Whether you’re a freelancer or a 500-person development shop, client retention matters. With every new client, you have to explain your service offering, spend time discussing their project, and enlighten them on the possibilities of their project — essentially, put resources into winning the client. Client turnover is especially high in the web service industry, where it is just about impossible to compete on price.
Now, wouldn’t it be great if all your clients were repeat customers, and you could spend more time actually managing projects? In this article, I’ll identify 20 ways to improve your client retention rates and keep clients coming back for more.
The importance of client retention
Client retention is a topic that Brendon Sinclair drills home in SitePoint’s Web Design Business Kit (Psst: you can buy two kits for the price of one up until the end of April! –Ed.). Here’s my take on it:
The best clients are your existing clients. When you’re operating a business, even as a freelance provider, one of the best ways you can ensure you have a supply of ongoing work is to keep existing clients instead of finding new ones. You might be pleasantly surprised by the amount of work your existing clients can give you, and even if they don’t have any future work for you, if they’re happy, they’re still likely to recommend you to a friend or business partner. Unfortunately, you can’t take such recommendations for granted — especially if you freelance.
I once did some consulting for a web development shop building simple web applications. Their work wasn’t terribly innovative, but it did the job and the clients were happy with the output. Business was booming, and the work kept coming in, but there was one problem — the company was constantly on the lookout for new clients. When I contacted a few past customers, most were happy with the work and had since had other projects, but they’d given them to the company’s competitors. Why? One comment summed it up: “We wanted to try someone else."
Client turnover can be a serious problem, but there’s a simple solution: invest in keeping your existing clients! If your clients are happy with the work you’ve done for them in the past, it’s only logical that they will consider coming to you in the future. But it isn’t enough for them just to be happy — they have to be really impressed. To manage that, you have to carefully control your project — a challenge to which there’s quite a science.
20 Tips to Keep Them Coming Back
Let’s look at the tactics you can use to boost your client retention rate. I’ve split these tips into three key areas — tips around dealing with the clients themselves, tips around project management, and tips relating to the business side of the equation.
When you’re managing your business and dealing with all the work that’s coming in, it’s easy to lose sight of the actual clients. Here are some techniques for managing your clients and their satisfaction levels.
1. Pick your best bets.
This could be one of the best business decisions you make all year. As you stay in business over time, you’ll find that 80% of your work comes from 20% of your clients. So take a broader look at your operations, work out which clients comprise that 20%, and focus on them. Don’t neglect your other clients, of course, but concentrate your efforts on monitoring projects for this 20%, and make sure everything’s running smoothly.
2. Drop the jargon.
When you’re communicating with clients via email, instant messages, over the phone or in person, drop the jargon. Leave technicalities out of communications unless the client has specifically requested technical details. Using technical terms alienates the client, and can create misunderstandings that result in a breakdown in communication. I once spoke with a client who thought AJAX referred to the animated pulsing icons commonly used on Web 2.0-style sites (ajaxload.info, anyone?). Dropping the jargon puts you and your client on the same page, so you can communicate clearly and effectively.
3. Show that you’ve done your homework.
When you’re building a web application for your client, chances are that the application relates to their field of expertise, not yours. They may be the expert on the area, and you could learn the background from them, but you’ll really impress them if you do your homework. Research the area a little before your first meeting; Wikipedia is always a good place to start, while online articles can give you a good idea of the state of the industry. Interviewing existing customers is a great source of direction. By conducting these basic investigations, your client will appreciate that you’re coming to the table with experience in the field, and will be more likely to trust you with further work in the area.
4. Involve them.
Even once you’ve done your homework, you’ll need to use your client as your point of reference. You aren’t an expert in the field; they are. And when you’re planning your application, the best way to learn more about what the field involves is by talking to your client. Any non-technical project planning stage should involve your client significantly; briefly run drafts past them, fire off questions via email, and meet regularly to ensure you’re on track.
5. Know your client.
It can really pay to get to know your client. I’m not talking about their business or industry (although that helps too), but the clients themselves. Find out a bit about them — they might have an online biography, or maybe you can just tell what they’re into. Sweetening their self-interest can go a long way, and by getting to know your client you can identify how to best appeal to them personally. For example, if they’re into horse racing, maybe you can schedule a meeting with them at the local racecourse. Your thoughtfulness will leave a lasting impression, and they’ll be glad of it.
6. Get feedback.
Your clients will constantly be forming opinions about your progress, your general performance, the quality of your service, and so on. So why not take advantage of those opinions? Next time you meet with a client, finish up by asking them what they think of your work on the project so far. It’s a reasonable, non-threatening way to get some feedback from them, and it can help you to hone in on the areas that matter.
7. Make it fun.
At the end of the day, the best way to get results from your clients is to make sure they have fun. Make a meeting interesting and enjoyable. Humour always helps. Setting your clients at ease will help you to gain more insightful comments and useful feedback from them. Once your clients genuinely enjoy attending your meetings and discussing the project, you can really get moving.
There are a lot of project management methodologies in the world. Each suits different situations, management styles, and people. I say, if you want results, forget them all and work out what’s best for you — try out some of these ideas.
8. Overdocument the project
I can’t stress this enough. Whatever you do in your project, overdocument it. Actually, there’s no such thing as overdocumenting — you can never have enough useful documentation. Don’t keep churning out pages and pages for their own sake, but if something comes up in the project — a major design decision is being taken, for instance — record it in the documentation, and some kind of concise project log. Finally, give your client and staff access to this documentation and encourage them to use it. Your client will appreciate having access to this knowledge about their project, and you can avoid quite a few common problems when everyone involved knows where the project stands.
9. Stick to constraints.
There’s a golden rule to project scheduling: you can only have two of “Good", “Fast" and “Cheap". I regard these as the three constraints on any project, and the key to successful scheduling (and happy clients) is working out what your client’s constraints are. For example, a major multinational corporation might want a project done well and quickly, with budget blowouts kept manageable, whereas an individual might simply want the project delivered quickly and within budget.
Chances are you will be pushing one of these constraints by the end of the project, and smoothing things over with your clients is much easier when they can afford to be flexible in that area. Most can handle a slight delay in project completion, while some would rather pay to hire some freelancers and get the job done on time. Either way, you avoid pushing clients to their limits in ways that hurt them.
10. Secluded planning.
Project planning is tricky. If multiple people will contribute to the final product, avoid allowing them to discuss the project planning with each other. Everyone’s opinion counts, but the moment your developers start discussing a project, their opinion will start to drift towards the collective opinion. Different developers have different ideas; some may be good, some may be bad, but they all count. Have your team members plan separately, then approach them individually to discuss their thoughts so that you can pick out the best ideas.
11. Underpromise, overdeliver.
Give clients just a little bit extra. There are few better ways to impress a
client than by beating a deadline, adding bonus functionality to the software, or just providing extra useful documentation. Going above and beyond, if only a little, will show to your clients not only that you’re on top of the work and capable of managing the project, but that you’re doing it so well that you can even offer some extras within budget.
12. Meet twice a day.
However you want to set out your day, leave time for meetings. Whether you’re a two-person shop, or you have an entire floor of developers, meeting regularly helps the flow of information and makes sure everyone involved knows where the project stands. Meet twice a day — early in the morning and right before the end of the day are good options — and ask everyone to spend a minute discussing what they’ve done during the day, any decisions they made along the way, and where their part of the project is at. Meetings don’t need to be long or even formal; they simply need to bring everyone together and keep everyone informed.
13. Developers are the stars.
If you’re a project manager, chances are that you won’t do much work on the
actual product or service you’re selling — your developers do. So when it comes to discussing initial requirements with your client, why should you be the one helping the client make decisions? For any meeting that involves design decisions — such as how the front end of the application will look, how administration can be managed, or what menu items are available — bring along one of your developers, even if they only drop in for five or ten minutes.
With their current, real-world experience, your developers know what is and isn’t possible, and what works. They can share this knowledge with the client to really get the project’s planning off to a good start. Chances are that your developer’s suggestions will seem so obvious to them that they would be implemented anyway; this way, your planning gives you a clearer picture of the final product. Your clients will also appreciate having a helping hand with their side of the project planning.
14. Talk to everyone.
More often than not, your client is only a contact person — a representative of a larger organisation, and a larger user base within that organisation. If you know a particular department or group of people will be using your final product, talk to everyone involved about what they want to get out of the final product. It’s preferable to meet with everyone, but for larger groups, you might need to send a brief questionnaire. Don’t write a single line of code until you’ve got feedback from most of the eventual user base. Detailed, comprehensive surveys of the user base help you identify what users really want, which features are important, which usability aspects matter, and so on.
At the end of the day, of course, you’re selling a product or service to a business. Be it someone’s personal business, or a thousand-employee corporation, the goals of this business should be paramount in the product or service you’re developing. If what you’re providing furthers their business goals, the client will be much more likely to come back to you for further work, as they’ll know you’re worth every cent.
15. Quality first, best practices second
Contrary to popular belief, clients will pay for high-quality web services, but first you have to make sure they can value that quality, and best practices don’t count. If what you’re providing will function exactly the same as a product from an offshore outsourcing firm, why should the client hire you? Your client can’t appreciate that you had a strict variable naming convention in your code — that’s meaningless to them. However, they can appreciate that your interface is easy to use, or your pages load quickly. Often they may not recognise quality work — make sure you point out useful features of the final product in a project debriefing. It’s important to draw the distinction between quality and best practices — there are many best practices that are helpful, but for small, one-off projects, some will be unnecessary and a waste of time, especially if they’re new to your developers. Give your clients quality in a way they can appreciate, but make it clear that you’re doing so.
16. Remember who’s the boss on each side of the equation
There are two sides to every project: the development, and the business. There are experts on each side: in general, you’re the expert on development, and the client is the expert on the business (their business, actually). Keep this in mind while you’re planning out your project. Have the client identify what the business needs while your developers work out how to implement it. A project manager can be the middle man, deciding what will make it into the final product and what won’t.
The key here is to avoid blurring the line. For example, your developers might suggest you integrate the project with existing systems, but unless there’s a business case for doing so, it may be a waste of time, and create its own problems. On the other hand, maybe the client wants to add AJAX for the sake of AJAX — steer them well clear unless you can see it’s worthwhile. Let your client and project manager decide what the business needs, have the developers decide how to implement it, and leave it at that.
17. Tight control over costs
As a project manager, you need to maintain tight control over the project. Many, if not most, software projects take longer than expected or require budget increases if they are to be completed on time. The key to avoiding such problems is to plan the project in detail and monitor the project to ensure it’s following the plan as closely as possible.
For example, get regular status reports. When you’re planning your project and identifying subtasks, break down those tasks so that your developers can give you some kind of status update at the end of each day. Just a brief line will do — an “FYI, I’ve finished task 39" email is enough. The moment something isn’t going according to plan, make sure you know about it, and do something about it. If you encounter a delay and soon find that you aren’t catching up, you might be able to cut out a little here and there, or outsource certain tasks. No matter what, if you see a delay, don’t leave dealing with it until it’s too late.
Delays and cost blowouts can seriously damage a client’s faith in your business. Take control and keep a project within the constraints as closely as possible. This will boost your client’s perception of your ability to manage future projects.
18. Keep talking.
You’re in an industry here. And it isn’t a static industry. It’s a dynamic, constantly moving industry and one that, more often than not, your clients have very little idea about. So keep talking. Whenever you discuss the project with the clients, let them know of the state of play; while planning designs, for example, mention what the current interface design principles are. From background information to success stories, keeping your clients informed will help them work with you while planning, and reinforces the impression that you truly are an expert in your field.
19. Get that maintenance contract.
Of course, while worrying about the client’s business, you also have to keep your own in mind. Every application requires some kind of maintenance, be it minor updates, feature additions, or content changes. Before you close the project, bring up the issue of a maintenance contract. I usually find that an email works best. Let the clients know that you believe the product will require maintenance, and that you can provide this maintenance, briefly mentioning your payment structure. A flat fee per year for general “quick fixes" can create additional revenue streams for minimal work input. More importantly, however, once you’ve built the original product and are handling the maintenance, the client will be more inclined to hire you for future work.
20. Keep selling.
Finally, keep selling your products and services. Many clients are interested in future purchases, and if you follow these tips they’ll be perfectly happy to task you with them. The problem is that so many clients don’t know what they’re after. For example, now that they’ve got a client management system, maybe they’ll need a project management system to go with it? Make sure your client knows not just which services you provide, but what they could hire you for.
You may find your clients have a problem that could easily be solved with a software application, but they simply don’t realise that you can help them solve it. If you see an opportunity, mention the potential project to the client; if you’ve built a similar system in the past, check that it’s working and offer them a test drive. If they see something that’s genuinely useful, you could just have another sale on the cards.
Keep ‘em Coming Back
Keeping your clients coming back for more is really the best thing you can do for your business. Repeat customers are easy to handle, and they “know the drill", so to speak.
Keep the tips we’ve discussed here in mind when you’re managing your clients, and you’ll leave a lasting impression. When you’ve worked with a client once, you’ll understand how to best manage that client and their projects, and you can deliver results — and a higher profit margin. Get your client retention right and you’re set for success!