Client satisfaction with almost all aspects of agency performance increased last year. But PR firms continue to score their lowest marks from clients on key metrics such as account leadership, creativity, and measurement, according to the second annual Client Satisfaction Survey conducted by InsightExpress for The Holmes Group and management consulting firm Kelly & Lugbauer.
The survey is designed to provide robust and detailed information about client satisfaction to participating agencies, but also provides insight into overall client attitudes toward their PR agencies, and suggests that the best public relations firms continue to satisfy their clients, scoring an average of 5.81 on a scale of one to seven, up from 5.71 in the 2004 study.
On the most basic measure of satisfaction, the vast majority (94 percent, up from 87 percent last year)—including corporate communications, marketing, public affairs and investor relations executives—indicated they would hire their current public relations firm again. Just 6 percent indicated they would not be likely to rehire their current firm.
When asked to rate their firm, almost a third (32 percent) gave it the highest mark (excellent), while another 30 percent rated it very good, and 28 percent rated it good. Only 4 percent of respondents rated their firm below average.
There was a high level of satisfaction on almost all the 40 criteria examined by the survey, with a majority of clients indicating they were either very of extremely satisfied with their firms (indicated by a score of six or seven on a scale of 1-7).
Agencies scored the highest marks on criteria related to process and efficiency: administrative systems (6.4) and budgeting (6.2). They also scored high marks—as they did last year—on messaging (6.0), quality of the account team (5.9), strategy and planning (5.9—a healthy increase over the 5.31 they scored last year), implementation (5.8), and execution (5.8).
But they scored relative low marks for account leadership (5.75), creativity (5.75), and for their ability to measure success (5.7).
The problem is that firms scored their lowest marks on criteria that are among the strongest drivers of client satisfaction. The survey introduced a new question for 2005, asking clients to indicate which of 10 performance drivers were most important to their satisfaction. The areas on which agencies scored the highest marks—administration and budgeting and compensation—were cited by fewer than 15 percent of clients when asked to identify the three most important drivers of satisfaction.
Strategy and planning was cited by more than 60 percent of respondents, making it by far the most significant factor, followed by the quality of the account team (44 percent) and creativity (41 percent).
“There’s a major disconnect between clients and agencies when it comes to creativity,” says Paul Holmes, editor of The Holmes Report and co-sponsor of the survey. “Clients say they want it, and they say they are not particularly happy with the level of creativity they are getting. At the same time, agencies complain that their biggest and best creative ideas are often turned down by clients who don’t want to take risks. Agencies need to engage their clients in a dialogue to find out what they mean by creativity, and what it will take to delight clients in this area.”
Interestingly, clients did not cite measurement as a strong driver of satisfaction. In fact, it was mentioned among the top three drivers by less than 14 percent of respondents.
“It’s possible that things like administrative systems and budgeting scored so low because clients consider them the ‘price of admission,’” says Holmes. “They don’t drive satisfaction because they’re taken for granted. But it’s hard to imagine that clients take measurement for granted, given the industry’s historic weakness in this arena. More likely, clients don’t believe that agencies are capable of delivering the kind of evaluation that makes a compelling difference.”
Another clue about what clients value the most can be found in the responses of those who said they did not plan to rehire their current agency. Among those clients, agencies scored low marks on several key criteria, including: demonstrates initiative (3.33); provides vision and new thinking (3.38); adds significant value to internal staff capabilities (3.43); ensures a stable, cohesive account team (3.62); and is respected by senior managers (3.62).
As far as individual questions were concerned, firms scored the highest marks on process-oriented criteria such as “Has policies regarding competitive conflicts of interest” (6.72); “Has professional, easy to work with business, financial staff” (6.51); “Enforces quality control, confidentiality standards” (6.42); “Collaborates respectfully with our staff” (6.38); and “Uses technology to reduce cost and/or improve quality” (6.30).
Firms score far less impressive marks in potentially high-value areas such as “Provides vision and new thinking” (5.52); “Uses research to create goals, programs” (5.52); Stays fresh, introducing new ideas, people, and approaches” (5.55); “Creates well-written copy” (5.62); “Measures results against business goals” (5.66).
“Poor goal-setting is an agency that affects performance scores across a number of factors,” says Lugbauer, “including the top client satisfaction driver: strategy and planning. Strategic counsel and analytical thinking score are also below the mean, also lowering strategy and planning ratings. And agencies continue to get lower ratings for ‘vision,’ “new ideas,’ ‘staying fresh’ and ‘creative programs’ than they do for things like ‘collaborating respectfully’ and ‘executing programs on time.’”
Among the biggest changes from last year were a dramatic improvement in scores for online communications capabilities, and increased recognition of the use of proprietary models by agencies.
Agencies with revenues under $4 million are rated the most highly, with overall performance mean of 6.22. Agencies with revenues between $10million and $25 million received the lowest scores, with overall performance mean of 5.69. Similarly, clients with revenues under $500 million and between $1 billion and $5 billion rate overall agency performance the highest, while companies with revenues of $25 billion or more rate overall agency performance the lowest
The highest agency overall performance ratings came from government and non-profit organizations, while the lowest agency overall performance ratings came from professional service companies, healthcare and financial service companies.