why clients stray and steps to instill loyalty
What’s your client retention rate?” I asked a partner at a mid-sized professional services firm. “It should be a lot better than it is,” he replied glumly. “We have very good relationships with our clients. But often, they’ll work with us for a project, and then hire a competitor three months later for the next one. I don’t understand it.” I told my friend, only halfjokingly, “As someone who has spent 20 years writing about how to build clients for life, I find your clients’ behavior completely unacceptable!” All kidding aside, I have heard this lament from many professionals.
There are three main factors—aside from the obvious one of poor delivery—that explain a lack of client loyalty:
Perceived sameness among providers
Many services providers have not sufficiently differentiated themselves in the eye of the client. This results in another unwanted effect: downward pressure on fees. When buyers see many, equal substitute suppliers, you get intense price pressure and lots of shopping around. Executive search consultants, for example, can accentuate how they are different—through industry focus and industry sub-specialization; functional specialization; geographic focus; service offering breadth; methodology; the client experience; and so on.
Often, when you have many firms offering a similar service (accounting and law firms, for example), what makes the difference for the client is a strong personal relationship with a partner who not only delivers good quality work but has also connected on a personal level and developed a deep understanding of the individual client and their organization.
Out of sight, out of mind
Despite being in a relationship business, many professional services providers get so focused on transactions—on getting the next assignment sold and completed—that they don’t bother to stay in touch in meaningful ways in-between projects. As one CEO told me, “You have to be there when the dam breaks. If you’re not on my radar when I have a need, it’s possible I’ll forget to call you.”
Of course, all three of these factors are interrelated. When you don’t stay in touch in value-added ways with your clients, you don’t grow the personal relationship—at worst, it withers. And if you don’t have a strong relationship, there is less perceived differentiation and more shopping around. So let’s look at some proven strategies for staying in touch and adding continual value over the entire lifecycle of the relationship— not just while you’re in the middle of an assignment.
Keep this in mind: One of the most common comments I’ve heard from top executives, over the course of thousands of interviews, is, “My trusted advisor comes to see me through thick and thin—both when there are fees being paid, and when there’s no business to be had.”
Here are eight steps you can take to stay in touch, add value and increase client loyalty:
1. Broadcast a value-added message on a regular basis.
You need a communications strategy—usually based on multiple platforms—that will simultaneously establish you as a thought leader in your field, add value to important client problems, and put your and your firm’s name in front of clients on a regular basis. What could that be? Well, there is no single best approach—you have to develop your own platform that suits your skills, expertise and client base. Whether you’re staying in touch with 50 or 50,000, this should be one of the foundations of your staying-in-touch efforts.
The wonderful thing is that when you put your ideas and points of view in writing on a regular basis, you can use that content across many different delivery channels. A white paper can become a series of blogs, which can then be recombined into a slide deck, and so on.
Here are some real examples from both institutions and individuals:
- Weekly Email: A tax attorney I know sends out a weekly email to a list of about 100 current clients. That email is jam-packed with valuable information—perspectives on new tax laws, best practice examples, and so on. He tailors the emails slightly to different groups of recipients and individuals based on their interests. When he drops a client off the list because they aren’t doing business with him anymore, he often gets a phone call from the client, asking him why they are no longer getting his weekly email!
- Blog: Michael Hyatt writes a daily leadership blog that has over 450,000 subscribers. That’s a wider “circulation” than 99% of all published magazines. It took him over a decade to develop this large following. Blogging isn’t for everyone, but you can build quite a following if your content is compelling.
- Value-Added, Hybrid Publications: Patagonia, the outdoor clothing supplier, has created a catalog that is more like a magazine than anything else. It is full of amazing nature photographs and essays about extraordinary trips taken around the world by its own employees. Instead of throwing it in the dustbin, you are drawn to peruse each issue. It’s an excellent example of adding value for readers while also sending a commercial message.
- Management Briefs: Bain & Company has a monthly email called “Results Brief.” It’s customized—it’s addressed to you personally and the email header shows that it comes from your primary contact at the firm. It features short articles on important management issues. Other firms opt for both printed and electronic in-house magazines (e.g., The McKinsey Quarterly).
- Annual Survey: Some firms do a definitive annual survey for their field (e.g., law firm Norton Rose Fulbright does an annual litigation trends survey; Merrill Lynch does a private wealth survey; IBM does a CEO survey), which gives them several points of interaction during the year as well as the opportunity to go back and discuss the survey results with each client.
- Twitter: I’m not a huge fan of Twitter for the professional/corporate market, but who knows whether this will eventually become a value-added content platform for service professionals and corporate executives. Perhaps right now this is more useful for reaching younger candidates and clients.
- Monthly Newsletter: Many professionals have weekly or monthly newsletters. The challenge is to maintain high-quality, value-added content because there are so many newsletters out there (and most of them are boring or pure sales pitches). I started mine, Client Loyalty, over a decade ago with just 100 subscribers, and now it reaches tens of thousands of executives each month.
2. Connect people in your network.
A CFO I interviewed, in speaking about one of his most trusted advisors, told me, “They’ve introduced me to several other CFOs in similar-sized companies. That’s been a real value-add in our relationship.” You should always be asking yourself, “Whom can I introduce this person to? Who else in my network would click with them and be able to help them achieve their goals? I call this “connection value.”
3. Follow up around a specific interest.
One CEO told me, “The professionals who do the best job of staying in touch with me identify an issue of interest and then follow up with helpful ideas, articles, book recommendations, and so on.” Busy executives will always make time to read or speak to you about ideas and information they deem directly relevant to their most important goals.
4. Provide personal help.
“Value” is not just defined as helping someone with a business issue—it can also mean helping them on a personal level. Has someone in your network recently moved to town? Perhaps you could help them identify schools for their children or a personal physician. Do you know someone whose child is applying to college or graduate school and would like to work in your field? Perhaps you could give some helpful advice to them. There are unlimited ways you can add “personal value,” but you need to make an effort to reach out and get to know them and their situation.
5. Build communities.
IBM has done an excellent job of building communities of employees, clients and collaborators in their markets. They hold online innovation jams as well as in-person regional innovation forums which bring together clients, IBM executives and thirdparty thought leaders. Author and consulting guru Alan Weiss has built a large network of independent professionals who participate in his online forum (“Alan’s Forums”) and his workshops and summits around the country. Remember, at the center of a community there must be strong value—a center of gravity that pulls members in.
6. Create events.
Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award has become a major annual event that draws thousands of executives. Expertise in entrepreneurship has also now become an important part of the firm’s intellectual capital, and the event puts E&Y in touch with executives throughout the year as they select and evaluate entrants—it’s not just a one-off affair. By the way, an event doesn’t have to be a huge conference. You might have a quarterly dinner gathering, for example, with a rotating set of executives.
7. Create short, lowlabor intensity interactions.
A cup of coffee is a low-risk and appealing way to catch up with an old client, as opposed to a lunch or dinner which may take several hours of time. I once moderated a panel of senior executives in London, and one of them said, “Invite me to coffee. Cricket is a very long day!” A short, 15- or 20-minute phone call to catch up is also effective. What if you did two of those a week—that would be 100 executives you would connect with each year with a brief call!
8. Develop a weekly staying-in-touch plan.
Like compound interest, stayingin- touch activities build up and create relationship momentum for you over time. Schedule weekly outreach activities to your “critical few” (20-30 key relationships) that are personal and tailored in nature. Make sure you are also contacting your broader network with on a regular basis with value-added but lowlabor- intensive communications, be that in the form of a blog, newsletter, bulletin, online forum, or other channel.
It’s very possible to build deep client loyalty. It develops over time as you consistently deliver, stay in touch to understand your client’s current concerns and priorities, add value in-between searches, build a personal relationship, and learn more about your client and his or her business than any of your competitors.
About the Author
Andrew Sobel is the bestselling author of eight books on client relationships, including Clients For Life, Power Questions, and Power Relationships. His popular eLearning program, “Building Clients for Life” is distributed by AESC.