This post is from staff writer Jeffrey Steele.
I’ve been a member of a local professional association for more than 20 years. The group holds monthly meetings, and the program committee comes up with a different program each month, usually featuring one or more guest speakers. Topics have included getting the most from social media, seizing fullest advantage of networking opportunities, and almost everything in between.
A few months back, I took aside a program committee co-chairwoman and made the following suggestion. “I often hear members discussing how they can get more clients, or extract more pay from clients they already have,” I said. “What I rarely hear them talk about — and what I’ve never seen a program focus upon — is client retention. Why don’t we devote a meeting to that sometime?”
The lesson of this anecdote: Never suggest a program topic to a professional association unless you yourself are willing to be tabbed an expert. So it was that I came to be one of a trio of talking heads spouting wisdom in this month’s program, under the title, “How to find and retain clients.”
Lessons for many
I’m no expert on client retention, but I can boast of an attainment few of my fellow members in the association can claim. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to retain six clients I landed prior to December 2004, and three I captured in Clinton’s first term. In fact, among my best clients of the first half of 2013, one came to me in summer 1993, the other in December 1995.
The reason for this is simple. I have found it’s much harder to land new clients than keep current ones, so I pay attention to keeping my current ones content.
You may be a long-time small business owner. You may be one of the growing ranks of entrepreneurs. You may be just starting a sole proprietorship. You may not have a business at all, but like to dabble in dog walking, lawn mowing, house painting or handyman work to pull in a few extra bucks on the side.
Regardless, keep in mind statistics show customer retention is a key to long-term success, and that retaining customers costs far less than gaining new ones.
Here are some of the tricks of the trade that have worked for me.
Read your customers
Beginners to my trade, writing, often ask me what editors are like. That’s akin to asking, “What are people like?” They’re as diverse as the human spectrum. Some are all business. Some are buddy-buddy. Their only common denominator is all have too much work and too little time. The same diversity is likely to be a hallmark of the customers with whom you come into contact.
Without being a phony, get to know what your clients want of you as a person as well as a service provider, and give it to them. Don’t ask the all-business client about his golf game. Don’t fail to ask the very friendly client about her kids.
You’re not being artificial, you’re keeping each in his or her own comfort zone.
Take the big-picture view
I know a lot of entrepreneurs and sole proprietors who get too caught up in the little stuff. They’re into having skirmishes with their clients about pay, deadlines, and the clients’ occasional assessment that their work could use improvement.
The fact is the client hired you to do a job, and will pay you for performing the work competently. He or she didn’t hire you — and doesn’t have sufficient time — to engage in a debate about remuneration, timing or other details. Do the job right and you’ll get another job from the client, and another and another.
Pretty soon you’ll have worked for the customer a decade or more. Remember, that means not having the cost or hassle of replacing him or her. Achieving that, not winning a debate, is the big picture to focus upon.
One thing true of just about every client is they like to feel appreciated. They’re giving you work and feel that shouldn’t be taken for granted. And they’re right. So expend the time and effort to be courteous and thank them for that gig they’ve offered. I always take the time to say, “Thanks,” and lately, have tried to be a bit more creative in doing so. “Thank you for the assignment. I really found it a great learning experience, but hope you won’t charge tuition.” Believe it or not, this line sometimes gets a laugh, and gets my “thank you” remembered.
Rebound from screw-ups
It’s a basic truth. Even the most conscientious service provider will sometimes screw up a job or an assignment. But it doesn’t mean you have to lose the gig. And sometimes, responding the right way when you’ve goofed up can strengthen your relationship with a long-term client.
A few years back, I inadvertently blew a deadline on the project of a long-time client. He was very nice about the gaffe. A couple months later, I misread a deadline date and did it again. This time, he was irate, and rightly so. I stood a very real chance of losing that regular gig, which I’d held on to for years.
Recall the tip above about “reading the client”? In this case, I got a sense my client wasn’t just mad about the twin screw-up, but felt he personally wasn’t being valued. Knowing he was a long-time baseball fan, I offered to get tickets to and concessions at a game, and we could talk over my chances of keeping the account. Between innings, I trailed him through the stadium corridors, clutching a fistful of greenbacks and asking him questions: “How about another burger or brat?” “Souvenir batting helmet?” “Would you like a replica jersey?”
By game’s end, my effort had convinced him how much I valued his business and friendship, and he offered another chance. On that and every subsequent project, I have made a point of getting in work at least a day early. If I have to get a project in “only” on deadline, I warn him or his colleagues early.
The client is now among my very best customers, and the relationship is stronger than it was before my blunders forced me into crisis mode to keep the account.
The upshot of all this is if you have a business, do your best to maximize client retention, and your profits are likely to grow. When you retain, it’s plain, you gain.