Janis runs a small company that provides grant writing and related services to nonprofits that manage housing for low-income individuals. Her biggest client was also the one with whom she'd done business the longest. Over 15 years, Janis's firm had raised considerable money for the client, helped identify alternative sources of funding apart from grant writing, and served as a sounding board for the client's leaders. Then one day she learned that the client had contacted three of her competitors, seeking proposals for doing the work Janis had been doing.
“Where did we go wrong?” she moaned. “How did we not see this coming?” The problem was that Janis had allowed the relationship to become comfortable – too comfortable. Client meetings were routine, over time occurring less frequently. Personal contact had receded over the years to the point where most interactions were by phone or email. She was used to raising her rates without any explanation of what new benefit would accrue to the client as a result of the increase. She never got any negative feedback from the client. But she never asked for feedback. How could Janis have kept the relationship alive and healthy?
On a regular basis, at least annually, ask your longer-term clients to complain.
Here are four steps she could have taken.
Take a risk
Ask the client to complain On a regular basis, at least annually, ask your longer-term clients how you're doing. Do not do this in conjunction with sending them an updated contract for the coming year. You want this feedback to be separate from a discussion about money. Tell your client contact that you sincerely want to know what you could do to make the relationship work better for them. Schedule a lunch meeting offsite to get the feedback (you want your client to be both relaxed and away from office distractions), take notes, and send a memorandum the next day summarizing key points and offering suggestions for how you will follow up. Then follow up!
Talk about value, not money
When it comes time to renegotiate your contract with a valued long-term client, don't just add 10% to last year's number and ship it over to be signed and returned. First, create a value statement outlining all the major work you've done for your client in the past year, including any results that flowed from your work. Remind your client of any special requests that were made that were outside of your scope of work agreement, and how you handled those.
Then, offer a proposal for the coming year that includes innovative activities designed to demonstrate that you understand not only where you and your client have been, but also where you are going. Even if they don't go for the new initiatives, the client will appreciate your thoughtfulness. Then, schedule a time when you can meet with the client one-on-one to deliver the new contract and discuss the value statement. Caution: This is not the time to gather complaints; you already did that, remember? This is a time to celebrate what you two have accomplished, and will accomplish, as strategic partners.
Stealthy intelligence gathering
You've committed yourself now to an (at least) annual clear-the-air session with your key clients, and you've kept it separate from discussions about value and money. Now, you have to make sure you are getting the straight talk about your relationship. Every so often, perhaps once a year, or every other year, ask a trusted peer to help you keep the fires burning with your client relationship. You probably work with subcontractors on these accounts, so use one of the subs to sound out the client on your relationship.
Tell the client the sub will be meeting one-on-one with them to discuss some matter of business that your firm handles for them. Then ask the sub to subtly solicit feedback about your work. It won't be hard to do–clients generally like to vent to third parties, usually with the hope that the information will get back to you. It may be something that they would be uncomfortable discussing with you. The third party makes it OK to dish. And you gain invaluable insight into how your relationship is really working (or not).
Become the trusted advisor
Too often, service providers view themselves as providing a range of specific services, and are content to do a good job of fulfilling that role. Over time, however, if you are paying attention, your client may be asking you to do more. This is your chance to move from service provider to trusted advisor. It's risky–the trusted advisor, just like the Godfather's lawyer, Tom Hagen, may be asked to provide counsel on a wide range of issues, some not so comfortable.
Sometimes your advice may not be on target, other times it may be spot on, but the client may decide not to take it. It will require a much more hands-on approach to working with your client, and it may truly test the relationship in a way that it has never been tested. Those are the risks. But the reward is that you become indispensable. And there are no RFPs for indispensable.