You’ve done the hard work. You’ve set up a new business and worked tirelessly to chase down leads, secure custom and build your client base. But the dedicated effort doesn’t end there, in fact it’s only just begun.
Now comes a focus on client management to establish strong customer relationships and retain that hard-won custom.
It can cost five times more to acquire a new customer than retain an existing one. An increase in customer retention of just 5% can increase profits by 25-95%. And the success rate of selling to an incumbent customer is 60-70%, compared to the 5-20% success rate of selling to a new lead.
If you’re a start-up looking for advice, or an established business keen for a refresher, here we share some top strategies for managing and retaining customers for the long-term.
What is Client Management?
No matter the industry, type of business or target customer, client management is critical to get right. It’s a term that refers to all the interactions between a company and its clients, from face-to-face contact to email exchanges.
Establishing strong working relationships benefits a business in numerous ways:
- Generates repeat business
- Encourages customer loyalty
- Cultivates an excellent reputation
- Helps businesses to evolve with valuable feedback
- Creates advocates and positive word of mouth referrals
- Saves money on expensive new business activities
- Reduces staff turnover and recruitment costs as employees enjoy working with happy customers
- Boosts productivity as businesses ensure processes are streamlined and fuss-free to keep customers satisfied
- Fosters creativity as staff continually think of new ways to delight customers
However, not every customer is easy to get on with and there will be challenges. Unless a business has a robust strategy for client management, a lax, inconsistent or non-existent approach to handling customer relationships can result in a loss of business, damaged reputation and disengaged employees.
Effective management of clients is therefore essential, especially for smaller businesses or start-ups. It keeps customers buying from you.
Who is Responsible for Client Management?
Large consumer-facing businesses often refer to this activity as customer service, and have dedicated teams to manage all communications between company and customer.
However, for SMEs the point of contact between a client and the company might be one dedicated person, called a project manager, account manager or client manager.
Alternatively, a customer might interact with numerous people at one company, depending on the business model and service or product.
Ultimately, client management is every person in the company’s job to practice. Each interaction between a customer and your business needs to be high quality, from the receptionist answering their call to the CEO meeting them at a new project kick-off meeting.
The Keys to Successful Client Management
Successful management of clients should link back to your core values, and form an important strand of your business strategy.
The general principles are as follows:
- Understanding – ensure that you understand each client’s needs precisely, and take time to learn from them and ask the right questions. This will mean you’re aligned with client expectations and able to produce first-rate work. If you sell one-off products, then gathering customer insight will mean your product appeals and has the functionality or features that your core audience most desires.
- Trust – fostering trust leads to loyal customers who come back again and again. If a customer doesn’t fully believe that your business will deliver on their promises (see below) or if you fail them with sub-standard work, then they won’t buy from you again.
- Transparency – the key to any thriving relationship is honesty. It might be tempting to avoid conflict by burying your head in the sand when it comes to relaying difficult news to a customer, telling a half-truth or outright lying. Don’t. The best option is to be transparent, solutions-orientated and take full responsibility for any shortcomings.
- Communication – regular, open, two-way conversations keep customer relationships healthy. Learn to listen well and ask the right questions so you have the entire picture. Deliver clear updates about progress or successes in succinct, understandable language.
- Delivery – delivering on promises is crucial to avoid angry or disappointed clients. Set out clear, achievable deliverables and agree an attainable timeline. Missed deadlines, incomplete work or faulty products will see your business labelled as ‘one-to-avoid’, or worse.
Day-to-Day Client Management Strategies
Depending on your business and industry, there are a number of specific steps you could take to retain your customers. Below we detail 15 strategies that could apply to various businesses.
1. Manage client expectations
Setting realistic expectations and then delivering on what you’ve said you’ll do is the number one way to establish trust and lay the groundwork for a solid relationship.
Avoid agreeing to unrealistic expectations from your client that you know you can’t achieve. Further down the line, your client will be disappointed when you fail to fulfil your commitments.
It’s best practice to put everything in writing, and potentially within a contract that is signed by both parties. This ensures there’s no confusion, and that specific deliverables, associated costs and deadlines are clear.
And if you’re selling a product, then ensure that it does everything you claim it will, in terms of functionality or usage.
2. Share a roadmap
Often clients get excited about a new project and are eager to see it completed. Develop a comprehensive roadmap with high-level milestones and mini-project delivery dates.
This document enables clients to see at a glance where a project is up to, how the different components have been ordered and prioritised, and when they can expect different elements to be ‘shipped’.
3. Update regularly
If you’re working with your customer on a longer-term contract then updating them regularly with status reports will keep them well-informed and satisfied that their job is moving in the right direction.
Agree with the client on the level of communication. They might be keen for short daily progress emails or prefer weekly face-to-face meetings.
4. Respond promptly
No one likes to be left hanging. If a client contacts you, where possible, respond promptly. A week-old, unanswered question on a long-forgotten voicemail could seriously damage a relationship.
Set a turnaround time for your staff on responding to client queries depending on what’s appropriate for your business and industry. For example, a reply within three hours or within two days.
And if a client’s main point of contact is unavailable, for example on annual leave, then ensure the client knows in advance and is given an alternative contact.
5. Gather feedback
Gathering constructive feedback from clients allows you to see what’s working and what could be improved in your relationship.
Asking your customers to complete quick surveys when a job is complete, to share feedback once a quarter or fill in a questionnaire annually will help you to evolve your service and address areas of improvement in your client management strategy.
6. Adhere to a strict approval process
Occasionally a relationship fails when what you think you should be doing is different to what the client thinks you’re doing. The confusion can arise when briefs, sign offs or other information is discussed verbally or isn’t shared in a standardised process.
Putting tasks in writing with clear deliverables, costs and deadlines and requesting that the client approves the plan in writing will avoid any misunderstandings.
7. Learn how and when to say no to a client
Sometimes you’ll need to say no to a customer, for example if they’re asking for an unrealistic deadline or a task that isn’t within your skillset.
This should be approached with care. Push back too strongly and risk upsetting a valuable client relationship. Or say yes and risk not delivering on your promises, and disappointing your customer.
Clearly explain the rationale for your response. For example, your professional experience highlights that an idea won’t be viable, or you don’t have the resource capacity, or the work falls outside the existing project scope.
8. Deliver bad news positively
Mistakes happen, jobs overrun and staff are taken ill. There are numerous reasons why you might have to deliver bad news to you client. But doing so in a calm, honest and transparent manner and offering solutions or workarounds will maintain a solid relationship.
Take full ownership of an issue and communicate clearly and promptly. Turning a negative situation into a positive experience will bolster a client’s opinion of you.
9. Ask for money tactfully
Asking for money can be uncomfortable, especially if a job has gone over budget.
However, at the beginning of your relationship, you should’ve shared a thorough contract, detailed budget and terms – or something similar – that you can now refer back to.
By updating a client regularly, you should be able to highlight in advance if additional budget is required so that it’s not a surprise. And by keeping communication transparent and clear, the reasons for an overspend can be identified early on and explained clearly.
10. Set out client management standards and ensure all staff are on board
Spending time creating a set of standards for management of clients that all staff are educated on and follow will ensure consistency. Every time a customer deals with your business they can expect the same level of service no matter who they communicate with.
These standards can also be used to track the success of your plan. For example, a standard could be to answer all customer phone calls within a set timeframe. You can then look at data to see if this is being achieved, and set targets for improvement.
11. Listen and learn
Listen carefully to your client and allocate time to learn about them, their business and their industry. This insight will enhance your connection and enable you to offer them the optimum service or product.
Remembering small personal details about individual clients can also deepen a bond, such as when their birthday is, or what they like to do in their spare time.
12. Be proactive
Being proactive by sharing industry trends, interesting news, ideas for new products or services, ways to improve your processes to save time or anything else that your client might appreciate, will endear them to you.
For example, if you know your client is presenting to their board about future industry trends, you can proactively conduct some research and share it with them in advance. This is above and beyond what you’re contractually obligated to do, and isn’t something they’ve requested, but is of value to them.
13. Celebrate successes
Often a business is so busy delivering, it forgets to celebrate successes with clients. This could be an important milestone achieved for a client, or a great result.
It’s important to take a step back and highlight key achievements as they happen. It’ll boost your morale and delight your client. The celebration could be a company/client team night out, a bouquet of flowers to say thank you to a supportive client contact or a designed graphic that showcases some exceptional statistics printed and framed.
14. Set clear boundaries from the outset
To establish trust, set boundaries with your client at the start. These help to protect your business and your team, and give your client guidelines as to what they can expect from their working relationship with you.
For example, there could be terms set into a contract about: out-of-hours emergency contact; the approval process; what will happen if the brief changes after work has started; payment terms; a complaints procedure, and anything else that will make working together run more smoothly.
15. Make friends
Most customers want to deal with friendly people. Show empathy, be patient, pay attention and keep calm under pressure. If appropriate, making friends with your customers on a professional level will go a long way in guaranteeing you retain them for the long-term.
Be excited to work on their business or to sell them a product. That enthusiasm will shine through and win over even the toughest of customers.
Retain Your Clients
A high customer churn rate can have a negative impact on your business. Retain customers for the long-term with a robust client management strategy and watch as your business grows.