In my first few months as an e-Learning freelancer, each time I found a new client, I felt amazing. People wanted to work with me! I was getting paid to do what I love! Every new relationship felt like a validating triumph: it was all further proof that I was running a legitimate, successful business.
As time passed, many of my clients stayed with me, some chose to take their business elsewhere, and I lost touch with others. And while a certain ebb and flow of clients is common for freelancers, I nonetheless missed out on a lot of opportunities, because I didn’t understand the importance of retaining customers. So this week, I’d like to take some time to talk about just how important it is to put work into your freelance client relationships—and why a long-term partner is always better than a short-term customer.
The Mindset for Keeping Customers: Think Long Term
When you finish an e-Learning project with a customer, it’s easy to forget about all of the things that have come out of it that you can take advantage of in a future project with the same client. I’ve found that the three most important are:
- Trust. When first working with a new client, it’s important to develop a trusting relationship, and that takes time. On the client’s end, as you work with them, they’ll come to trust in your abilities to produce good work as well as your commitment to achieving their goals. On your end, in a trusting client relationship, you don’t have to worry about how they’ll respond or act. All of this leads to the client being more likely to give you additional business, and you being able to take on that business with minimal worry and stress. While trust is not a tangible benefit, it is the biggest asset you’ll have in all of your customer relationships. Think of it this way: In your first projects with a client, you’ll be investing time and money in building that trust—and it’s better for your business to pursue projects where you don’t have to make that same investment every time.
- Brand Knowledge. As you proceed through a client project, you’ll need to become familiar with their brand—everything from what they stand for to how they want to be represented. If the client has a strong, consistent brand, you won’t have to re-familiarize yourself with their needs each time you work with them. In addition, the more intimately you get to know their brand, the more you build trust with each of your clients, creating a relationship where you can skip the “get to know the brand” stage and skip right to the project’s specific needs. Take a moment to think about this from the client’s side: It’s a lot easier for them to go with someone who understands their brand rather than trying to find someone else and educate them.
- A streamlined negotiation and project set-up process. As you have repeat customers over the years, you’ll find that you’ll save a lot of time just through an understanding of their project launch needs. For example, the client will know the rates you charge going in, and you’ll know what level of detail they want to see in a project proposal. This is another area where intimacy breeds efficiency: The better you understand how they work, the less time you waste while making a project happen.
As you’re thinking about these ideas, I encourage you to think about what your mindset is when you’re courting a new client. Are you pursuing their business for the money, and not thinking past a one-time engagement? That’s part of any freelancer’s goals, certainly, but I’ve found that more success comes from having a long-term relationship be one of your key goals. This can positively affect your behaviors and practices—whether you’re keeping better track of your project documents in the hopes of reusing them later, or simply showing additional respect to the client to build more trust. It can be a challenge to change your thinking from “I just want this project to go well” to “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” but in the long run, the latter will better help you invest in the success of your business.
Your Best Behaviors: The Habits that Keep Clients Sticking Around
So now that you get just why it’s so important to build long-term client relationships, there’s of course an all-important question: How do you do that?
Dianne Gottsman, in her article 9 Simple Ways to Keep Customers Coming Back, states, “Just because customers leave you a positive review doesn’t mean they’ll return for another round. It takes effort to earn their business.” I strongly agree! In her article, she discusses 9 ways to grow your repeat customer base (I’ll summarize here along with my own commentary, but I definitely recommend you read the full article to better understand Ms. Gottsman’s take):
- Stay in touch. After your e-Learning project is completed, make sure you devote time and resources to continue building your relationship with your client. Make a habit of completing micro-tasks to keep in contact with them: Send occasional follow-up emails, or your company newsletter, or even engage with them via social media. I sometimes go so far as to give them a quick call, which can be a great way to get information from them that they haven’t had time to provide via email.
- Assume they won’t remember you. Never forget: You are one of many individuals your customer engages with. As you reach out to them, it’s OK to remind them of how successful you were together on a specific project, or even what you appreciated most about working with them. They key here is a light touch: When you communicate with them, not every message needs to be a hard sell, and in fact, most clients will appreciate a low-pressure message from you, and there’s benefit to keeping your name and successes on their radar.
- Keep the experience fresh and relevant. When you’re reaching out to existing clients, look for opportunities to tell them about what services or skills you’ve developed since they last worked with you. Let them know what’s new (e.g., any new content types or new services you offer), to help them see you as an evolving professional, and to encourage them to think outside of the scope of your previous work. In multiple instances, I’ve used this approach with existing clients and won new business because of it—and when I get a response of “We didn’t know you also offered Service X—let’s get you on this!”, I know I’m doing something right.
- Surprise them. Promotions aren’t just for box stores! Reward your clients for the business they’ve given you by offering them a discount on a referral or on your next e-Learning project. Consider sending them an email or a small gift to let them know you remember a major milestone such as the completion of a successful e-Learning project together, their upcoming birthday, or some recent good press they received.
- Have the right people on the front line. If you’re running your business by yourself, you don’t have to worry about how someone else is representing you and your business, but it’s important to remember to always treat your customer as a customer—which is to say, with due respect. Before every interaction with your long-term customers, remind yourself: Friendly service drives repeat business more than anything else!
- Make it easy for customers to reach you. This may seem like a common sense idea, but it’s easily overlooked: Make sure your customers can reach you easily. If customers have trouble getting in touch with you, you could lose their business, and this is an easy problem to prevent. Make sure your email signature includes multiple ways to communicate. Don’t be afraid to provide a cell phone number to your clients. (If they abuse your availability, consider that they might be a “bad client” and it may be wise to reconsider your relationship with them.)
- Listen. This is another practice that sounds like common sense but is too often ignored in practice. Always listen when you are talking with clients. Remember that when you’re talking, you’re not listening, and that can put you at a disadvantage. (The same goes for waiting to talk: If you’re waiting to talk while they’re talking, you’re not listening.) Pay attention to the feedback they share and send the occasional survey to complete regarding the services you provide. You’ll of course need to ask questions, so I’m not saying don’t talk at all—but I am saying that my biggest successes have come from client relationships where they are doing most of the talking and I’m doing most of the listening. I also make sure to have multiple venues for listening: For example, I often send my clients a link a simple feedback form (that I build with SurveyMonkey) after each e-Learning project is completed.
- Show your appreciation. It’s never, ever a bad idea say “thank you,” (or “you’re welcome” if they thank you first). Manners matter! Not only will clients appreciate your etiquette, but your gratitude will also help them see you as someone who they have positive interactions with. You don’t have to go overboard, but definitely make sure you make time to send appreciations. In my case, I often send handwritten thank-you notes, and many of my clients comment on how much they enjoy receiving them. I also send occasional personalized gifts: I’m a photography buff, so I get a kick out of making custom envelopes and cards with pictures I’ve taken, which shows my clients both how much I appreciate them as well as more about my own creative skill set.
Certainly there’s no “magic formula” to keeping your best customers, but the more effort you put into sustaining and growing your best client relationships, the more successful your business will be. Just remember to set time aside to invest in your own customer retention practices, and remember that it’s impossible for you to keep every customer—so your goal is simply to keep as many customers (ideally, the good ones) as possible through your own customer-retaining behaviors and actions.
What do you do to make sure your customers stick with you? What have been your most successful efforts? I’m eager to hear from everyone about what they’ve found works best—as well as what doesn’t! As always, I invite you to join our private Facebook group, or contribute to the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #eLearningBiz!
Editor’s note: This post is part of my ongoing 2017 series, “Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer,” a comprehensive look at the ins-and-outs of working independently in the Learning and Development industry. All of the previous posts in the series can be found here.