Back in the late 90s, I visited one of my clients on an almost daily schedule. They must have chosen their coffee vendor based on price, because its only redeeming value was that it delivered a barely adequate dose of caffeine. One day, I stopped at a local roaster's and picked up a bag of good stuff. I took it to my client's office and brewed up a pot. When I let everyone know about it, all the coffee addicts rushed the pot. I continued to brew up the good stuff every time I'd arrive on site. I must have spent about $60 a month on coffee, of which I only consumed a small portion. But I purchased an invaluable measure of goodwill. To the coffee-drinkers at my client's office (no small percentage), I was no longer an outside consultant. I had become a vital member of their community.
Bob Eisenhardt (reisen55) sent me the following story about one of his clients:
On their file cabinet rests a whole little car collection, among them a metal Police Paddy Wagon from, oh, 1916. On my own, I brought over from my collection a 1:18 scale Model T Ford black Police Wagon and gave it to them, put it on the shelf. Now it is really about $20 on Ebay but every time they see that little gem ... I have an internal sales agent on-site.
The word "sales" may sound a bit dirty when applied to these little kindnesses, but marketing doesn't have to be evil to be effective. Perhaps it seems a little dishonest to say that your marketing should go beyond a straightforward exposition of your ability to perform the desired services at a reasonable price. By appealing to your client's emotional attachment to someone they like as a person, are you potentially doing them a disservice if someone else could do the job better? I don't think so. People aren't machines — or if you will, they're complicated machines. To be effective, they need human relationships that work. The benefits you can bring to your client by engaging them as fellow humans can go far beyond the tasks for which you were originally hired.
That principle applies to business-related activities, too. Put a little extra something into your work that shows that you care about their success. Share your knowledge. Help your client's employees improve themselves and their business. Go beyond expectations, so that when they write that check or approve that invoice, they do it with a smile.
One day as I was reviewing my business history, I decided to run some numbers comparing the payment practices of my clients. The one with the best payment record of all was a smallish software house that had used me for one-off projects scattered irregularly over a decade. But they always paid me about 10 days after I sent them an invoice, without fail. I gave them a "customer appreciation credit" that they could use for future services, without any time limit. When I called the owner to let him know, he said, "I always thought that was just how business should be conducted." I told him that I agreed whole-heartedly, but I thanked him for being one of the few who live up to those principles. Thus, I took the genuine goodwill that he created in my mind and reflected it into goodwill towards my generosity. Respect and kindness breed more respect and kindness.
Sometimes you can even save a client relationship from a death spiral by injecting a little kindness. When someone pays late, disrespects you, or otherwise lets their end of the bargain down, you might instinctively react by pulling in your vulnerable parts and putting up a defensive stance. It's good to assert your rights, but if you can sweeten it with an act of kindness, however small, it shows that you're bigger than petty bickering. Of course, it may not work. Some people will seize any opportunity to take advantage of you. Once that happens, you know you don't want them as a client any more. The human-to-human aspect goes both ways.
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.