At our management-consulting company, Whitestone Partners, client development and account management are critical parts of our business. We have thought quite a bit about how best to manage these all-important relationships and have identified three key levels at which to manage client relationships.
Because all three are vital, you need to be clear about who is responsible for each and how you will handle them.
Executing the work
Delivering outstanding client work is crucial. Otherwise, your business won’t last long. Fielding requests from clients for work, writing proposals and conducting the work itself must all be done right.
In our experience, when a small business owner asks for our help, we know we need to act quickly. Owners don’t want help next month or even next week. They want to talk to someone now. So, when a client contacts your company, find a time to meet -- the sooner the better.
Next, set yourself up for success. Be clear with the client regarding what you will do and when you will deliver it. Misunderstandings regarding what will be delivered when have led to the loss of more than one client relationship. So, don’t let poor communication be your undoing. If you have made a mistake and committed to do more than you should have, learn from the experience; and don’t make the same mistake again. Once a deadline is established, don’t miss it, even if it costs you.
We look for opportunities to surprise and delight our clients. That may mean doing just a little more than was promised -- adding a little bit of extra value. It’s important to focus on making your client look good. When that happens, you become indispensable.
Expanding relationships with existing clients
This step involves developing personal relationships with existing clients. You’ll often hear people say, “This isn’t personal, it’s just business.” But people conduct business. Therefore, business is personal.
We know a woman who launched a training business. She was one of two instructors that one of the Fortune 500 companies in town hired to train its employees on basic skills. Our acquaintance poured herself into teaching the best classes possible, and received rave reviews from her students.
Those students, in turn, passed the required tests at a higher rate than her counterpart’s students did. However, the other instructor put significantly more time and energy into developing a relationship with the primary client, the head of HR. When the need for training slowed, the company retained the instructor with the better client relationship.
The lesson here? Doing outstanding work is important, but having a great relationship with the client is at least equally important.
Socializing is often an important element of relationship building. Lunches, dinners and perhaps a ballgame or other social event can be an invaluable part of this process. Identify mutual interests and include your client in these activities.
Expanding relationships with clients also includes proactively identifying opportunities for additional work and making offers. We do this by asking, “Would it be helpful if we . . . ?”
Your focus should similarly be on genuinely helping your client, not on generating more revenue for yourself. If you make offers that your client sees as helpful, and you then deliver as agreed, more work will follow, and your business relationship will grow. The point is look for ways to be useful and make offers. Don’t just sit back and wait for the client to ask you to do additional work.
Developing new clients
Expanding relationships with existing clients is critical, but there is a limit to how much you can grow with this strategy. At some point, you need to develop new clients. Our experience is that in professional services, this is best done by positioning yourself as an expert in something prospective clients need.
There are a myriad of ways to accomplish this. One of the best is by doing excellent work: Existing clients may make referrals. And that's great, but you may need more. Writing articles or books, giving speeches and joining boards or civic groups that put you in touch with prospective clients are tried and true ways of positioning yourself as an expert.
Developing and managing client relationships is critical to the success of a professional services firm. To succeed, you must execute at each of the three levels outlined above. Having a specific plan for how you will accomplish each will increase the probability you succeed.