Project Management

Keeping the client relationship fresh

In order to retain a client, you need to ensure the relationship doesn't languish. Chip Camden suggests ways to keep the spark in your client relationships.
TechRepublic member bergenfx suggested that keeping clients happy may be similar to keeping your significant other interested:

Retaining a client shouldn't be that different than obtaining them in the first place. Maybe we started with candlelight dinners and trips to the museum, but now we drink beer in front of the football game and leave our socks on the floor. Maybe that dress our client is wearing is starting to look a little shabby, and we just don't notice anymore.

The consultant/client relationship does bear some similarities to a romantic involvement. First, there's the initial contact. If that sparks interest, then a courtship phase begins. During this time the consultant strives to show how he will care for the client's needs, while the client tries to determine if this one will be Mr. Right. If both parties are satisfied with the proposed arrangement, they enter into a contractual relationship. Even if they don't have a formal contract, the roles, responsibilities, and expectations become more well-defined and irrevocable (without a fight).

At this point, both parties hope the rest of the story reads "and they lived happily ever after," but this is precisely when the hard work begins. Perhaps they create one or two projects together that require a lot of changing and feeding. The client calls at all hours for help, and sometimes feels abandoned, as the consultant runs around with other, more attractive clients. If the consultant doesn't give them some meaningful attention, they might eventually run into another consultant who thinks they're wonderful and would do anything for them. The client might just dump the first consultant, or significantly reduce his role, because the new consultant really listens.

How do you keep the spark in the consultant/client relationship? Here are strategies to consider.

  • Do little things for them -- at unexpected times. As in all human relationships, if you only do what's expected of you, your actions soon become invisible. Surprise your client with thoughtfulness. A small freebie here and there lets the client know that you care about keeping them happy.
  • Show an interest. Ask questions about their business strategy that go beyond the scope of your assignment. That makes you a partner in their success instead of a leech on it. The same goes for individuals in your client's organization. What's important to them? What are their dreams for the future?
  • Compliment them. Notice their achievements and draw attention to them. Talk about them to others in glowing terms. But don't stretch it -- few things are more disgusting than sycophant praise.
  • Be there. If you can't answer their call immediately, return it without delay. Don't make excuses for why you couldn't come to their aid. If you're habitually unavailable, they'll find someone else.
  • Seduce them. Market yourself to your existing customers. Don't take the relationship for granted. Regardless of the contract, the decision to stay together is a daily one. What makes your client want to keep you?
  • Play with them. Don't let your interactions become perfunctory. Why do people find humor attractive? It demonstrates intelligence, but even more importantly, it requires a cheerful expenditure of thought and effort. It shows that you not only care about them, but also that you enjoy caring about them.
  • Wait for them. Yes, it's hard enough getting your own job done, but clients often take longer to "get it." Be patient and help them along. Your job isn't just about achieving a technical result -- it's also about helping your client to become more independent. Paradoxically, that can make them desire you even more.

The client/consultant relationship does not perfectly correspond to a marriage, as evidenced by the vulgar application of the most intimate romantic act as a metaphor for an abusive transaction. Some have suggested that it more closely resembles prostitution instead. But I think, as in shallow physical relationships, that's selling yourself short. For a long term, meaningful relationship with your client, you want to build mutual respect and admiration, as well as take care of each other's needs.

About

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 b...

11 comments
herlizness
herlizness

All reasonable recommendations, Chip ... but why do I feel like your wife sat you down for a serious talking to sometime recently? ;) I've seen very few consulting types who are able to pull off these kinds of things ... it's just beyond their scope and not in their nature; the sales guys & gals are another whole story; they live this stuff every day of their lives It might not be a bad idea for indy consultants to get a little sales training; programs like the basic 12 week Dale Carnegie course are actually pretty effective; they're not cheap but most people consider the money well spent

amukhtar1
amukhtar1

Well it is indeed very meaningful explanation of creating a love trap around your customers :) Xavor Corporation Technology Consulting

reisen55
reisen55

I feed my clients, every so often drop off doughnuts or good food. Staff LOVES that. I even used it for humor, telling the four MALE owners of my medical office that if they do not follow my advice, then I shall SUGAR UP THE FEMALE STAFF soooooo much their daily lives will be a living hell. Secondly, always be on time, always do more than promised and always give a cookie from time to time, something free, a tidbit of good stuff. And put that on an invoice as a NO CHARGE item. Makes the other payable items look better. Talk to your clients in fair terms. I enjoy learning about their business. But AVOID POLITICS AND RELIGION like the seven deadly sins. I have often wanted to work for my clients staff, as a staff member, for a day to LEARN their daily procedures on an intimate level. Adveritse results - nobody else will promote your accomplishments. I always leave a status report on desks for major accounts of each visit. It may be dull reading but they are informed of how things are going. Accept responsibility for failures with good humor. I use these events as learning experiences and mobify my protocols and/or service agreements accordingly. Laugh at yourself when warranted. Give compliments freely and often.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Like marriage, consulting turns out to be a lot more work than sexiness. Do you agree?

dkidd23
dkidd23

Less expensive are some good books on the subject. I knew going into consulting from my regular j.o.b. that I would have to sell myself and my services. The Worlds Greatest Salesman by Og Mandino was invaluable to me; also some of Zig Ziglars materials. I recently came across a book that has almost tripled my business called Sell Naked On The Phone by Joe and Dawn Pici http://www.piciandpici.com/sns/ I highly recommend this book. For $30 plus shipping, you couldn't get a better deal to help in your consulting business. They are coming out soon with a book called Sell Naked in Person that I will also be purchasing. However, this first book has already helped me with the 'in person'. It uses the DISC model of relational behavior by Dr. Rohm and if you follow the guidelines it will help.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Perceptive. I often find my subject matter springing from my own experience, specifically job-related or not. You're right about "consulting types". They're often the techies who struck out on their own precisely because they were tired of dealing with people -- only to find that now they have to deal with a lot more people, each of whom holds one of their purse strings.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That's a telling expression -- it certainly seems to correspond with marriage!

jazzyjeff2u
jazzyjeff2u

no matter how great your relationship is, if your client is overworked on their end, they are going to get cranky and so it's actually harder than a marriage because they expect you to do the work, deal with their mood swings, show up with goodies, etc and you do it with a smile because it's your job. in a marriage, at least you get a turn to be the cranky one once in a while.

dkidd23
dkidd23

Chip this has a lot of good common sense in it and your right, just like a marriage, a client is a relationship that requires constant maintenance or it will go south. I always get my clients birthday if possible and send a gift on Birthdays and at Christmas time. I use a gift card called the Ribbon program. Its great because unlike most gift cards, it doesn't have a dollar amount on the card. Instead the gift receiver goes to a website and picks from a range of about a 100 gifts for the value of that card. Card values range from $30 to $1000. I liked the program so much that I became a distributor for them on the side so if anyone is interested, let me know.

herlizness
herlizness

> and on the job you get to leave at some or another hour ... or quit, without having to retain counsel, pay child support and worry about visitation rights or property division