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Winning — and Keeping — Sticky Clients

The hardest challenge for any marketer is pitching a product or a service to a new client. According to a survey conducted by Sales & Marketing Magazine, it takes more than twice the effort and costs 133 percent more money to sell a product to a new customer than to pitch it to an old one. Because trust has already been won, the selling is easier, the return on the cost of the marketing is higher and the business grows faster. It’s always worth knowing how to find and keep your clients over the long term.

And it’s worth it because the benefits of client retention don’t end with the ease of future pitching. According to Frederick Reichheld, author of The Loyalty Effect, a client who sticks with a business is likely to:

  • increase their spending, turning small jobs into big ones;
  • be less price-sensitive than new clients, allowing the seller to maintain and even raise their pricing;
  • and generate more referrals, bringing in more and better clients.

The longer a freelancer can keep his or her clients then, the more success their business should enjoy.

Sticky Clients Aren’t for Everyone

Not all businesses though lend themselves easily to client retention. A designer who specializes in logos, for example, will struggle to keep the same clients coming back for a new design on a regular basis. A sales letter writer is unlikely to find that a client needs a new landing page written every week. And once a piece of code  has been written and works, a freelance programmer is unlikely to be asked to write it again.

Those one-off jobs though could be used to tail-end a client into more long-term projects. Once a logo has demonstrated the designer’s talent, that designer would have an advantage when the client needs someone to produce their Web page or lay out their packaging materials. If the sales page generates conversions, then the blog that comes with it should need regular content to bring in traffic. And while the code might work, it will also need updating if it’s going to stay competitive.

Short-term jobs are worth pitching for but the pitching should always be done with an eye on the possibility of using the project as a showcase for more valuable work.

Pushing for that work though — and letting the client know that you’re available to do it — will take a little effort. Airlines, cafes and supermarkets use loyalty programs to keep customers coming back and away from the arms of competitors; they give buyers an incentive whose value is clear and measurable, whether it takes the form of a flight upgrade or a free cup of coffee. Every time they place an order and present their loyalty number, those clients are reminded of the reward that their loyalty can bring.

Some online companies do the same thing. The Teaching Company, for example, rewards previous buyers with regular updates that include discounts as large as 70 percent.

It’s not a strategy that translates easily from products to services though. When a company gives away a product, the cost of the offer is lower than the value enjoyed by the customer — businesses buy their products at wholesale prices. When a service provider agrees to complete a small project for free or cuts a percentage from the invoice though, the cost in lost hours is the same as the benefit.

But it is possible to do, provided the offer is chosen carefully and the value of the returning business outweighs the cost of the discount.

A harder challenge will be making that offer in the first place.

How to Keep Your Clients

The survey conducted by Sales & Marketing Magazine appears to have focused on telesales, a notoriously difficult way of making pitches. The Teaching Company however, delivers its loyalty rewards through newsletters by email to addresses captured at time of purchase. Even if that particular reward isn’t one that every buyer wants, it can be enough to keep a previously hired service provider in a former client’s mind.

Finding and keeping sticky clients then, tends to boil down to three strategies:

1. Focusing on long-term jobs.

Not all projects have the capacity to stretch on endlessly. Invest more time in pitching for projects that are ongoing and you should find that you’re picking up more sticky clients.

2. Maintaining contact with clients current and old.

To turn short-term clients into long-term clients, you’ll need to make sure that all your clients know you’re available and happy to continue working with them. Winning sticky clients is as much about communication management as it is about project management.

3. Make the rewards count.

Discounts are one way to reward long-term custom but perhaps the best way to implement special offers is naturally, by not charging for work that takes little time, especially small corrections or additions that are difficult to bill. Waiving the fee for a new icon design or a few extra lines of text should build gratitude and cement a relationship. Gifts on special occasions can help too (as long as they’re a bit more tasteful than this one.)

But even without offering rewards for long-term loyalty, freelancers should naturally bring a real value to clients over the long-term. The more a service provider understands the business they’re supplying, the easier the work becomes for both sides. The supplier knows what the client needs, and learns to produce it faster and more efficiently, and the buyer also knows what to expect and understands that he won’t need to ask for changes. To hire a new supplier means taking a risk that the service won’t be delivered exactly the way they want or the way they’re used to receiving it.

One of the best ways of creating clients who trust you, depend on your services and want to continue using you is to make yourself look irreplaceable.

And the best method of all is to remember that companies are filled with staff doing the work that someone once thought only they could do.

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