The importance of keeping clients happy

When it comes to requests for proposals (RFPs), everyone has an opinion. Some of us avoid them like the Republican Party avoids a debt compromise, while others flock to them. For my seven-person Washington DC-area creative firm, that's how we get most of our business.

When it comes to requests for proposals (RFPs), everyone has an opinion. Some of us avoid them like the Republican Party avoids a debt compromise, while others flock to them. For my seven-person Washington DC-area creative firm, that's how we get most of our business.

Earlier this month, we were finalists on an incredibly competitive, albeit blind, RFP. And try as we might, sometimes projects like this one are too good to pass up. The RFP was originally sent out to over 20 agencies, but in the end it came down to us and one other finalist, a very well-respected firm in the industry who made for tough competition and an equally tough decision for the prospective client. In the end we prevailed, but what made us stand out from the competition? Two words: former clients.

In my eyes, agencies like ours have three types of clients:

1. The blind dates

They commission you for a small redesign, may or may not have any real knowledge of you, usually have a limited budget, and if you’re able to land the project, when it’s over you (or they) break off relations, saying that the project was great but that your two companies aren’t a good fit. In essence, “it’s not you, it’s me”.

2. Friends with benefits

These are the clients that you have an ongoing relationship with. Everyone enjoys working with one another; there is a budget to keep new projects coming to the table, and you’re always the first person they call when they’re in need of services.

3. True loves

These are your 'Brand Loyalists'. They’re the ones who are extremely excited to be working with you, and vice versa. They fight their finance department or their bosses to free up more money to work with you, and they do whatever it takes to make you happy.

True loves will do anything to support

Going back to our last RFP experience, the prospective client had a few of our references and they contacted each of them by sending a short questionnaire. Here, the references had a few options:

  • Send a simple email responding to the questions
  • Ignore the email altogether
  • Reply to the email and ask for a time to chat
  • Do everything and anything they could to put your company in the best light

After receiving the request, each of the references made a point of getting the prospective client on the phone. For one of them, he called time and time again until he could get the client on the phone. This went on for the better part of a week before he caught her on a Saturday morning. The other reference did the same but got through to the prospective client quickly. She proceeded to talk with the prospective client for just over 45 minutes, all the while singing our praises for as long as he was willing to listen.

In the midst of casual conversation after the Kick-Off meeting, the client made the point of telling us that the decision was tough but what really set the two finalists apart were the references. They were impressed that each of our references went through an incredible amount of time and effort to back us while on the other hand; our competitor’s references merely completed the short questionnaire.

Four ways to develop a true love

So how does one go about getting brand loyalists? Here are a few guidelines on how to make your clients do your selling for you:

1. Always be open

A potential client comes to you after going through a terrible experience with a previous design firm. He is facing losing hundreds of thousands of dollars if his tight timeline is not met. You should take a good hard look at your workload to see what you can do to help. Of course, don’t get yourself in a bind by making unrealistic promises; otherwise you’re no better than the previous firm. If it can be done, take it on as a challenge and do whatever needed to make it happen. When the project is complete, the client will be eternally loyal.

2. Always give free advice

This doesn’t mean go out and do spec work for everyone, but rather talk to clients when they call you without counting the minutes and how much you’ll bill them. We’re not attorneys. If they ask you a question which leads into an hour long call, who cares? Be happy they called you for your suggestion. Never deliver a sales pitch, just provide a consultation and try to help in any way you can.

3. Always make introductions

If a client mentions in passing they are working on a new strategy or is looking to learn about a topic, think of an expert or someone within your network to introduce your client to who can help shed some light or bounce ideas off of. Anytime they have a question or are looking for advice, they’ll call you to see if you know anyone. Soon, they’ll believe that you only mingle with the best minds in the industry. Ever hear of the phrase, “you are the company you keep?”

4. Always be flexible

When the scope says “not to exceed seven unique wireframes”, think about doing an eighth or ninth if it will bring value to the project without saying “this is out of scope, we’ll need to draft an addendum”. Likewise, when a client is in a bind do what you can to be helpful and flexible without mentioning payment or the number of billable hours. It’s important that you don’t get taken advantage of, but making the conscious decision to not nickel and dime your client for that extra few hundred dollars you should have billed them for will come back to you tenfold.

The moral of all this

Living by these four simple rules has not only had our clients coming back but resulted in their singing our praises to our clients-to-be. Whether you’re a big shop or a small boutique, everyone in our industry has room to be flexible. Forget the immediate thought of being compensated before you do an additional wireframe or before you talk for an hour on the phone; the connections that the client will make or the deals they will close will go well beyond the value of what you’re put into it. Turn clients into your number one advocate. Loyal clients are the greatest sales people.

Any project manager or business executive would say, “Mike, going continually outside of scope and working for free is no way to manage a project.” And to an extent they’re right: going out of scope is a major project management faux-pas. Everyone in the industry has been trained to keep the project on-time, within budget, and within scope.

But maybe that’s why taking the road less travelled isn’t such bad advice. Know your clients. Know their likes. Know their dislikes. Know everything they are and everything they can be. Know them like your one true love, and you’ll know their needs before they do. Do whatever you can for them (within reason) and worry about money later. They’ll be your biggest fans. Connections will be made, deals will be closed and money will be made. In the end, the sum of your relationship will be more than its individual parts (or costs).

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