October 1, 2012

Why you should treat your client like your BFF

How to win friends and influence people — updated

Chris AbrahamJust because we’re digital and work in the cloud doesn’t mean everyone does. If I learned one thing from running my own digital, in the cloud, virtual agency, with upward of 40 active staffers, for five years, it is this: The moment I didn’t treat my client like my No. 1 Valentine is the moment I got dumped. I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but your clients don’t choose you exclusively because of your mad skills. They choose you because they like you, trust you, and want to spend time with you during their work hours. Clients choose you for three reasons: 1) to do the job 2) what hiring you says about them 3) to have a cool new work-time best friend.

We spend upward of 16 hours a day working. We’re all overworked, overwrought, and lonely — and so are our clients. If you’re not spending a lot of your time checking in, catching up, and keeping up with your clients as if they were your boyfriend, girlfriend, or best chum, you’re going to get dumped — especially if you’re not the only game in town.

Your clients may very well spend more time with you than your spouse, so you had better be compatible — the chemistry needs to be there, for sure — but even if there’s no initial love-connection, you can earn it.

Have some fun, you crazy kids

There are a lot of firms that can do the job. But in the end, it comes down to how they feel!

Show your client a good time — have some fun! Be considerate and do what you say you’re going to do. It might seem obvious to me now, but clients choose vendors the same way that we all choose our life partners: We’re looking for someone we like and someone who likes us. Someone who’s fun to spend time with, with whom we have rapport, and someone who’s willing to put other things aside to spend time with us, among other things.

When it comes to love, it comes down to how they feel! There are a lot of people, generally, who can do the job; what folks are looking for when they’re auditioning vendors — whether they are aware of it or not — is someone cool, fun, and generous who they can hang out with, talk to, meet with, and maybe even travel with — all on the clock and the expense account.

Even in companies where there are strict prohibitions on making personal calls or taking luxuriant lunches, meeting with your vendor is a perfectly respectable way to spend the company’s time and money — so why not make sure you actually want to spend the time with someone you like.

Don’t talk business during your date — maintain your ping

Another thing I learned is that most vendors don’t want to talk business when you get together, hang out, play golf, and catch up. One client took me BMW-shopping when I was in town and then invited me to grab drinks with his family and then go clubbing; another one brought me out to get proper Cajun food and then went hunting for authentic zydeco.

Inviting clients and prospects to do things they may never have done is key — just like in dating. I’ve been pistol- and trap-shooting. I have dropped everything and jumped on planes at a moment’s notice just to say “hi” and to have lunch. I have gone golfing, drinking, lunching, and walking. I am not much of a sports fan but most firms in DC have box seats reserved for their clients — and there’s a reason for that!

The kind of time and attention that many of us only invest in the first few dates with the person we love (or would like to) is the kind of inventiveness that we need to invest into all of our clients over the entire course of the contract.

So, if you’re spending more than 20 percent of your time talking business when you’re doing your catching up, you’re being boring. That doesn’t include proper conference calls, weekly calls, or business meetings — those are all business. I am talking about what I call “maintaining ping.” Pinging is either a techie term or it’s a submariner/sonar term that migrated to geekville. Either way, it’s about keeping your clients on sonar and not losing track of any of them at any time.

Relationships demand that you put the time in

However, when it comes to parenting, friendships, love relationships, and client-vendor relationships, I subscribe to the quantity over quality model. Yes, quantity over quality. I say that because just being there, accessible, every day, over time — embedded, even — is almost always preferable to making a few grandiose gestures per year.

Like they say when it comes to child rearing, it’s better to be there for your child on a daily basis — mornings, evenings, and on weekends — than it is to stay at work all the time and then try to make up for it by dropping in from time to time with lavish gifts.

No matter how lavish the gift, it doesn’t matter if the gifted party doesn’t remember who you are or doesn’t really know you very well. Even better, it’s important that your client knows and remembers you for who you are and not just as the guy who sends a lavish gift on their birthday — what about the other 364 days of the year?

Grand gestures do not a stable relationship make

Case in point, I had a CEO whose idea of maintaining clients worth upward of $240k/year each was to send each client a very grand gift, once a year, on their birthdays. He would generally send these high-value clients a bottle of wine or single-malt scotch whisky bottled on their birth-year. While this is indeed a thoughtful, grand, timely, and considerate gift, it’s too little, too late. It’s the grandiose gift of a deadbeat dad who’s trying to overcompensate for being absent rather than the personal, weekly, calls you look forward to from your folks when you’re part of a loving, functional family.

His method of client relationship was “same time next year.” That can’t happen! The client-vendor relationship in the private sector is often very, very chummy.

If you’re not fast friends, you’re doing it wrong

The fellow I went BMW-shopping with and I are close to best friends, and I am always a reference on his resume when he applies for new positions — and he’s always taken me along with his as well. In fact, of the two jobs he’s had in the last four years, both companies have become my clients.

All of this knowledge coalesced together into a lightbulb “aha!” moment when I was re-reading Dale Carnegie‘s How to Win Friends & Influence People. When I first read it, I thought it to be manipulative and even a little coercive in its methods. Over time, I have read deeper and appreciate the truth in the pages.

What I learned is that you cannot emulate or fake caring for and even loving your clients. No, not the brands your clients represent, but the people who engage you — you true point of contact. You might be able to fake it for a quick “seduction” in order to land the work, but if you can’t learn to consider the needs, the feelings, and expectations, and the amusement — the fun — of those human beings who are sticking their necks out and vouching for you and your services then you’re really not going to have repeat clients — no matter how well you perform all of the tricks and stunts as strictly defined in your Statement of Work (SoW).

It’s not you, it’s me

When we lost our biggest client, the one with the whisky, the client gave my CEO the “it’s not you, it’s me” talk but I knew that “we’ve developed your services in-house” was code for “we wouldn’t have needed to end this contract except for the fact that we felt ignored because you didn’t work hard enough to both embed yourself into our company, for one; and secondly, if we were best buds, I wouldn’t have had the heart to end the contract.” It’s true. My CEO thought that our client’s cover story was legit, but I knew otherwise as I started to research into how active we were constantly contacting, engaging, support, and loving on the client — in addition to constantly educating the client and being ceaselessly innovative.

So, whether it’s the exciting start of a new relationship or the maintenance of one that has lasted for years, putting the relationship first is the key. Lots of people do great work — you should, too. But if they don’t want to be around you, eventually they find a reason to say goodbye.

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Chris Abraham is a partner in Socialmedia.biz. Contact Chris via email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.

  • IncrediBILL

    While your overall premise is solid, the problem with treating clients like friends is often they start to expect you to do things as a favor. If you don’t keep the relationship friendly but strictly business you can easily find yourself trapped into doing things for no charge or clients even calling you on late nights, weekends and during your vacation because you’re friends, right? Been there, done that, fired all the clients after that last 3AM call to my personal line outside of business hours.

    • http://chrisabraham.com chrisabraham

       @IncrediBILL If a client doesn’t try to get stuff for free from a vendor they’re not doing their job. Here’s the secret: once you do become BFFs — actually chums — the tables will change: a friend doesn’t take advantage of another friend. In fact, once you become fast chums, your client realizes that it’s not his or her own money.
       
      My above advice is less good, generally, if the client is also the cash purse.  If your clients are mom and pop shops or singletons or self-funding or bootstrapping or running a non-profit then there’s a better chance that that client won’t be able to expense your business romance as easily.
       
      Luckily, my clients have always been national brands and even the dates with the non-profit clients were pretty generous and fun — and nobody asked me to give them stuff for free*.
       
      *By free I don’t mean going the extra mile for a friend — both members of the love connection should be willing to go to bat for eachother — but if you ever feel like you’re being blackmailed or threatened into doing stuff for free, you need to figure out an exit strategy because that client is no BFF of yours.
       
      Part of the “being used” thing has to do with you — if you act like a welcome mat don’t be surprised if you’re walked all over.

    • http://chrisabraham.com chrisabraham

       @IncrediBILL PS: There’s a huge difference between being a client’s BFF and their bitch :)