Building Existing Client Relationships

Many principals of design firms of all sizes have told me that at least 80 to 90 percent of their current project portfolio is repeat clients. While this is obviously an enviable position to be in, I believe that firms and designers do not commit enough resources to growing these types of relationships. As a result, we spin our wheels and expend time and effort on new client acquisition.

Here are three simple steps to help build and continue the client relationship:

1. Put them on the firm’s email list This really simple task builds an informal touch point with your existing as well as potential clients. In fact, whenever you get business cards from individuals, you should make sure that you connect to them on LinkedIn and place them on the firm’s mailing list. Whether or not they open an email blast sent by your firm, you will stay on a person’s radar by showing up in their inbox. You may be surprised at how much your contacts enjoy learning about your firm’s new work, or that the project manager whom they were working with has been promoted to associate principal or principal.

2. Seek out opportunities to learn from your clients We are great at responding to client feedback while engaged in a project, but what do we do when our scope of work is complete? I recommend setting up at least two follow-up meetings with the client following occupancy. The first should be within three months: Call it a celebratory lunch or drinks with the preface that you would like to thank them for being a client, and that you want to learn how you could have served them better throughout the process. Take it one step further and consider introducing them to another principal in the firm. It may be easier for a client to be critical with someone who was not personally vested in the project, and it gives the client an opportunity to meet more of the firm’s leadership. This meeting is also a perfect time to ask if a client would be willing to either serve as a reference or supply a quote for marketing purposes.

The second meeting should be one year after project completion to learn how it has stood the test of time relative to the client’s expectations. Again, premise the meeting as one in which you would like to understand more about the successes and failures of the project from their perspective as the client. I have always found it much easier to get individuals to meet with me, even with their extremely busy schedules, when I make it clear that it is their knowledge that I am seeking. This meeting is not only a good excuse to follow up with the client but it provides an easy conversation opener to see if there are opportunities for new projects in the near or distant future.

3. Recognize important dates or life events and send congratulatory notes
Recently, I was at a project meeting with a client, the chief financial officer of a university, who had just returned from visiting his new granddaughter on the East Coast. Being a new mother myself, we instantly shared baby photos on our phones. At the end of the meeting, I noted the names and birthdates of both of his grandchildren, and once back at the office, I put the dates on my calendar as a reminder to send him an email a day or two before each birthday. These sidebar conversations are great for creating relationships that extend beyond project work, and I now have two more reasons throughout the year to reach out and ask him how Genevieve and Olivia are doing.

Finally, I often take a moment to follow up with handwritten thank-you notes on personal or firm stationary. Besides keeping one’s penmanship sharp in a technology-driven world, you may be amazed at how well individuals respond to written words as opposed to typed. The next time you review your business development plan, consider how much money your marketing team is spending on responding to RFPs and how much more you should ultimately be spending on your existing clients.