Keeping Those Good Old Clients

Oct 05, 1998

Any business, particularly A/E/P and environmental consulting firms, better be concerned about how to keep current clients happy and satisfied. The reason is simple— getting new clients is expensive, and if you have to constantly be out looking for new clients, it will be difficult to make even a modest profit. It would be hard to find a principal of a firm in this business who wouldn’t acknowledge the importance of keeping clients happy. It’s like motherhood and apple pie—how could anyone think that this isn’t critical? We all “talk the talk,” but how many of us really “walk the walk”? Not many, I’m afraid. Too many firms out there are taking their current clients for granted in their constant pursuit of the glory of working for new clients. These new clients are seductive—they may be more interesting, their promise is unlimited, and they aren’t reminding you of your past failures like the old clients sometimes do. Plus, management loves to get a new client, especially one whose name is widely recognized or that they feel has a high status associated with it. Here are a few of my thoughts: Most firms don’t know who their “best” clients are. When’s the last time you did an analysis of where your work came from? What percentage of your revenues came from a particular client? Who is the largest client, the second largest client, and so on? What client have you been working for the longest, the second longest, and so on? What percentage of your work this year is with clients that you have served before? How does this stack up compared with last year’s answer to this same question? Who in the firm has access to the answers to any of these questions? If not everyone, why not? When’s the last time you devoted a brown bag lunch seminar to this topic? What is the forum for discussing how to better service existing clients? It should be clear that a lot of questions need answering if you are going to focus any attention on this subject! Are you giving your long-term clients your best people, or are you instead using them as a training ground for your new folks? I see this all too often. The best clients are the ones who give you the benefit of the doubt, tolerate screw-ups, and yet still keep coming back. But there’s a limit to their tolerance of poor performance. Make sure you aren’t taking advantage of the personal relationship(s) that may exist between their top people and yours and give your best clients all that they are paying for. If anyone suffers let it be the new clients, not the old! Are you giving your long-term clients the best deal? The old clients are the ones that ought to be able to negotiate with you, if anyone can. But that’s not the way most A/E/P firms do it—they’re so hungry to get a new client that they cut their billing rates and eliminate mark-ups on reimbursables, while the old standbys pay the full tariff to use them. That’s just not right! Do you act as if you appreciate your long-term clients? Or do you take these people for granted? The long-term clients need a thank you note, too, not just the new ones. The long-term clients need you to express your concern for them, not just the new ones. The long-term clients need your receptionist to fuss over them when they call, not just the new ones. The long-term clients have been there through your ups and downs, through your personnel and management changes, and they need to be shown some gratitude! Do special favors. Who gets the free consulting—the long term, old-line clients, or the new potential clients that you are trying to impress? Make sure the loyal clients get their share of freebies, if anyone does, because they have earned them. Acknowledge that they have choices. Don’t forget that you aren’t the only provider who does what you do. It’s OK to think you’re the best—that’s healthy—but never forget the client always has other options for who they can get to do their job. No matter how funny or awkward it seems acknowledge that you realize this is the case and tell them that you appreciate their business. This will help them stay loyal to you and help you fend off the business development efforts of your competitors (and yes, they are always out there)! Keep marketing to them. The other day I noticed a bunch of mailing labels sitting by my wife’s business computer at home. I asked her what they were and she told me her partner wanted those people deleted from their marketing database because they were already clients of their reading clinic. I have witnessed this same thought process in A/E/P firms—that there’s no need to keep marketing to an organization that is already a client. Wrong!!! These people need reassurance they made the right decision. And if they are happy with what you’ve done for them, keep reminding them who you are so they can tell all their friends about you. The bottom line to me is simple. The only way to grow a firm is to keep your current clients and add to them every year. Make sure you don’t overemphasize the “add” at the expense of the “keep.” originally published 10/05/1998

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