Creating Strong Relationships

Be Your Client's Best Friend
By Pat Matson Knapp

How do you keep established clients from defecting to cheaper firms? Simple: Become the essential partner your clients can't live without. A veteran designer and a management consultant offer eight tips on staying connected.

You may hate to admit it, says management consultant Hugh Hochberg, but there are many creative firms out there providing the same services as you, at the same level of quality. So what makes clients pick you— and stick with you?

Simple compatibility—in personality and in values—is what attracts clients to you, says Hochberg, a partner in The Coxe Group in Seattle. And nurturing personal relationships with them is the best way to maintain that connection. Even when clients suspend a business relationship for economic reasons, the personal relationship always has the potential to reunite you professionally later. "You can dismiss a business relationship, but not a personal one," Hochberg says. "That's why it's so important to maintain close ties to the clients you're not doing business with right now."

To keep the ones you are working with, continue providing increased value, Hochberg says. "You should always add to their feeling that partnering with you is good for their business." Here are a few ways to do that:

  1. Keep it personal. Design firms' tendency to choose indirect communication with clients over direct contact is one of the problems that's currently hurting the design field, Hochberg says. "If you only have a certain amount of money and you have to make tough choices about your marketing dollars, don't spend them mailing out a glossy promotional piece," he says. "Call or visit your clients instead. Use that time and money to stay personally connected."

  2. Add perspective. Your value increases proportionately with your depth of knowledge about your client's business objectives, competition, emerging trends and challenges. At the same time, you add perspective as an outsider not fully immersed in his day-to-day business. "The more you know, the more your client sees you not just as a consultant, but as an integral part of [the company] and where it's going—a strategic partner," Hochberg says. "Your goal is to help clients see more clearly where they're going and to help them shape their strategy."

  3. Seek out other specialists. Designers often feel threatened when a client brings in additional expertise to contribute to a project. Not only should you not feel threatened by other consultants, but you should actually seek them out. Be a leader in introducing new services and technologies to your client. Understanding the resources they need to devote to a project only increases your value as a strategic partner.

  4. Be incredibly easy to work with. Deepen your client relationships with simple tools that make working with you a dream. Create a directory that gives clients the names and contact information for the staffers working on their accounts, and use a post-project evaluation form to gauge how well you met their expectations and needs.

    Steven Morris, principal of Morris Creative in San Diego, finds that clients love the "creative request form" he developed; they use the PDF document to easily initiate new projects with the firm. Morris Creative's secure extranet, where designers and clients can post work for review or upload copy and images, also facilitates collaboration. Although the system isn't cheap, Morris says it gives his firm a competitive advantage: "Not a lot of firms with under 10 people have this."

  5. Don't let technology be a barrier to communication. Email responses are so quick and easy that we often hit the Send button instead of picking up the phone. But especially with new clients, direct contact may be more appropriate at first. Once you've learned each other's communication styles, you'll know whether email or the phone is the better way to stay in touch. And if there's a complex problem that requires interaction with the client, it might be best handled over the phone or in person.

  6. Be open to providing additional services. Your clients need to get the most out of their consulting dollar. So be receptive when they ask you to provide additional services. You may not want to create the CEO's PowerPoint presentation, but it adds value to your offerings. If what they ask seems unreasonable, tell them why and offer alternatives.

  7. Stay thoughtful. Amidst the constant pressure to wring the most value from your time and services, avoid the trap of pushing yourself to the point where you're not being thoughtful about what you do. Protect your own intellectual capital by allowing yourself time to step back and breathe. Thoughtfulness adds an essential dimension to your work and enhances the value you provide to clients.

  8. Have fun. Morris stresses that it's important to be passionate about your job. "If you're excited about the work you do, it's contagious," he says. "When clients work with us, they see our combination of seriousness and fun, and they almost like their jobs more because of the relationships we develop with them."

Pat Matson Knapp is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and frequent HOW contributor. She's the author of Designers in Handcuffs.

Reprinted with permission from HOW magazine;

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