So you’ve successfully completed a project for your client and even been paid for it...but what happens next? Do you just let them sink into oblivion until the next time there’s work...IF that next time comes around?
Putting the onus on the client to get back in touch next time is never a good idea. Make a note to yourself: the words “next time” are dangerous and should be banished from your vocabulary! As a small business, you need to be proactive about keeping your clients active and engaged. It takes way more energy, time and resources to win new clients than it takes to KEEP them. The key to client retention is consistency and longevity. This post is a complete guide on building rock solid client relationships that stand the test of time.
Tip 1 – Examine your current processes
You can’t fix something if you don’t know what’s broken right? So if you’re finding clients are falling through after certain projects, or the ratio of dormant clients to active ones is pretty high, SOMETHING isn’t right. Taking a good hard look at what’s going on behind the scenes will help you know exactly what’s working and what’s not. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Do you have a comprehensive client onboarding process?
- Do you have stellar communication at every stage of a project? If not, is it because your tools/technologies don’t allow for it?
- Is there a robust feedback loop in place? If something goes upside down – how quickly do you hear about it?
- Are you reviewing your database constantly? Having your client information stored in an online project management system will mean you can keep the information securely in one place. With the WorkflowMax client manager for example, you can access client information anytime, see which contacts are active or which ones need some attention. You can also create custom fields to store any information you like against a client. It’s a super efficient way to have everything at your fingertips.
- Are you doing everything you can to maximise value from your existing contacts, for example through a referral system? (More on this later)
Tip 2 – Establish common ground with your existing clients
I know what you’re thinking: who has time to make an extra effort when 1) everything is chugging along beautifully 2) work and capacity is at full throttle anyway?
But if you make the effort to not just view your clients as walking pay cheques and get to know them outside of work, it’s likely that:
- ALL your interactions will be more positive (yay!)
- You’ll avoid feeling that meetings are simply a series of business transactions (double yay!)
- The client will be more accommodating down the line (so very much yay)
Jim Dougherty, software CEO and entrepreneur, claims that one of two of the tenets of a great relationship are: They must like you and They must respect you professionally.
We’re pretty lucky in New Zealand that it’s relatively easy to find a shared connection or bond over hobbies and mutual interests: playing golf, squash, going surfing, watching highly poignant French movies – whatever it may be. I’m not suggesting you need to become best buddies on Facebook but try extending an invite to your client to something interesting outside of work and lay the seeds for a long and fruitful relationship.
Tip 3 – Manage your client’s expectations
Also known as: don’t promise the moon if you can’t deliver. A while ago we wrote about the importance of managing client expectations. To be able to do this appropriately, you need to think about resource management, selecting the right team, determining the appropriate project management methodology, learning how to avoid project roadblocks and how to create a clear communication and collaboration process throughout a project.
Tip 4 – Be professional...at ALL times
The Christmas BBQ, mid-year office party, an awards night…Attending a social event outside of the immediate work environment isn’t an excuse to let it all go. We definitely don’t recommend bringing up other clients or discussing colleagues – such conversations inevitably take a turn for the worse. And apart from saying things you might regret, that stuff comes around. Karma is definitely picky and choosy about when she chooses to strike, so better not tempt fate. By keeping it clean, friendly and professional, you’ll build trust and get clients to feel comfortable that you have their best interests at heart.
Tip 5 – Know that it takes two to tango
"The better the relationships, the better the work." – Tim Leake, SVP growth and innovation at RPA
Fast Company describes the typical agency-client relationship as “pretty dysfunctional”. Thinking of your clients as partners and collaborators will make it easier to achieve a rich and rewarding relationship. How do you do this?
- Involve them at every stage of a project
- Get their input and feedback early
- Host ‘working sessions’ or workshops where collaboration and teamwork is emphasized
- Keep an open mind. A project is a great opportunity for mutual learning, you’re the creatives, the experts, the architects able to realise the client’s vision… you’re both on the same side!
- Show them that you value their input
Tip 6 – Keep your clients in the loop
Keeping your clients up to date with your business is a great way to make sure they stay engaged and active. We’re not suggesting you need to spam them every time something happens, but if you have a blog or send out an email newsletter, you should consider adding them to the mailing list.
Contact could even be as simple as forwarding an interesting article you read to let your clients know you were thinking about them. Fast Company calls these “frequent little checkpoints” which are an easy way to establish a connection without too much time or energy investment.
Maybe you regularly publish a trends piece for internal consumption – you could repurpose this to be relevant to the client or send them appropriate industry articles and news that they may not be aware of yet. They will appreciate this “extra effort” and it could spark a discussion that leads towards a project or even just help you stay top of mind whenever something else comes up.
Tip 7 – Find out what THEY’RE up to
Showing an interest in your client’s business is vital to keeping good relationships ticking over for the long haul. Some ideas to start with:
- Set Google Alerts for the client’s business or industry
- Subscribe to their mailing lists to know what’s going on.
- Ask for a tour of the company, product demos
- Swap some onboarding time so you meet the wider team on their end and they’re comfortable with your processes too.
You will need to be on your A-Game at all times so that potential opportunities don’t slip by. A genuine and deep-seated interest in their business will help the client see that you’re invested in their business and its outcomes, not just the one-off monetary reward you get for doing great work.
Tip 8 – Be proactive
The above strategies require a degree of proactivity. Staying plugged into your client’s business and industry will alert you of new opportunities, but it will be upto you to actively chase these.
- Read this to find out more about pitching for creative work.
- Get referrals from existing clients
- Push for the jobs you KNOW are right for you.
- Ask for testimonials, document the relationship favourably and push it out to your networks
- Trying to make contacts during periods of down-time or a lull in the business might be perceived as inauthentic or insincere. Nurture those relationships no matter what lifecycle stage the client is at.
Tip 9 – Stand your ground
“Very often the opinion of the clients must be disregarded in their own interest.” – John M. Johanse
Sometimes it’s good to challenge the client’s ideas…especially if the alternative is sacrificing your integrity, or doing work which simply goes against your ethic. This approach can be difficult, but will be appreciated in the long run. Remember, they’ve come to you for a reason, as you’re the expert in your area.
Tip 10 – Appreciate them differently – and on a regular basis
Recognition and gratitude doesn’t have to just be reserved for special occasions like holidays. You could ask the client for a testimonial or detailed case study as testament of the great work you've done together. I love what Forbes calls “thinking outside the gift basket” and being a little more creative with gifts than a fancy bottle of wine or hamper.
Also, have you tried reaching out to the client to ask what THEY want? For example can you donate to a good cause on their behalf perhaps? Remember, you want to add a personal touch (your client will likely be bombarded with goodies from all their partners and competing agencies or practices) so it’s time to stand up and take a super creative approach!
Tip 11 – Turn your clients into brand advocates
When your client’s sing your praise, they’re doing half the work on your behalf. Word of mouth is STILL one of the most powerful and effective ways of marketing yourself. Ideally you want your clients to shout your name from the rooftops and bring you all sorts of awesome work – their own projects as well as from their networks. A few things you can do:
- Ask clients to give you an NPS score
- Ask if they would like to guest blog for you
- Interview them for a comprehensive case study
Tip 12 – Find the keepers
Michael Beirut – one of my favourite graphic designers – suggests finding “five great clients” and you’re sorted.
Wow, just five great clients?
The first time I watched his CreativeMornings talk I was blown away – because I had previously only been privy to negativity towards clients, hearing senior management blame the client for any project that flopped – and here was one of my icons, praising them, turning everything I thought I knew upside down on its head! (Thank GOODNESS he did by the way).
Leaders are in an extremely influential position and what they express becomes gospel to impressionable youngsters. So think carefully before you voice negativity – after all, cons aside, every project is an opportunity to learn SOMETHING. (If all you learn is that you never want to work on a similar project again, that’s okay too!)
Tip 13 – Let them go if they’re not right for you
All too often we hold on to toxic relationships for too long hoping things will be better the next time round. But working in this kind of environment, with those kinds of clients, quickly becomes demoralising, saps your energy and creates a whole bunch of negative karma.
Paula Scher (another of my creative heroes) acknowledges that “you’ve got to grow” i.e. sometimes you’ve just got to do what’s right for you! That could mean putting the foot down on a relationship which is creating more stress than reward. Check out Is It Time To Divorce Your Clients for some handy advice on HOW to go about the process!
Tip 14 – Understand that it takes time
“They all seemed like the worst at the time” – Paula Scher
Some relationships blossom from the start and others begin rocky before they develop into something deeper. Sometimes the client from hell becomes your best and most loyal one. But to get to the holy grail of client relationships takes time, perseverance and yes...“a little buttering” (Forbes). Be realistic about timeframes, don’t expect behaviours to change overnight. Plant the seed and watch it grow!
Tip 15 – Don’t eff it up
All that hard work is paying off and now you’ve got a good thing going, even settled into a rhythm and found a groove that works. With all the above tips and advice, please don’t F it up!
Invest time in building relationships OUTSIDE of work, stay proactive, communicate well during and after a project, and know that not all clients will be the right match for you. Hard work pays off but all good things take time.
We’d love to hear if there are any particular strategies you’ve found useful in maintaining strong client relationships – share your thoughts below!