A Client is Precious

May 15, 2006

I know it sounds corny, but the fact is, a client is precious. They are hard to get and harder to keep happy. We need to treat them as if they are as valuable as they are. But unfortunately, all-too-often in this crazy, whirlwind, always-too-busy-to-do-it-right A/E/P and environmental consulting business, we seem to forget that. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of businesses that do a worse job than we do in these professions. As “an industry,” we usually have around an 80% repeat client percentage. That’s not bad. It’s not as great, though, as those who want to brag about it think it is. I can’t tell you how often I have heard principals puff out their chests and brag about their 80% client-retention rate as if that were something special. When it comes to our business— it’s not. It’s just average. What if a firm in our business had a 90% or 95% client-retention rate? What would that do for them? The answer is “plenty.” The odds are that they would have fewer claims, a higher satisfaction rate, and higher profitability than a comparable firm with a lower client-retention rate. What are some things you can do in your firm to bump up your repeat business? Here are my thoughts: Publish your client-retention rate and talk about it. One thing I know for sure is that if you want people to do something, you need to give them a goal and scorecard. And you, as the principals of the firm, need to talk about this statistic every chance you get so your people will pay attention to it. When it goes up, celebrate it. When it goes down, develop a plan of action to correct it and implement. Pick the right clients to work for in the first place. Not all clients have the potential to be repeat clients. Some clients have one job to be done and may not have another for a long time. In general, you are better off working for those who don’t have this characteristic and instead you should be focusing on finding clients who have repeat needs for the kinds of services your firm provides. An example would be a local church that builds one new building every 40 years versus a retail chain that is opening a new store weekly. Spend more money on marketing. That’s right— more money on marketing means you will have more new clients approaching you and a greater likelihood for you to select the ones that offer you the best long-term potential for significant relationships. Cut marketing and you’ll be desperate. Desperation results in working for anyone who will hire you. These will not be your best clients most likely to stay with you over the long haul. Pay particular attention to the communications aspects of your business. Bad auto attendants, dumb receptionists, goofy voice-mail systems, and staff who cannot be reached when they are needed are some of the primary issues that drive good clients to another firm. Why let these easily solved problems hurt your client retention ratio? Fix them. Eliminate every single thing that could upset a client and make them want to look elsewhere. In addition to the communication issues mentioned above, what are the other annoyances that hurt your ability to keep a client? Regular client-satisfaction surveys while jobs are underway should evidence what these are. Maybe there’s something they don’t like about your billing practices? Maybe there’s a clause in your contracts that could come out without any great risk? Maybe your lack of parking at your office is a problem when meetings are regularly held there? Figure these things out and work to eliminate them as soon as you can. Always have at least two levels of contact and relationships in every client. You always need a project manager and a principal on every job. This is the way you will ensure that if a PM leaves, there’s someone else to sustain the relationship. Or, someone could leave in the client organization and that cuts you off and therefore you need two contacts there as well. Two levels of relationships in both sides of the equation (your organization and your clients’) will help you keep those clients! Make heroes of those who demonstrate exemplary client service. This is always essential. If it is only those who get new clients who receive the accolades, then you will have people interested in getting new clients and not worrying about the old. Remember to celebrate the successes for keeping your long-term relationships, too! Get your CEO/managing partner/president devoting a good part of their day to making sure existing client relationships are solid. This is so critical to your business— what’s more important? The top people in the firm have to be devoting a significant amount of time and energy to meeting with and calling on existing clients. You’ll get more work from them, solidify relationships, identify problems to solve before they get out of hand, and more by doing this. Obviously, there are many more things a firm can do to keep its clients happy. Send me any of your ideas and maybe we can all learn from each other! Originally published 5/15/2006

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.