Learning how to select clients

my-best-mistake-sphere-thumbIt can be tempting to take on every client that comes your way, particularly in the early days when generating healthy cashflow is critical, but failing to deliver on your commitments can lead to problems later.


Louise Roberts, founder of Sphere Public Relations, made the mistake of saying yes to clients who fell outside her company’s core strengths. Thankfully, she learnt her lesson early enough to refocus.


Sphere Public Relations is a boutique PR consultancy specialising in the technology, digital and marketing sectors.


Established in 2005, its portfolio of clients includes TANK, Reborn, Arbor Networks, Infinitive, VOLT Media, Urban Geek and Mobile Mentor, although it is hoping to take on more.


According to Roberts, revenue for 2010/11 grew 25% year-on-year from the previous year.


“I came from a big agency background. I was at a senior level with some very large agencies in Australia and the UK,” Roberts says.


“I decided that was no longer for me and wanted to set up my own agency… My biggest mistake was trying to say yes to everyone.”


“Clients would come to me and I would always try [to service them] but it wasn’t always my core area or my team’s area.”


“We did an okay job but it was very time-consuming getting it all up to speed.”


After about a year, Sphere decided it would no longer accept any business that wasn’t in its core area, focusing entirely on its strengths.


“There’s a saying – ‘Get big, get niche or get out’. We really believe in that. You need to be a big agency or you need to specialise,” Roberts says.


“We needed the revenue but we had to say no to things we didn’t feel were our core strengths. We would often recommend clients to other agencies we knew.”


“We did a lot of networking, advertising with Google Alerts and a lot of word-of-mouth… We also joined the industry association – the Public Relations Institute of Australia – and got some referrals that way as well.”


Roberts says start-ups often make the mistake of second-guessing what the market wants.


“They don’t go out there and do any research or test their idea,” she says.


“They have no idea whether anybody is interested in the niche product they’re going to launch, even though it’s as simple as finding out who searches for what on Google and so on.”


“People would be surprised how few people search for something niche they might be launching.”


“With technology PR and digital PR, there is still not that many people searching for it. A lot of [awareness comes via] word of mouth and recommendations.”


According to Roberts, Sphere works on a contracting model but has five key staff working in Sydney, Melbourne and London.


Sphere does not employ juniors or interns, and only engages PR professionals at an account director level or above, who are able to work directly with clients from day one.


“We take people on with different skills as we meet them, but we have a core team that works with different clients, mostly from their own offices… We work as a virtual office,” she says.


“[With virtual offices,] you need to have a lot of contact with the people working for you, and a lot of communication. You need to meet regularly… and [also] be meeting clients together.”


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