a downloadable set of editable contract templates* is also available.
Whenever possible, you should also negotiate an up-front payment along with the contract. In this case of a retainer agreement, this typically means billing ahead one month, while getting one-third payment in advance for project work is customary. Put simply, billing in advance* will help protect you from getting stiffed for your hard work.
Once the contract is signed, you need to obtain additional information from the new client to ascertain the full spectrum of their needs and anticipated outcomes. This is a crucial stage in the client lifecycle that sets a tone for the working relationship, particularly in terms of setting expectations upfront. The client onboarding process includes getting further acquainted with the client team, as well as identifying subject matter experts and obtaining detailed background.
Solo PR PRO Premium members can access our client intake interview* questionnaire, covering key considerations such as primary internal stakeholders (e.g., senior management team, etc.), strategy considerations (e.g., success factors, objectives, SWOT analysis, current value statement and key messaging, etc.) and parameters around reporting and meetings.
Strategic planning forms the cornerstone of what we do as communications consultants, and provides the foundation from which all other communications activities are formulated and put into action.
In our free post Charting the Course: A Guide to PR Planning, we outline communications plan formats, basic and optional elements, and top tips – bookmark it for your next planning effort!
It’s important not to assume you were provided with the full picture during the new business proposal process. Many clients will feel more comfortable sharing more details with you now that the contract is signed, so be sure to prod them for more information before proceeding to the planning stage.
Do not begin work until you have both the contract and the initial payment in hand. As soon as you start working, the client will lose the sense of urgency, and you may never get them.
Solo PR PRO Premium members can access our comprehensive ebook on PR planning* along with a plan template*and budget planning worksheet* to help you with your PR planning. The inclusion of key messaging* can also be part of the communications planning process.
At this stage, the execution of the work should be guided by the plan. As you implement the tactics identified in your plan, give thought to the next steps – measurement and reporting, as well as invoicing. In many ways, this is what separates top consultants from the rest: you’re constantly looking at the big picture.
9. Measurement and Reporting
Measuring your communications activities and outcomes is critical, and as part of the lifecycle it helps demonstrate and reinforce the value of your programs to the client. In the planning phase, you should have identified your measurable objectives and the methods you’ll use for measuring outcomes (again, see Charting the Course: A Guide to PR Planning).
Develop reports that will showcase your results to clients (Solo PR PRO Premium members have access to client reporting templates*), which are often sent along with the invoice. Also make sure you evaluate your communications efforts throughout the project – what’s working and what’s not – so you can counsel for modifications, if needed.
In addition, as you evaluate your programs and look at the metrics, see if there are any opportunities that you could capitalize on with additional programs. We’ll talk about this more in Step 11.
Many consultants hate invoicing, but think of it as a positive: you’re about to get paid!
Your invoicing should reflect your contract terms, and ideally be done on a monthly basis to maintain a steady stream of income.
Invoicing is also an opportunity for you to see if you’re over-servicing, so you can learn lessons for future programs and clients (meticulous time tracking, even if you’re working on retainer, will give you the data you need).
11. Propose new programs
As noted in Step 9, identifying and suggesting new projects or programs can be part of providing good counsel to your client.
You don’t want to be a pest or seem like you’re constantly asking for more money, so give thought to their overall budget and planning periods for the best results. Even if they don’t fund your proposal, strategic suggestions can show you’re always looking for ways to help. Hopefully, they will give you the green light!
Thinking of your prospect and client management as a pattern of phases and steps can help take the guesswork out of your interactions. Skillfully navigating through each stage of the client lifecycle will help you build and sustain a profitable communications consulting business over the long-term. To your success!
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