Your Practice: Winning clients and keeping them

Drop into conversation practical examples of what sets you apart: ‘We did this for another client last month and they saved…’, or, ‘Our major client in IT appreciates the fact that…’ Never assume foreknowledge of your skills or resources. Business often goes west by omission.

What did we do right? It is equally important to confirm your strengths.

When you win new business, ask why you were chosen. Where a client perceives added value, accentuate this in your ongoing work and your next pitch.

How are we doing? As in other walks of life, communication is not just about making a first impression: it needs to be continuous. Having won business, how often do you ask your clients how well you are performing?

Taking the lead here is fundamental to the professional relationship.

Most dissatisfied clients will not tell you your position is at risk until actively considering a potential replacement. It is crucial to ask for an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses at regular intervals in the working relationship.

Focus on value. Relationships can be killed at the earliest juncture.

The most common culprit is overwhelming the client with complex information in a formal pitch. Usually through fear of looking lightweight, firms throw in the kitchen sink. Keep it simple. Focus on the added value you can deliver.

What’s the benefit? This value is usually measured in terms of demonstrable benefits. Too many pitches focus on the features of a service, demonstrating that the firm is more interested in its functions than client benefits.

One practical example of specific benefits to the client’s business is worth any amount of self-referential breast-beating.

Don’t forget that relationships need to work at all levels. The fact that the senior partner and chair hit it off should not obscure the importance of links lower down the chain. When meeting a group of clients, ensure that every member of your team has a significant role to play.

Set the standard. If you are in a competitive pitch, ask to present first.

You will set the standard while the panel is fresh and receptive.

It’s about people. Relationships are about more than firm handshakes and eye contact, so never underestimate the importance of human interaction.

Minimise visual aids. Put people before graphics. Convey your personality.

Unless you show your character in the pitch, you may perpetuate bean-counter stereotypes and appear indistinguishable from your competitors.

Share enthusiasm. A show of genuine interest in your putative client’s business will set you apart. Enthusiasm for the organisation and its work indicates the basis for a true relationship.

Empathise. Mutual understanding is the essence of successful relationships in professional as well as personal life. Every business wants to work with people who understand its culture and unique identity. In a tender or face-to-face meeting, use your client’s terminology (spoken as well as that featured in tender, website or brochure).

A challenge is an opportunity. All relationships are tempered in the heat of disagreement. Even when your actual or potential client goes onto the offensive, you have an opportunity to strengthen ties.

Welcome questions – they indicate interest and give you an opportunity to show that you are the right business partner.

Buy time, by probing the questioner.

Consider your reply. Whatever you feel, show courtesy and confidence – never irritation. If you know the answer, be succinct. If you do not, explain calmly that it raises detailed issues and that you would rather give the right answer than mislead those present. You will confer with colleagues at the first opportunity, before responding by telephone, letter or in person.

How important is all this? Are these distractions or ‘nice to haves’, rather than core business skills? After all, much business is won and retained on the basis of money or track record.

The answer lies in client behaviour. Clients want relationships as well as skills. They want to feel comfortable with their advisers.

Any professional services firm which considers interpersonal skills of secondary importance simply gifts business to relationship-building, client-focused competitors.

  • Cristina Stuart is managing director of Speak First and author of Speak for Yourself


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