Building rock-solid client relationships is critical to enjoying long-term success in virtually any industry. Happy clients mean recurring revenue, positive reviews, and a source of referrals for future business.
However, building strong relationships with clients requires patience, hard work, tenacity, and humility. Both successes and failures offer teachable moments. As Bill Gates once said, "Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning."
On a more personal level, my father would often repeat a similar phrase to me. Many times after I’d done something foolish, he’d ask me what I learned from the experience. He’d often remind me that, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”
Although every client relationship is unique, there are some best practices one should follow.
The five steps listed below offer a path to stronger client relationships, without always having to experience unhappy customers or exercise bad judgment to get there.
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1. Do Your Homework
Clients are not numbers, they are people. With so much information available online, there is no excuse not to know a client’s company inside and out. Study recent press releases, research the company website, and show an understanding of your client’s needs.
If volunteered by your client, take note of things like anniversaries, kids’ birthdays, and other details. Simple gestures like a birthday card show a commitment to the people that your client represents, and can pay big dividends in the long run.
A recent story by ESPN about how Nike lost Steph Curry to Under Armour highlights the danger of not doing the necessary homework on a client.
In a pitch meeting to Steph Curry and his father, representatives from Nike mispronounced Curry’s name as “Steph-on” rather than Stephen and later presented recycled slides from a previous presentation with Kevin Durant’s name still on them.
The damage was done, and Nike lost a prospective client who may be worth as much as $14 billion to Under Armour’s bottom line according to a recent report by a Morgan Stanley analyst.
2. Set Proper Expectations
A fundamental key to building trust in a client relationship is to deliver what was originally promised or committed to.
There is an inherent fear of saying no to any client requested. However, being honest upfront and setting realistic expectations is crucial.
Over the long term, saying yes something that can’t be delivered to win a client’s business will ultimately back-fire. Trust will be irrevocably broken, and the damage to your reputation may go beyond just a single client.
3. Value Transparency
Respect your client’s intelligence, and avoid glossing over the details of how your product or service will achieve its stated goals.
Explaining away projected results with catch-phrases like “secret sauce” or “proprietary methodology” comes across as patronizing to many clients. Unless a business truly cannot disclose the methods by which it achieves results (for legal reasons or otherwise), showing a willingness to disclose the work and methodology that will go into a client’s project is a great means of establishing trust.
Similarly, acknowledging past failures and demonstrating how you or your company responded to them shows honestly and a commitment to improvement. An article by John Hagel III of Deloitte Consulting LLP in Fortune re-enforces the value of exposing a company’s vulnerabilities and owning up to past mistakes:
“Loosening tight control and exposing vulnerabilities can increase loyalty and deepen relationships, reveal problems companies aren’t yet aware of, spur innovation, increase the value of a core product or service, and enable participants to take independent actions that serve a common goal.”
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4. Educate and Share Knowledge
Many clients are admittedly results-oriented. They may show little or no interest in the process involved in achieving desired results. But the more a client understands the "how" and "why" of what you are doing for them, the smoother the relationship will be.
Sending regular communication and updates on a project is critical. Concise and well-organized status reports will help empower you to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to your client’s needs.
Share materials or articles with clients that have relevance to their business need. However, take the time to include a, “covering note that explains the context and how it matters (or should matter) to the client.” Poorly targeted or irrelevant materials sent to your clients might be perceived more akin to spam than anything else.
5. Follow the Golden Rule
Treat your clients as you would wish to be treated if roles were reversed.
Respond to your clients calls or emails in a timely fashion. If you can’t address their question right away, at least acknowledge that you’ve received it, and give them an expectation of when you’ll be able to address their issue in more detail.
Spend as much time, if not more, listening than you do talking. If a client relationship is built on understanding their needs and solving their problems, give them the opportunity to tell you what those needs and problems are.
Take notes on what your clients tell you on every call and save them. It feels good to be remembered, and being diligent about promptly following up on your client’s requests will demonstrate that they are a priority to you and your business.
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6. Set Up a Virtual Space
It is common among small businesses to implement a remote workplace in place of a brick-and-mortar office to save costs. Collaborating on a project online lets you focus on getting the job done. It also lets you save up time to finish the work instead of spending hours in a day travelling from home to work and back.
However, you may want to consider setting up a virtual office where you and your potential clients can meet and talk business. Having an office that you can call your own, even if it is rented, lets you make a stronger and more personable impression to your leads. You can lay your imprint in the minds of your potential customer in ways that you could not do when online.
Looking for a virtual office depends on your location. If you are in the US, you may want to check out YourOffice for your virtual office and meeting room needs. For UK-based businesses, W1 Office also offers mail forwarding and telephone answering on top of their virtual office packages, for example.
Simple Steps to Say, but Harder to Consistently Execute
On paper, all of the above suggestions may seem like common-sense. However, in an increasingly frantic and fast-paced business world, with constant pressures from internal and external sources, these simple steps are often forgotten.
Take a moment from time to time to put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Make the effort to truly understand your clients and do the extra work to make sure their needs are being met. Over the long run, that investment into your client relationships will be reciprocated, and those rock-solid relationships will ensure long-term success.