Defending Your Client Base

I recently asked a friend how business was going, and he e-mailed me the following: “I think it’s gone from truly horrible to just plain bad.” Yes, things could hardly be more uncertain around us, but it’s possible to keep your head above water–if not thrive–by focusing renewed energy on building and sustaining your client relationships. Here are ten steps that will help you to defend and nurture your client base in these perilous times:

  1. Increase your face-time immediately with your top clients. Treat your longstanding clients as if they were brand new by reaching out to them in person and by ‘phone with the same energy, enthusiasm, new ideas, and conviction that you had when you were wooing them at the start of the relationship. Ask provocative questions, and then listen deeply as they talk about their concerns and needs.
  2. List the top 10 to 20 contacts in your network, and get in touch with every single one over the next 30 days. Don’t ask for business, but rather offer up an idea, a suggestion, an article or book, an introduction, a business opportunity—anything that might help improve that person’s business.
  3. Redefine—in one sentence—what you do for clients, expressing it as the specific, top- or bottom-line benefit that clients derive from your service or product. Start using this description in all of your sales and marketing communications. (Example: “I help sales executives raise the success rate of their proposals” versus “I teach communications skills).
  4. Consider raising rather than cutting your price—especially if some or all of the following conditions apply: you are well-known for what you do; you have published on your area of expertise; you have one or more established competitors who are higher-priced than you; and you are able to articulate the specific value that clients receive from your services. In clients’ minds, high fees are equated with high value. (Example: in the last two years, despite a wretched economy, sales of high-priced luxury products have grown).
  5. Pretend you are a competitor, and devise a strategy to steal away one of your best clients (e.g., your competitor might develop a value-added idea or proposal, an innovative contracting approach, a new bundle of services, etc.). Now, implement that strategy yourself, with your own client.
  6. Ask your best, most established clients for a referral—after you’ve helped them with something. Most professionals hesitate to ask their clients for other introductions. If you believe in what you do, you shouldn’t hesitate to do this. And if your clients believe in the value of your work, they won’t hesitate, either.
  7. Trim your expenses—and reinvest the savings in strengthening current relationships and growing your sales and marketing. Many companies have cut back on their market presence. Now is the time for the strong to get stronger. Look at PC maker Dell, which has grown and increased its market share in a terrible environment. Many large professional services firms are thriving as well, by focusing on key client needs and flexibly delivering service offerings to areas of greatest need.
  8. Reduce your client’s uncertainty and risk. A dozen factors are conspiring to slow investment and postpone client purchases. Do your share to reduce this uncertainty by overinvesting upfront to get to know new clients and their organizations; offering product-style guarantees for your work; showing flexibility in structuring projects and deals; offering twice as many references as usual; and creating incremental programs with frequent checkpoints.
  9. Help past clients who are in need. All of us know past or prospective clients who may be in-between jobs or otherwise down-and-out, but we gravitate towards the winners—the executives who are riding high. You build your long-term network, however, by being helpful to all your contacts and clients. Help a client in need by reviewing his resume, or perhaps by making some introductions to prospective employers and headhunters. Check in every often to see how he’s doing and to offer your personal help. A client in need is a client indeed.
  10. Sharpen—and shorten—your communications to clients. We are bombarded by hundreds of messages every day. Our time for reflection has been hijacked by voice mail, e-mail, and internal meetings. Whatever document you’re writing, or message you’re crafting for a client—cut it by 50%. Then cut it again by 20%. Your clarity and directness will seem refreshing and different.

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