I started Euston Digital (now Barracuda Digital) with a colleague back in 2000, and we were ahead of the curve. But by the time I left in 2012, some competitors were five times the size. It’s a regret that we didn’t grow our digital agency business as fast as some others.
At the same time, hundreds had gone bust. So we had to be doing something right.
And it certainly wasn’t our sales growth – we were only picking up a handful of clients every year.
Were we just good at finding effective employees? Had we picked the right clients? Were we delivering great results for them?
The answer of course was all of the above. But the common thread was that we had almost never lost a client. Considering the average life expectancy of a client-agency relationship is less than 3 years, what we were doing was rare.
Previously, when we were in sales, both my business partner and I would hear gripes from clients let down by their agencies. From the start we agreed that with us it would be different. Our customers would be happy.
Almost from day one we governed our client relationships with a set of unbroken rules. They’re all common sense, but they work. And they apply to any business including yours.
1. Stop buying your clients and customers lunch
In my very first sales job I was told “try and take your clients out to lunch”. The idea is obvious: create a personal connection and buyers will find it harder to say no.
It wasn’t just lunch. It was tickets to events. It was gifts at Christmas.
For me this didn’t make sense. The primary reason that buyers would take my call is that they hoped for some value in what I was offering. Whether I bought them a lunch or tickets to the football, these didn’t make my product more valuable.
They had a value of course, but it was completely unconnected with what I was offering. So it didn’t increase their perception of what I was worth to them.
Of course there would always be people who wanted a free lunch. But if you can buy their favour so easily, others could buy it too. The relationship wouldn’t last as it was based on false premise.
The point I want to make is: by all means give your customers something for free. But if you are spending money, make sure it adds value to what you already do for them, and isn’t something unrelated.
Rather than tickets to the football, make it tickets to an industry event. Rather than a free gift, give them a free trial of your product. Invest in making your services better, faster, cheaper, easier.
2. Never break a deadline without explaining why
When I was at school I thought that leaving homework to the last minute was something only kids did. I assumed that when we got older we’d get better at doing work straight away.
As we all come to learn though, last minute is pretty much the norm. And if you do things last minute, sometimes they don’t get done at all.
Clients and customers are optimistic that you are different. They hope that when you say ‘I’ll get that to you by Wednesday 5pm’ that you mean it. They assume you’re good at deadlines, even if they aren’t.
Before launching our agency I spoke to lots of potential clients, and surveyed them about why they were unhappy with their current choice. Was it poor performance, rubbish reporting, high prices? The most common response was always: “They never get back to me.”
In fact, the second most common was unreliability, a bit of a catch all response that could amount to the same thing.
Euston Digital survey on why clients ditched their agency
Getting back to customers by a deadline that you set yourself is the easiest promise to keep. Of course, if you set a deadline that is more distant than they had hoped, customers will initially be disappointed. But they will forget all that once they know that ‘when you say 5pm, you mean 5pm’.
Hitting deadlines also means answering emails and returning calls in a timely way. Even if your response is ‘I can’t do that now but I can do it tomorrow’, it rapidly builds trust. The same goes for businesses that sell a physical product. If you tell a customer that they’ll have their delivery the next day, it’s down to you to make sure they get it. Fulfill your promises. Customers and clients will love you for it.
3. Tell customers the bad news
We’ve all done it. “They’re going to hit the roof once they find out about that”. Given the choice between sharing bad news, and not sharing at all, most of us will choose the latter.
But we’ve all been on the receiving end too. As a buyer or a client, its far better to know what’s going on rather than having it kept from you. If you know about it, you can plan for it.
So make sure you share bad news, and share it early. Your customer’s short term disappointment will quickly be replaced by trust, as they realise that you are someone who tells it like it is.
4. Keep the channels open and regular
Of course, keeping customers informed isn’t just about giving them bad news. It’s about having open lines of communication that are frequently used.
At the start of the relationship ask how they want to be kept up to date. Is it with a weekly written report, or do they want ad hoc emails when issues come up?
The best formula I found was a weekly call to discuss the current performance and to work through a list of open topics. It saves people reading and responding to lots of emails. And it means that issues don’t drift.
Following up the call with a summary of your notes made sure everyone was on the same page, and served as a useful agenda for the following week.
Clients and customers also want visibility of the future too. A project timeline or Gantt chart which sets out what is going to happen and when, is a great way to set expectations.
Here’s an example campaign management timeline to help customers understand what work was happening, and when.
4. Stop standing still
Business is like nature – it is constantly evolving.
Sometimes the changes are big – like fiber replacing copper wire. Sometimes they are subtle – like a new operating system for your phone.
Every business needs to evolve, because capitalism is a competition. If you don’t improve what you do, someone else will do it better. And eventually your customers will move on.
Think about the communication you provide to your customers. Are you talking about the same things, providing the same reports, and offering up the same advice as you were a year ago? If so, consider how you can change it up, and to make evolution a part of what you do.
A better report that is easier to understand, or a new service that can help them out: let your clients know they’re picked a forward-looking partner.
5. Make your customer look awesome
Hopefully, your primary concern is making your client contacts happy. You work hard, you do your best, and give them a regular report to let them know what you’re up to.
But don’t forget, your report probably doesn’t end with your immediate client. They need to let others in their business – probably their boss – know what’s going on.
Your primary concern is to keep them happy. But their primary concern is to keep their boss happy.
So when you interact with your clients, consider whom your reports and analysis will go to next. Understand how your service fits with the rest of the business. Let your client contact report your successes as their own.
If everyone in your client’s business thinks that your client is doing a good job, and has found a great supplier, you will become indispensible. They will rely on you. Your long term contract is secure.
6. Stop describing and start explaining
In my current job I drown in reports. They’re usually Excel spreadsheets along with some commentary. In 99% of cases the commentary is completely pointless. Is yours?
Most people who report to clients use commentary to describe what has happened. But clients don’t need the description: that’s what the excel spreadsheet does. What they need to understand is: why did this happen?
Take a look at your own reports. Are you just summarising the situation, or are you really trying to understand and analyse it? Your value is in the analysis, not the description. Focus on the ‘why’ and you’ll always be in need.
7. Stop saying yes
When we start a new business, make a new sale, or find a new potential contact there’s a huge desire to prove our worth. We agree to do stuff because we’re desperate to be considered to be someone who ‘can’.
But in many cases we agree to things we have no ability to do well, or to do on time. In the short term the customer is excited about what we’ve promised. But they end up feeling let down, and the relationship is worse than it was to start with.
So before giving a knee-jerk ‘yes I can’, consider every request you receive and work out if you can really do it, really well. If not, you’re better off saying no to start with. In the long term your clients will trust that when you say you can, you really can.
Successful, sustainable businesses are built on happy customers. Keeping them happy isn’t just about your products and your prices. A lot is down to how you communicate with them.
Communication isn’t about being a nice person, or getting along with your client. It’s about being:
It doesn’t need to be hard.
Have you struggled to keep clients? What do you do that clients loyal? Please leave your experiences below, and share this post so others might get better at looking after theirs.