Q. I own a small professional services firm. We are struggling with developing and managing client relationships. Do you have any tips?
A. Client development and account management is a critical part of our business as well, so we have thought about this quite a bit. We find that there are three important levels at which you must manage client relationships. All three levels are critical, so you need to be clear regarding who is responsible for each.
Executing work – Obviously, if you don’t do an outstanding job of delivering work, your business won’t last long. Therefore, delivering outstanding client work is critical. This includes fielding requests from clients for work, writing proposals, and conducting the work.
Set yourself up for success. Be clear with your client regarding specifically 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. 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, don’t make the same mistake again, but deliver what you promised in a timely manner. Once a deadline is established, don’t miss it, even if it costs you.
We look for opportunities to surprise and delight our clients. It may be 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. If you make your client look good, you will 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.” People conduct business. Therefore, by definition, business is personal.
We know a woman who launched a training business. She was one of two instructors hired by one of the big Fortune 500 companies in town to train their employees on basic skills. Our acquaintance poured herself into teaching the best classes possible. She received rave reviews from her students and her students 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. 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 ball game or other social event can be an invaluable part of this process. Identify mutual interests and include your client in the activities.
Expanding relationships with existing clients also includes proactively identifying opportunities for additional work and making offers. We often do this by asking, “Would it be helpful if we…?” Your focus should be on genuinely helping your client, not on generating more revenue for yourself. If you make offers that your client sees as helpful and then deliver as agreed, more work will follow and your business relationship will grow. The point is look for ways you can 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 will 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 for existing clients that leads to referrals. Referrals are great, but you may find that you 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.