Being human in business builds the best professional relationships

I started working in the tech public relations industry in 2007. I had just come from academia and was starting my first corporate job with a small, growing agency. I was determined to be professional. To me, in addition to delivering a high quality of work, “professional” meant being formal, and included things like addressing clients as Mr. ____ or Ms. ____. I learned soon enough, while not entirely wrong in my approach, I wasn’t entirely correct either.

During my first review, the principals of the company noted that I would be better served by being less formal and letting my hair down, a lot, for it would make for better client interactions. I was a little shocked by this. I wrestled with the idea of being perceived as less than professional. But I also realized that being a pro meant accepting the bosses’ criticisms and adapting. So, I relaxed. 

The lesson I needed to learn, and did soon enough, was that clients are humans, too. While they appreciate being treated professionally, they don’t want to be interacting with a machine. They also appreciate being treated not just as a client, but as another person. Public relations is very much a people industry, based on strength of relationships, whether it be with reporters, analysts, colleagues or clients. I learned that part of being professional in this industry is being… human.

I learned to ask about clients’ vacations and that it was okay to be genuinely interested. Sure, meetings needed to be efficient and cognizant of time, but it does not hurt to take a few minutes to ask if their son made the soccer team or show sympathy if they reveal something stressing. 

In a previous life, I was once on a call with a client. The account manager was relatively inexperienced, but was determined to be professional, confusing the term’s meaning, as I once did. I was empathic to my colleague’s approach. They felt that being professional relayed maturity and experience. 

The call began quickly, and my colleague began moving through the items in the meeting agenda. Upon reaching one particular item, which involved discussing a deadline, the client said they would not be able to make the deadline, paused for a few moments, and then shared they were leaving town shortly because of a death in the family. The account manager simply noted “OK” and moved onto the next item. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. They had just missed the chance to elevate from being a service provider to being a fellow person and offering comfort, as anyone would prefer after having revealed a loss. 

At Metis, one of our core principles is to be as much an extension of a client’s internal team as possible. Solid teamwork requires trust, respect, open communications and, most of all, empathy. Truly integrated public relations and marketing is a living, breathing, adaptable strategic function. There is no “one-size-fits-all” formula for a successful program, as it greatly differs from partnership to partnership. 

Any agency or vendor knows that being successful for a client is far more than just ticking off items from to-do list. There must be an understanding of the client’s personal needs, i.e. how to best work with them, in addition to their business needs. The Golden Rule is often the foundation of the most successful business relationships.  

The technology PR and marketing industries are somewhat unique in that businesses and their agency partners are known to develop close, if not personal, relationships over time. For most people, it’s hard to become friends with a robot. It’s much easier to do business with friendly, real, people.

Agency teams appreciate it when clients are such, and clients appreciate a human team that cares. Everyone benefits if all parties can move beyond the client/vendor line, and towards being a true team. Don’t let the notion of being the consummate professional get in the way of what may be one of the most important traits – being human in a people-driven industry.

To learn more about being human in the business world, read Conflict and Creativity at Work - You Can Have Both.