Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Keeping Your Clients Loyal, From Wherever You Are

For building the kind of enduring client relationships necessary for long-term growth, nothing replaces face-to-face contact. But these days, you're just as likely to be doing business across the world as down the street (just yesterday, I was Skyping from Boston with a client in Vancouver). Except for the most bedraggled of new consulting firm recruits, no one is on-site with clients 24-7. So how do you cultivate loyal, trusting — and lasting — client relationships when you can't always pop in for a meeting or take them out to dinner? Here are five ways to do it.

  1. Put in the upfront work. When you talk to an old friend on the phone, it can feel like you've never been apart. But that's because you've already established a rapport: you can visualize what they're doing, you know what their conversational pauses mean, and you can tell whether their laugh is genuine. It's completely different for a stranger (or virtual stranger), where you have to guess and fill in the blanks. So make it part of your client development plan to spend a significant amount of time getting to know them upfront. To develop long-term relationships, budget much more face time in the first six months or year of your contract.
  2. Build connections through personal sharing. In a fascinating 1999 study by researcher Don Moore and his colleagues, business school students across the country were paired up to negotiate a deal. Half the students were simply told to make it happen, while the other half were requested to share photos of each other, disclose personal information (hobbies, schools), and schmooze a bit. The group that shared more information — i.e., those who had built more of a relationship — had a far higher success rate in completing negotiations (94% vs. 71%). The moral? Especially if you haven't met in person, take the time to get to know your client and don't be purely transactional.
  3. Use between-time to check-in via e-mail. Got a spare minute at the airport or in the cab? As productivity master David Allen might suggest, whip out your running list of contacts to shoot them a quick note by e-mail. Even busy executives with overflowing in-boxes usually appreciate a kind note or check-in — especially when a response isn't required. Tighten your connection simply by letting them know you're thinking about them, as prompted by an interesting article you read (you can send them a link related to their business or a personal hobby), following up on a previous conversation ("you mentioned you were going to speak at a conference — how did it go?"), or just saying hello.
  4. Keep a light touch through e-newsletters. A major challenge in client relationships, if you're not in the thick of a project, is reminding them that you exist. Repeat business or referrals to you are surely not their top priority. That's where a well-written e-newsletter comes in (check out these tips. If the content is helpful (geared to their needs and "news you can use," rather than just promotional items about your firm) and the frequency isn't too demanding (monthly or bimonthly is usually safe), it's an excellent way to keep in touch and remind clients you're out there and ready to help. I usually get several business inquiries each time mine goes out.
  5. Ask for a video testimonial. Video testimonials are a terrific advertisement for your business, demonstrating vividly to potential customers how you've helped others like them (here are some nice examples). But they're also a great way to encourage customer loyalty, given two cherished principles of behavioral psychology: the importance of consistency and public commitment. Research (see Robert Cialdini's seminal work Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion has shown that once someone has decided they like you and your work, they become committed to that viewpoint — an investment that's only heightened when their support is public.
There's no substitute for in-person relationship building. But even from around the world, you can build loyal client relationships if you're strategic and focused. What techniques have you used — electronic or otherwise — to enhance your client relationships?
Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. She is the author of the forthcoming What's Next?: The Art of Reinventing Your Personal Brand (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).

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