You might think that fulfilling your contract to a client is enough. Well... it might be. However, most clients will appreciate a bit of special attention now and again. Mostly, they just want to know that they have your ear. That way, you'll hear about issues early on, when they're easy to resolve.
There are a number of ways to keep in close touch with a client. Lunch is always nice, but it isn't always a great place to talk shop, and it may not be feasible if you don't live in the same city as the client. An occasional call to ask how things are going is a good idea. If you're nearby, you might drop in occasionally. (Some clients won't like unscheduled visits, so be careful.)
A user survey is a great way to get inside the heads of clients who are actually using your services. Users often know about issues long before the head honchos do. Drop off a paper survey or post it on your Web site. The survey should be as short as possible for the best response. Depending on the responses, you can always check in later to get more information.
I recommend that you inquire about the following in some form:
- How satisfied are you with my overall services?
- How satisfied are you with my response times?
- How satisfied are you with my technical solutions and overall effectiveness?
- Do you feel that I'm meeting your needs?
- Do you feel that I'm focused and dedicated to meeting your needs?
- Does my consulting staff behave professionally?
- Is my consulting staff courteous?
- Does my consulting staff seem knowledgeable and competent?
Other resources you may want to check out when developing your own survey are these TechRepublic downloads: Solicit valuable feedback from clients with these evaluation forms and Use this product usage survey to assess how well you're meeting customer needs.
If you learn that a client is unhappy, don't be discouraged, just get to work! Depending on the severity of the problem, you might not have a lot of time to regain your client's trust. You might have to endure some unpleasant discussions, but if you approach your client with a sincere effort, you can come out on top.
Here's the game plan for turning around an unhappy client:#1: Figure out what went wrong
Before you can do anything, you have to know what the problem is. If it's a technical issue, defining the problem is usually simple; for instance, something might be broken. Personnel issues aren't always as easy to pinpoint; in fact, often you can't. If everyone isn't seeing eye to eye, you just have to talk it through.#2: Get specific when hashing out all the issues
Once you have an idea of what went wrong, it's time to get specific. Listen to your client and give them plenty of time to voice grievances -- they might have a lot to say. Then it's your turn to wade through the extraneous stuff and find the issues that are pertinent to your situation. If you meet with the client face-to-face, show up with contracts and agreements in hand. Know exactly what you're responsible for (and not responsible for). Most importantly, try to keep your ego out of the exchange.#3: Reach a tentative agreement
Once you and your client have discussed the issues, work on a solution. Don't take any shortcuts here; cover each issue thoroughly, and be clear about what caused the problem and agree on the solution. Then, it's your client's turn to commit to a plan (both parties should be able to live with this plan).
Whether you're responsible will matter in the resolution and your client's commitment. If you're responsible, you should help your client correct the situation and implement policies and procedures to prevent a recurrence. Also, it might be time to modify and expand your contract. If the problem wasn't your fault or your responsibility but your client insists it was, it might be time to curtail your contract.#4: Plan a resolution
If you're lucky, a resolution will be easy to implement. In fact, you might not have to do anything. Often, it's enough to clear the air and shake hands. On the other hand, if the problem needs a technical fix, your next step is to research and prepare a plan for the client's approval. Make sure your plan fully addresses and resolves all of the issues -- be sure to include all limitations and liabilities. Thoroughness at this point will please your client, and it might save you both additional wear and tear in the future.#5: Implement the agreement
Once the client agrees to your plan, implement it in a timely manner. Hire subcontractors if necessary. You might not get a second chance, especially if the problem was your fault. You obviously want to keep this client, or you and the client would've already parted ways. If you've made it this far, it's important to maintain a positive attitude toward resolving this problem.#6: Regroup and communicate
Once you implement the planned solution, visit your client and stress your commitment to their organization. Take this time to revisit each issue and its subsequent solution (if you can get your client to listen). Restate your obligations to the client and any new obligations to you that the client might have (such as increased support fees).
Start doing regular "client maintenance"
When it comes to client relationships, there's no panacea for trouble. Our six-step process won't resolve every situation -- some clients just can't be saved. However, regular visits and inquiries can help you deal with problems early -- before they come between you and your clients.
If something does go wrong, your client needs to know that you're making a sincere effort to resolve issues and that you are committed to their needs.
TechRepublic resources about client relationships
- Why relationships are key to IT consulting success
- How to develop and maintain client relationships
- Turning around a nightmare client relationship
Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.