Many times, when AEC and environmental consulting firms think about business development, they’re focused on bringing in new clients and expanding their reach. While this is an incredibly important part of your business growth, what’s equally important is building your relationships with the clients that you already have.
This month in The Friedman File, we’re focusing on how you can—and must— actively strengthen your relationships with existing clients on an ongoing basis. It can be easy to fall into the trap of putting this type of engagement on autopilot, especially when you’re managing a heavy workload. But having solid client relationship management practices in place can streamline the process and help to protect your firm from changing economic or market cycles.
Not only is it more cost-effective and easier to sell more work to your existing clients (and have them refer you) than to continually be relying on new relationships and leads, it’s just good business practice. A plate of referral and repeat work can be easily upended by competitor firms who see your client as their next lead, and are willing to put in the extra work to win them over.
At Friedman & Partners, one of our specialties is conducting client research and satisfaction studies, and we hear a wealth of very candid feedback from your clients. Here’s how you can learn from our experience:
Show them why they really hired you. Many firms pride themselves on their technical abilities and specialties. However, your clients repeatedly tell us that they view other consultants (your competition) as equally competent. They have to continually be reminded of the extra value that your firm brings. Maybe that’s reducing their risk and/or costs, providing highly specialized industry knowledge or knowing them so well that you can anticipate their needs. Perhaps you allocate additional resources to beat aggressive schedules or use your relationships to smooth their regulatory processes. Be sure to communicate these benefits.
Treat every project like the first one. When workloads are high and resources are stretched thin, it’s tempting to put your longtime clients on the back burner. Most of us have succumbed at one time to the common belief that after so many years of good service, longtime clients will cut you some slack. That’s not always true. Just because you have become comfortable and complacent does not mean that your client feels that way. They often don’t.
Use project delivery as business development. Of course, you want to continually impress your client with the level of service that made their first project with you a success. You also want to be learning about their business and their needs. The perfect time to do this is during a project. Don’t assume you know what their additional challenges are—ask! Make it a habit to be curious about your clients’ challenges, hot-buttons, needs, and measures of success with questions such as “What trends and drivers are most impacting your company/organization?” or “What concerns you the most about (insert topic)?” As professional services business consultant David Maister has said, “Clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Train your client-facing people. Relying on your firm’s reputation to keep clients coming back is not a great plan. We’ve talked with plenty of clients who were disappointed in their experience with a so-called “leading firm” and those who had amazing experiences with a lesser-known firm. Clients are often much more focused on the individuals they’re working with rather than the firm itself—and those people can make or break your client relationships.
Seek to expand your circle. During a project, clients are compelled to be responsive. This is your opportunity to meet additional influencers and decision-makers and to form relationships with those in other areas or levels of the organization. Talk with your client contacts about what’s happening throughout the business and when appropriate, ask them to make an introduction if there are potential solutions your firm could provide.
Understand extraordinary value. The easiest, quickest, most obvious way to strengthen client relationships is to wow the client. But “wow” goes beyond delivering a great project. When I talk with clients who are raving fans, they’re talking about the consultants who operate as true partners in moving their business forward, who demonstrateremarkable responsiveness and are able to add real and meaningful value because they’ve been listening.
Here are a few more easy-to-implement practices for strengthening your client relationships:
- Stay current. Keep in contact in multiple ways: in-person meetings, check-in calls, e-mails and through LinkedIn. Follow your client’s LinkedIn business page and their web site’s News section to stay current on what’s happening in their business.
- Connect as people. You can use LinkedIn or client web sites to learn about your contacts. What is their alma mater or where is their hometown? Which associations are they involved in? Who (or which groups) are your mutual connections on LinkedIn?
- Join forces. Invite clients to co-present on a success story or a trending topic at an industry conference, or volunteer together for a group that you are both involved with.
- Support their causes. Consider sponsoring or participating in their company charity events or initiatives.
- Connect them to others. Who in your network could help your clients achieve their goals? Bring them leads or partnering opportunities when it’s appropriate.
- Share expertise. Offer to provide an in-house lunch-and-learn or invite clients to workshops, webinars or talks that your firm is hosting. Have you read an article or come across recent market intelligence that would be useful to their business? Forward it.
- Promote them. Follow them on social media so that you can know about and share your clients’ successes. Regularly engage with their posts and content, and include them in your own posts about projects, awards and successes. Interview them for your firm’s newsletter.
- Take nothing for granted. Make it a part of your firm culture to continuously solicit feedback by conducting client surveys and project debriefs. You can also ask relevant questions during the course of current projects. For example, “How are we doing with project communications?” or “What could we be doing better in terms of project deliverables?”
I hope you’ve found a few ideas here that you will use to strengthen your existing client relationships. Let me know how you’re implementing them at firstname.lastname@example.org or (508) 276-1101.