Catch clients and keep them!

While it pays to create new contacts, don't take repeat work from existing clients for granted. Here's how to ensure they keep coming back for more.

Here's the scenario: you've built a great portfolio of long-standing clients that - while you're building new relationships and pitching for fresh commissions - you want to hang on to. Existing client relationships need continual massaging, so don't fall into the trap of thinking that repeat work is guaranteed. "You need to over-deliver," says Jean-Marie Orhan, MD of London agency Praline when asked about her studio's approach to its existing accounts. "We always aim to go beyond the basics and make sure there is added value and added effectiveness which our clients didn't ask for and maybe didn't expect."

Praline has created an enviable portfolio of long-standing clients that includes architects, property developers, sustainable energy consultancies and art galleries. According to Orhan, the secret is to be more than a design agency:

"We develop personal relationships with all of our clients. We visit them on-site, they visit us here, often more than once. We make sure everyone knows everyone personally, which is a great way to improve communication on design projects. We eat together - we've found that's very important. But we also involve them directly in the design process. If they make design suggestions in meetings, we never say yes or no - we always ask more questions to get beyond the skin-deep reaction and find out what they're trying to communicate. Sometimes we'll suggest a different medium for a project, but always with a view to increasing effectiveness."

Hamish Makgill, MD of Studio Makgill has a similarly expansive take. "We work hard to make ourselves irreplaceable. We'll often get directly involved our clients' business model. So we do more than branding. For example, we have a long-standing relationship with The Lollipop Shoppe, which is a furniture and design store that came to us as a start-up, and we've been working them for around three years now. We do their everyday design, but we also designed the brand, and that meant talking to them in detail about their aims, and defining the principles the business is built on. So there's a huge amount of trust now. Recently we suggested they put together a design exhibition. It was our initiative and we curated it, and it was also a great way to raise their profile and make them more than a store. It's always good to build up relationships like that."

But what happens when you do your best and someone else gets the follow-on work? Makgill suggests it's just part of industry: "There used to be no competition here in Brighton, but now it's much busier. You can't stop the competition from stealing your clients, and sometimes there will be a change at a senior level, and someone new wants a fresh approach. We're lucky that it has never happened to us, but it certainly does happen in the industry - and I think realistically you just have to live with it. But we also make sure we're never complacent about any project. We challenge ourselves and our clients constantly. As soon as you start taking a client for granted, it's certain that relationship is going to end."

Jean-Marie Orhan has taken the same idea further. "We make a point of introducing our clients to each other - living in the world of Praline, if you like," she says. "But when clients are aware of other work that you're doing, that can work really well for everyone. For example, we recently organised the Richard Rogers touring exhibition, and for one stage of that we introduced the practice to a publisher we were designing for. The result of that was a book project, which was more work for us and also a satisfying new relationship for the practice and the publisher."

The point to take away from this is that design is as much about continued relationship building and maintenance as it is about graphics and coding. The service is the client experience as a whole, from start to finish - and beyond. Images, designs and code are useful, but long-lasting relationships are always more valuable.