Beyond the Honeymoon:
How to Nurture Client Loyalty in the Age of Corporate Infidelity
Remember this frightening junior high scenario? You're dating someone wonderful. You're holding hands, you're kissing, you're spending hours on the phone... and then, bam! You're dumped. Right out of the blue. For absolutely no good reason. (No good reason except that your darling wants to go out with someone more handsome or pretty or popular or rich or cool.) Next time around, you're a little suspicious -- and a lot more careful.
Cut to today: You've got a great client -- great pay, great projects -- and you're freaked out because you might get booted, just like you were in junior high school. And who can blame you? The business world is no less ruthless than junior high, perhaps more so, and consequently your beauty and brains aren't necessarily rewarded with the fidelity you rightly deserve.
If fact, you can be sure that after the honeymoon is over, the client will begin seeing your flaws and thinking about other potential suitors. So after getting the job, your biggest challenge is to keep the client.
Don't panic. Fickle clients can be enticed to stick around longer if you employ some or all of these ten subtle methods:
1. Create a personal relationship. Does your client have kids? Dogs? Personal problems? Get to know your client like a friend. What are her weekend passions, movies, hobbies? Relate on the human as well as the professional level. Big corporations spend all sorts of money on relationship marketing -- you can do it by hanging onto the phone two minutes longer.
The danger, of course, is that a savvy client might read an attempt to get to know her "like a friend" as insincerity, so use this approach selectively, with people you generally like or work with on a regular basis. And don't expect too much from your newfound intimacy; two minutes of chitchat will only go so far.
2. Keep in touch, especially when the work thins out. Out of sight, out of mind, goes the adage, so drop an email or, better yet, dash off a stamped hand-written note. You'll be amazed at how a well-timed "Hey, how you doing?" can rekindle an old client relationship.
If you want a reason to make contact, include a tidbit of valuable information -- inside news about a competitor, a newspaper clipping on a subject of interest, or a hyperlink to some site that might appeal to your old client. Forget the email jokes unless they are directly related to your work. Actually, forget these, too -- email jokes are awful.
3. Remind them of all the wonderful things you do (but do it subtly). It's okay to toot your own trumpet occasionally or to relive those high-pressure days on the last project when no one believed you could meet the deadline. But be careful: do this too often, too proudly, and your clients will want you to, well, shut up.
On the other hand, you might want to brag to clients via the U.S. Postal Service. If you're mentioned in an industry magazine or if you win an award, mail a photocopy of the news to your clients. It will show them that others value your work and will help reconfirm their high opinion of you.
4. Be honest. It didn't work in junior high, but it might work now. Honesty is a great relationship builder because it creates trust, and heaven knows there's far too little trust in the corporate world.
While remaining tactful and diplomatic, let clients know how you feel about projects and proposals, what's going to work and what's not. And, most importantly, if you see your client wasting money, say so -- even if it means a loss of business for you. If they discover you were right, you and your opinion will be held in the highest regard for a long, long time.
5. Offer "free" advice and assistance. You client has a job to do above and beyond whatever relates them to you. If you can assist them in some other way, if you have knowledge in an area not directly related to your project, by all means speak up. Help them pull together a proposal, or make a personal contact on their behalf. Don't do a ton of work, naturally, but a little extra effort outside your job goes a long way.
The corollary is to be careful not to stick out your neck too far. You don't want to let the client take advantage of your good will -- or for you to neglect the work you were hired to do. Give free advice infrequently and only when you're sure you can be of assistance.
6. Visit them in person. Even in our wonderful world of email and virtual commuting, a personal visit remains the most powerful relationship-builder you'll find. If you're in the town of even a minor client, make arrangements to stop by to say hello and shake a hand. That's how salesmen get insignificant customers to become significant ones.
A few etiquette tips: Always call in advance with at least a day's notice, even if the client is across the street. Let them suggest lunch or other out-of-office venue. Dress appropriately (use your own judgement here). And be very careful not to overstay your welcome -- clients are busy people, too (some of them, anyway).
7. Ask for advice. Everyone loves to give their opinion. Include your clients when sincerely seeking feedback on your plans and goals, particularly those clients whom you truly respect.
Just be ready for this subsequent question from your client: Did you take my advice? If you're not willing to reply in the negative, then don't ask for advice in the first place.
8. Never appear desperate (that's why you blew it in junior high). What does desperation look like? Like pornography, it's hard to define but you know it when you see it. Even if the bank is on its way to repossess your home, don't beg for work or even allude to a distressing financial situation. Clients will start questioning your worth.
There are far better ways to work through a rough time. It's okay to call a client and ask for referrals, or to use approach number 2 above, and call just to check in.
9. Be prompt and courteous. This is one of those kindergarten rules that mystifyingly gets broken on a regular basis. There's no better way to say "I'm a pro" than to be timely and considerate. If you say you'll call tomorrow with an answer, return the call, even if you don't have an answer yet.
There are a few other kindergarten courtesy rules worth mentioning here. Don't speak ill of others, even if you are sure your client shares your opinion; clients may come away believing that you talk behind people's back and will wonder what you're saying about them. Also, even if your client is a profanity machine, don't return in kind. Keep the curses for when you hang up the phone.
And the number one way to keep a client longer (drum roll please):
10. Do insanely great work and give them all the credit. You know, naturally, that you deserve the credit -- but your client might have another idea about this. And who cares? If the client wishes, let him take the credit for your work. After all, he had the good judgment to hire you in the first place. And, anyway, the real proof of your excellence is in the checks that keep on coming.