Industry research has proven that client service excellence is the single most important measure of client loyalty. But how is client service excellence defined? Does it mean the same thing to clients as it does to employees? At a time when it is increasingly difficult for agencies to differentiate themselves based upon the work that they do, the service they provide becomes increasingly important. After five years of dramatic growth at a compounded rate of better than 25% and the addition of several new business units, Porter Novelli set out to reaffirm its commitment, and that of all of its employees, to superior client service. The agency introduced a comprehensive set of standards needed to establish and maintain a consistently high level of service across a growing organization. In a little less than six months, more than 1,000 employees from four newly joined companies have embraced Signature Service – Porter Novelli’s strategic client service platform – and begun applying the company’s standards as a way of doing business.
Throughout our history, Porter Novelli has demonstrated a commitment to delivering excellent client service. Our operating philosophy was based upon 10 Principles of Client Service, which led to numerous long-standing client relationships. In 1999, we merged with Copithorne & Bellows, acquired both Nelson Communications Group and EBS and were faced with the challenge of ensuring that all of our employees subscribed to the same service-oriented philosophy. In addition, changing business dynamics dramatically impacted the public relations industry, necessitating an increased focus on delivering a consistent experience for our clients regardless of who worked on their business and from where in the world this work was done.
RESEARCH AND PLANNING
Our first step in tackling this challenge was to define characteristics of superior client service; what this meant to clients and to PN employees. We conducted extensive research that included staff focus groups at all of our offices, individual discussions with select account managers and in-depth interviews with both PN and non-PN clients, including Philips, Gobi, Princess Cruises, Polaroid, Hewlett Packard, 3M, Cephalon, Delta, Nissan and Bell South.
Results from our focus groups demonstrated that a number of employees had difficulty distinguishing between work product and client service, that our Principles of Client Service were relatively unknown and that many staff did not feel “connected” to Porter Novelli as a whole. The research also revealed that there was a significant disconnect between client and agency perspectives of excellent service. Our employees tended to view things such as communication, responsiveness, keeping promises and meeting deadlines as characteristics of service excellence; clients, however, viewed these as the “basics,” or an agency’s point of entry. In addition, three critical service requirements emerged from our client interviews – 1) deep understanding of the business, 2) commitment to the relationship, and 3) a true strategic partnership – all of which drove our thinking around how best to improve our service offering and strengthen relationships with our clients.
Our objective was to develop a strategic service platform and a comprehensive set of client service standards that would drive the way we do business.
Based upon the results of our research, we determined that our 2000 client service plan needed to shift employee perceptions of client service excellence to be in alignment with the views of our clients. Principal components of our plan focused on three critical areas:
- Defining standards of client service excellence
- Creating practical tools to help employees meet our standards
- Sharing knowledge and best practices across the organization
Recognizing that our newly expanded agency was comprised of various cultures and that our employees would ultimately have to bring our service platform to life, it was important that Signature Service not be perceived as just another “corporate mandate.” To build support from the ground up, our Director of Client Service pulled together a team of 20 office champions to 1) synthesize best practices from around the Porter Novelli organization, 2) enhance our collective understanding, skills and consistency, and 3) promote and coordinate activities on a local level.
Following are key tactical elements of the 2000 plan, all of which are direct extensions of the research and strategy described above.
Standards: At a two-day off-site in May, our “champions” developed concise standards of client service excellence based upon three fundamental concepts critical to success – strategic planning, ongoing communication and building productive partnerships. The agency’s Operating Committee approved these standards at a meeting in June.
Launch: Working with PN’s Director of Client Service, champions introduced the program to staff on a local level via designated Signature Service meetings held throughout August, September and October. As part of the rollout, research results were shared, standards introduced and tools and upcoming training previewed. In addition, we reinvigorated our 10 Principles of Client Service through a desktop puzzle cube distributed to all employees.
Tools: To help employees meet our standards and embrace our service platform, we developed and introduced an exhaustive suite of tools. These included a proprietary account planning model, expectation meeting process, extranet development system and account management manual. To ensure easy access, all tools were made available online through a dedicated Signature Service microsite on the Porter Novelli intranet.
Training: To facilitate adaptation and use of our Signature Service tools, we introduced a comprehensive training program for staff. To strengthen management support of the initiative, we also conducted two leadership retreats focusing on client retention and growth.
Investment: As further investment in our clients, we developed and introduced a formal peer review program. As part of this process, the agency’s senior management takes a critical look at our client relationships, the results we are achieving and how we can provide additional value to our clients.
Our priority for 2000 was to focus our efforts internally. We needed to be mindful of our merging cultures and enhance our collective understanding, skills and consistency. In the three months since we completed the program rollout we’ve already begun to see a difference in the way we do business:
- A November PN staff survey revealed employee awareness of our Signature Service Standards is at 80%.
- Internally, we had set a goal that 50% of our accounts would have begun applying our Signature Service Standards by January 2001; current tracking shows that we are at 57%.
As a further benefit, we’ve quickly seen an increase in organic growth on a number of key accounts, directly resulting from our renewed emphasis on client service excellence.