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How to nurture and retain valuable clients

How to nurture and retain valuable clients

Sharon Melamed spent 20 years in business development at big outsourcing companies, helping clients set up call centres and back-office operations in markets ranging from Japan and Australia to the US and UK. Two years ago, she decided to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams and started Matchboard.com.au, a free business to business (B2B) matching service that’s a smart alternative to search engines when looking for business-services suppliers.

How important are client relationships to a business? Are great products or services enough?

It may initially be easy to acquire customers with great products or services, but these customers may quickly be lost if a business does not invest in the relationship with the clients it has acquired. Research shows that customers defect based on service and the way a business conducts the relationship with their clients post-sale. So effective client relationship management really is the key to retention.

How do client relationships evolve as a business grows?

When a business starts out and gets its first clients, the clients are usually treated like royalty – they become the case studies and testimonials, which provide the foundation for growth. But as a business grows, it’s typical for businesses to become complacent with their existing clients. The challenge for a growing business is to find different ways of nurturing client relationships once resources start to get stretched.

For example, whereas a small business may have had the time to physically go out and see its first client every week, a year later it probably won’t have this luxury. But there are other ways of maintaining client intimacy that are less time consuming, ranging from a client newsletter to video chat, or getting face time with multiple clients at once via small events. You just have to be creative!

What are the key ways you foster client relationships in your own business?

At Matchboard, we have hundreds of clients ranging from small businesses to government agencies and large enterprises. We send them a customer satisfaction survey when they use our service for the first time, and actively solicit suggestions for improvement. Anyone who takes the trouble to write their feedback, whether positive or negative, receives a follow-up call within 24 hours, and clients really appreciate this level of personalised attention. We send all our clients a monthly e-update and pay a lot of attention to providing valuable content, which we monitor through the click rates and open rates in the email marketing system.

The way we foster client relationships also varies quite a bit depending on client location and business/opportunity size. For example, it makes no sense for us to invest an equal amount of time in a client worth $1000 versus a client worth $100,000. Location permitting, we try to meet all the high-value clients that use our online matching service in person over a relaxed get-to-know-you lunch or drink. This invariably leads to repeat business.

During its first year, the Matchboard business, like most startups, was obsessed with finding new clients. But once we had an established base, it really sunk in that repeat business is the best business of all. Not only is there no sales cost with repeat clients, but there are also the flow-on benefits of repeat clients being much more likely to recommend us to friends and colleagues – again, with zero sales and marketing cost.

What are the biggest mistakes that businesses make when it comes to client relationships?

The biggest mistake that businesses make is taking their clients for granted. Sometimes you don’t appreciate something till it’s gone.

The other mistake I see all the time is simply a lack of communication. It is astounding the number of times you hear of a company being shocked at losing a client to a competitor, yet with a strong communication or account management framework, these nasty surprises are actually unlikely.

What role can technology play in helping foster good client relationships?

LinkedIn is an amazing platform to foster client relationships. For example, you can ‘like’ client updates about their professional achievements, you can write a recommendation or endorse clients, and you can share and write positive feedback about posts or discussions the client publishes. This gives the client the impression that you are focused on them as an individual, as a human being, and not just waiting for them to sign the next order. I would, however, caution businesses against making their clients friends on their personal Facebook pages without prior permission, as most people still like to separate their personal and professional lives.

I also think there is an increasing adoption of video as a way of communicating with clients, particularly with those who live in different cities, whether through Skype or more commercial-grade video-chat platforms.

Do client-facing staff need training in managing client relationships? What would you recommend?

Some people are just naturals at client relationships: they are warm and friendly and responsive. To me, these are the ideal attributes of anyone responsible for managing clients. However, the reality is that not all client-facing staff are born this way, and they can certainly benefit from training and coaching.

I have seen some great results from customised emotional intelligence and sales training programs. I would certainly be happy to recommend some great providers to any interested readers.

What about dispute resolution? If there’s conflict, can a warm, positive relationship ever return?

People have disputes all the time, whether it’s at home or in the workplace. However, with a strong, trusting relationship at the foundation, the chances of recovering are high.

What’s the best piece of advice you received when starting up your own business?

The best piece of advice I received was to never underestimate how hard it is to acquire new clients. And the best piece of advice I’d give back is to never underestimate how easy it is to lose them.

The client relationship is one of the elements that can become challenging as your business grows. Find out what else to look for while you experience growing pains

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