This article was updated on September 18, 2018.

For PR professional Elizabeth Fairleigh, developing a long-term account strategy happened as an unexpected epiphany. The founder and sole proprietor of thE Connection, a PR firm based in Greater Atlanta, Fairleigh has been helping her clients (many are CEOs and C-suite executives) get out the good word via targeted and effective PR communications since 1995. She describes herself as a storyteller who makes strategic connections to help her clients shine.

Because of her industry reputation, Fairleigh has never actively marketed herself to get new business. Clients have come to her by word of mouth for the last twenty years. Consequently, she never considered developing an account strategy until she had a breakthrough moment a few years ago. She explained this breakthrough in an interview.

Q: You had an account strategy epiphany through working with a difficult client. Can you tell us how the business relationship with this client began?

Fairleigh: The client came to me as a referral, which always adds pressure to work with someone. The client didn't ask me whether I had available bandwidth and I didn't know this person very well. She was publishing a book and I'd been helping clients with business books for a while. Clients often use a book to drive business, and so this client seemed to offer a good framework for a good working relationship.

However, I had a weird feeling when I first met with her. She sold me pretty aggressively from the beginning on why she was so awesome, and how awesome we'd be together. I took on the relationship in good faith, but I soon discovered that this wasn't my ideal client. This woman's ego was huge, which is OK, but you've got to be able to check your ego when you work with a PR professional. Over time, this woman was so enamored with herself that I was no longer even able to gain access to her. I had to go through her assistant for everything, and I could never just pick up the phone and get a direct answer from her. Our personalities were so different that I just didn't want to work with her anymore.

Q: What changed your relationship with this client?

Fairleigh: I worked with her for about eight months and I always strove to make things work — to accommodate. One day I was visiting my brother-in-law, who's super smart, and complaining about this client. My brother-in-law looked at me and asked, "Why are you working with this woman?" I said, "The money and I don't like to lose clients." He stopped me and said, "Listen, you need to get rid of her, she's toxic and just isn't a good fit for you." I asked him, "Well, what do I tell her?" He told me to simply say she "didn't fit into my account strategy." That was an epiphany for me, because I didn't know I needed an account strategy. That was a turning point.

Q: How then did you develop your present strategy?

Fairleigh: I completely shifted my mindset then about how I viewed my business. I realized that I needed an account strategy. I decided I would attract clients, both organizations and individuals, who had high integrity and wanted a collaboration. If you keep bad clients you won't have time to find good ones, so even if you have a lean month, you can't give into the fear and take on clients who don't work well with you. It's a mindset rather than a checklist approach. I use my gut now and listen to it. When I hear that little voice, I don't move forward. It's been freeing to let go of fear because you work for you and a bad client can suck all the life out of you. Now I embrace my clients and we work as a team. I don't have time for clients I'm not in sync with, and I don't worry about losing a client because I trust that a better one will come along.

After two decades, Fairleigh knows what she needs to foster effective, mutually beneficial relationships: a client with integrity, a realistic understanding of what PR can and can't do and a partnership mentality where egos get checked at the door to achieve mutually defined goals.

thE Connection was a client of ADP, LLC. at the time of this article's publication.

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