Client Loyalty – What You Don’t Know Could Hurt You
When I first started in this industry I worked for a large, very well-established civil engineering firm in the Intermountain Region. I was the first marketing person they had ever hired so I was fortunate to be able to set up the department and get their marketing programs put into place. One day I approached my boss, the president of the company, about establishing a Client Relations program to monitor client satisfaction. This was the next marketing program that needed to be established in the firm. After I explained how it would work and the valuable information we would receive from it, he told me “no”. He felt that if their clients were unhappy then they would tell them so and as long as the firm didn’t hear from their clients they could assume everything was going fine. In the three years I worked there I was never able to change his mind.
Thankfully, a lot has changed in the past 20 years and today firms are much more open to getting client feedback. However, if you’re still in the throes of trying to get a Client Relations program put into place at your firm, there may be some help. According to the SMPS article, Client Relations Programs: A Primer for Technical Staff, “Some estimates say it costs six to eight times more to obtain a new client than it does to keep one. One study reports that clients change consultants due to dissatisfaction with the deliverable or product only 14% of the time. However, an amazing 68% of the time, they change due to poor service or ill-treatment from their current consultant.”
Whether my former boss wanted to know or not, based on these statistics it is pure economics that we should be willing to ask our clients their opinions of our work and staff. If you have never asked your clients how they feel about your work, then you’ll only know how they feel when they do or do not select you for their next project. And then it may be too late to ask.
Here’s a quick overview of how to set up your own in-house program.
- Use your marketing staff to implement the program. My experience as a marketing consultant is that clients are much more open to discussing their feelings with someone who is not related to their project. There is a perception that candidness directly with their project manager could jeopardize the project – especially if it’s already been a bumpy road. For the best results, use your marketing staff, who are already tuned in to client needs, to survey your clients.
- Develop a list of questions you’ve always wanted the answers to but were afraid to ask. These can include, “Can you tell me what you’ve heard about our firm’s reputation in the industry?” “What do you like least about working with our firm?” “What are your opinions regarding the quality of our work?” “Rate the quality of your working relationship with our project manager.” Include questions that are both project- and staff-related as well as those to do with the office such as timeliness of returned calls, professionalism of support staff, etc.
- Determine the intervals for surveying. Clients want to be asked but not so often that it’s annoying. Choose clients with both small and large projects and ask them once or twice during the project depending on how long it will last, or after each phase. I recommend coordinating this with the accounting department so when a project is opened marketing is notified and can add the client and project to the CR program.
- Document the findings and share them internally. We always presume we’re going to hear everything we are doing wrong when we conduct client surveys. But the best part of client surveys is learning what your firm does right. Everyone can learn from each other’s mistakes and we tend to dwell on those, but don’t forget to learn from what others in the firm have done right. Some staff have better people skills than others and those success stories should be shared - what’s worked with one difficult client may work with another.
Another important note: don’t forget to use those positive comments in your marketing efforts. Most clients are more than happy to approve a quote or testimonial you can use in your marketing proposals or collateral.
- Have a Plan of Action and implement change. Nothing is worse than getting feedback and doing nothing with it. If you’re going to ask your client’s opinion you have to be prepared to do something with the comments if negative ones are made. I recommend putting together a brief Plan of Action outlining what the firm can do to show the client their comments were taken seriously. Have the project manager get back to the client with what the firm is doing to improve or change based upon their comments.
From my experience conducting hundreds of client interviews throughout the Western United States, I agree with the above statistics –the vast majority of the time clients change consultants not so much because of their work as it is with the person or people they were assigned to work with. Joe Hurley with San Mateo County in California said at a recent SMPS meeting on client loyalty, “Loyalty takes a tremendous effort to establish, but is very easy to lose.” Don’t lose your valuable clients. Ask them their opinion now!