Play the loyalty card to win faith of your clients

Procuring clients is vital to a business’s development, but Jonathan Kirk stresses why a high degree of sophistication is required to ensure client retention

Clients are less loyal than they have ever been. With so many good consultancies beating a path to their door, there is the continual temptation to put a project out to pitch, or to give another group a chance, rather than simply brief the same consultancy that did a good job last time. For nervous clients, staying loyal to one consultancy can also seem a mug’s game. Why would they limit their options?

If clients are less loyal, then it follows that we have to work harder to keep and, most importantly, to develop our relationships with them. Don’t make the mistake of getting complacent and overestimating the strength of your client relationships. In today’s environment, the next project is never a foregone conclusion. Aggressive new business approaches to your clients are happening all the time – ‘Give us an issue that’s concerning you, keeps you awake at night, or that your current agency is struggling with, and we’ll prepare some speculative work. What’s an hour of your time?’ If you’re not making enough effort with your clients, then other consultancies will.

We all know that when times are tough it’s well worth concentrating on existing clients. New business is vitally important and must be done, but there can be an awful lot of sand to sift before finding any gold. By contrast, your clients already know you. It’s an easier sell. However, while we all know this to be true, very few consultancies excel at client development. Many account handlers are good managers of their projects but less good at business development.

Just like new business, effective client development needs a plan and a strategy. Most consultancies have a new business budget, but how many have a client development budget? Yet, many of the disciplines are the same. So here are a few thoughts for that client development strategy. Some of them may seem obvious, but are we always doing them?

First, is the culture right? Larger consultancies need to create a business development culture among client services staff. The onus should be on account handlers to demonstrate a more proactive approach to meeting as many decision-makers as possible at their client company. Incentives, regular brainstorms and weekly client business development meetings can all help to create that culture. Aim to propose a set number of proactive ideas to a client within a six-month period. Similarly, new projects awarded by existing clients should be celebrated. New business wins are sometimes unfairly given all the attention.

Second, is the most senior person in the consultancy meeting enough clients, or do they spend 90 per cent of their time in their office or in internal meetings? One great example of good client development is the chairman of a major advertising group who often calls relatively lowly brand managers at his clients, and invites them in to meet him and have lunch. The startled brand manager feels important and the chairman gets to know what’s happening on the ground floor. Plus, he knows that his young guests could be marketing directors in not so many years time. He’s nurturing them for the future. It’s a completely cynical but highly effective policy.

Third, regular communication is key. It’s easy to become pigeonholed as offering a particular type of service because no one has ever really taken time to educate the client about the entire offer. This can culminate in a frustrating situation where the consultancy is overlooked for a project that it is actually well capable of delivering.

All this stems from a lack of communication. Clients are bombarded with information and case studies from competitors, so if you’re not careful your clients can know more about your competitors than they know about you. Therefore, make sure that clients receive regular updates on all the interesting work you’re doing for other brands.

Similarly, when was the last time a client visited its consultancy’s website? The website can be used to show ‘knowledge pieces’ to clients. Issuing clients with personalised URLs for ‘special access’ is a sure way to drive them to your site.

Fourth, make a fuss of your clients’ new recruits, however junior – induction days, presentations, drinks. Just like that ad agency chairman, this type of activity pays off. The average stay of a brand manager is now only 18 months. Brand managers move on and you can follow them.

Finally, don’t forget to ask. If you have a good relationship with a client, then ask him/her to introduce you to other decision-makers within the organisation or to related divisions. Usually, they are only too happy to help and maybe a little surprised that you haven’t asked earlier.

Jonathan Kirk is the founder of 2Fruition, a marketing and business development consultancy for design businesses

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