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.
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.