Whether working for a firm or for yourself, the ability to maintain client relationships is one of the most important professional skills. In good times, business flows easily because the demand for services often outstrips the number of people able to supply that service. In hard times, however, the demand shrivels and clients become far more selective about who they take their business to. This process weeds out all the weaker providers. In this article, we'll look at some easy ways to keep clients happy in either good times or bad.
On Time or Early, Never Late
Consistency tops the wish list for clients in almost every industry. Whether they themselves are punctual or not, clients hate to be kept waiting for any kind of meeting . Unfortunately, consistency with existing clients often slides when there is new business coming in. Advice on striking a balance between adding new businesses to the pipeline and keeping established customers happy fills volumes in bookstores. Client management software and many other innovations have automated traditional processes, but the essentials haven't really changed.
Create a Newsletter
In the days before Internet, advisors and investment professionals would mail personalized updates to preferred clients. These weren't stock tips, as such, but commentary on the market and the state of the economy, which can now be done for all of your clients with just a few emails. Before you start mass emailing clients, however, you should start with a print newsletter. People are still more likely to read a printed document sent to them by mail than an unsolicited email.
There are multiple layout templates to choose from, so the focus is more on producing content. Most newsletters feature a mix of commentary on current events, specific updates and practical advice. For example, in 2008 an accountant may have written about how the lack of proper risk analysis led to skewed balance sheets for banks, and then transitioned to a simple tip like numbering receipts every calendar month to make tracking spending - and potential write-offs - easier. Each newsletter should, however, carry some indication of your personal approach to your profession - a "this is what I do and what I think, see if you agree," type of write up. This way your newsletter will also become a tool to attract and filter potential customers, helping you get a higher percentage of clients who match your style.
Encouraging clients to sign up for the email/online edition of your newsletter in every print issue will help make the transition to digital copies less intrusive than sending messages that could be considered "spam." You can also look at more cutting edge ways to keep in touch, such as Twitter or podcasts.
When markets are roaring and business is booming, there is no shortage of professionals ready to take personal credit for success. Oddly enough, economic conditions are usually blamed when the markets turn bearish. Shifting blame and making weak excuses is the specialty of pro-athletes caught doping, and the infiltration of this attitude into financial services is troubling. People with the integrity to take responsibility for their mistakes - whether truly market-induced by some black swan event or a personal mistake - may suffer initial client backlash, but most people will appreciate the honesty. The other option of smoothing over any past mistakes requires deceiving all your clients. Hiding mistakes to produce results at any cost may have pushed Bernie Madoff to do what he did.
Warren Buffett offers two great examples of integrity in the face of difficulty. He closed the first fund he managed when it was still successful, simply because he felt he could no longer chase a market he didn't understand. More recently, he used the Berkshire shareholders' letter to admit that his delay on closing down Gen Re's trading arm cost hundreds of millions in losses. There was no panic selling of Berkshire.
SEE: Think Like Warren Buffett
It seems counterintuitive, but a person must standardize his or her approach to client maintenance in order to give personalized service. Getting organized frees up the time needed to tailor your services for each client's needs. Every profession has a natural cycle. Accountants, like dentists, generally see clients once a year, whereas a financial advisor or broker might be dealing with clients on a quarterly, monthly or even daily basis. It's important to commit a regular amount of face time/phone time to each client within every cycle - and to take notes on the meeting. Keeping a client file containing notes from previous meetings is an invaluable way to track how your client's concerns are changing over time. This, in turn, helps you to customize your approach and recognize patterns before they become larger issues.
There doesn't always have to be a purpose to a follow-up. Simply checking in on how your client is doing, wishing a happy birthday/holiday, or asking about a matter previously discussed might only be a five-minute conversation, but it has a cumulative effect over time. Setting a standard that you maintain for each client - a certain amount of follow-up, time commitment, etc - will help you figure out how much business you should be handling. Having lots of business is only good as long as you can process it all. If you're swamped and doing a sub-par job to keep up, your clients, old and new, suffer.
Create a Natural Network
Even professionals who survive through referrals often under-use their personal network. Knowing what businesses your clients are in and what type of clients they work with can help you in building a referral network. Despite massive leaps in technology, many clients are still gained through word of mouth. People usually ask their friends and associates for advice on a good lawyer, insurance broker, real estate agent, and so on. By maintaining a high level of organization and contact with your clients, you'll be a natural choice when one of their friends is seeking a referral. If you can return the favor someday, it will strengthen the relationship between you and your clients.
The Bottom Line
The secret to keeping clients is to be consistent. You can always do things such as increasing your services or offering discounts, in order to attract more business during hard times, but you need to set a minimum standard that never wavers - even when inflows of new clients tempt you to short-change established ones. Ultimately, professional integrity means being consistent during all economic conditions.