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I think that like most things all of us in business have over thought the simple.
We’ve made obtaining and retaining customers overcomplicated and convoluted. You begin to feel if you don’t have the latest CRM gadget you will not be able to gain a single customer.
Learning how to manage your customer relationships do not have to be that hard. In fact, it can become natural. A natural outgrowth of truly desiring to delight your customers.
Once you begin to truly want to delight your customers in any way possible, a lot of the techniques and tricks that have popped up surrounding customer management will begin to fade.
And in its place, you will find true customer resonance.
So how do we get there? Come on lets find out…
Managing Customer Relationships: High-Level Objectives and Priorities
There are a few important fundamentals that are going to apply to multiple categories at once. Master these, and you’ll be well on your way to better customer relationship management:
1. Make the customer’s objectives your objectives.
Your first step in managing customer relationships is to align your objectives with your customer’s. Your business has its own set of objectives, such as making a profit, selling as much as possible, and following certain procedures. But if customer relationships are important to you, they should sometimes take precedence; for example, if you usually sell combination web design and web development packages, but your client already has designs drawn up, consider offering a development-only package to fit their needs. Compromise is key here, even though you won’t always be able to compromise; the trick is to lean toward the client’s objectives whenever you can, and learn to withdraw or bow out if you can’t meet those objectives.
2. Under-promise and over-deliver.
You’ve probably heard this advice a million times in your career, but it really is that important. Too many new account managers and inexperienced professionals try to make a bold impression or land a new sale by promising more than they can reasonably deliver; they get aggressive when setting deadlines, project low costs, or pledge features and services they can’t truly accommodate. Inevitably, they end up disappointing clients. Instead, under-promise and over-deliver—surpassing expectations instead of missing them. It leaves a great impression and builds trust and confidence.
3. Respect their time.
Everyone is concerned with time management, to some degree, and time is important to your client. It’s important that you respect their time, and understand that your business relationship isn’t necessarily their main goal or priority. Whenever possible, shorten their time obligations (e.g., send shorter emails, host shorter meetings, etc.), and try not to bother them in the meantime. Also, don’t automatically expect them to attend meetings or answer phone calls; respect their other responsibilities.
4. Observe and adapt.
I could list hundreds of tips to make your clients happy, but there’s a problem—not all of them will work equally well with every client, or for every business. There are simply too many variables at play when it comes to business relationships and personal relationships; there’s no one set of procedures that will always work. Accordingly, your best course of action is to constantly observe and adapt. How does this client operate? How are they responding? What’s working and what isn’t? Use these insights to tweak your approach over time to managing customer relationships.
Managing Customer Relationships: Onboarding
First impressions matter. When you’re bringing clients on, or working with them for the first time, it’s important to set the right tone. A good first impression can provide the runway for a long-term, successful partnership—but a bad first impression can jeopardize your chances.
5. Meet face-to-face at least once.
I think email is the best communication medium overall. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it leaves a permanent trail. But it has weaknesses, and I’m not reluctant to admit that. You can’t convey tone or body language over email, and it’s harder to make a personal connection. That’s why I recommend always meeting your clients face-to-face at least once, and preferably early on in the process. Depending on the nature of your relationship, more face-to-face meetings may be warranted.
6. Break the ice and get personal.
The first meeting is going to set the tone for your entire relationship. Most people take this as a cue to be as polished and professional as possible. While this is generally a good thing, it can also make you seem stilted, cold, or robotic. In addition to maintaining an aura of professionalism, try to break the ice—crack some jokes, make small talk, and work to establish a real, human connection with your customers.
7. Send new or long-time customers a physical gift.
When I was working as CEO of my marketing agency in my last job, we started an initiative where we would send a gift basket to new customers with a custom thank-you note for trusting us with their marketing goals. It resulted in lots of positive feedback, including publicly on Twitter, like this one!
Got a real nice gift from @AudienceBloom today! Nice touch guys, but this is NOT helping with my diet! @jaysondemers pic.twitter.com/RB9batoJYc
— Ryan Bartlett (@seo_direct) July 18, 2014
You can send gift baskets easily to anyone from Amazon.com, and it’s not that expensive – you can find them in the range of $20-40. It adds a real-life touch to your relationship, especially if you mostly deal with clients in an online or digital capacity only. A gift basket full of treats lasts for days, and can be shared with the whole office, which makes everyone’s attitude toward your brand instantly favorable. It helps with customer retention, too!
8. Set goals together.
Taking the time to set goals together is vital, for a few reasons. First, it allows you to thoroughly understand your customer’s definition of success, while also setting proper expectations on how you can help them achieve those goals. Second, it gives you something concrete to work for; no matter what, you can always compare your progress to this goal. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it’s an opportunity to engage with your customer. Don’t let them see you as a simple arm of their organization, or a cleanup crew to take care of something they want to do. Instead, make them see you as partners working toward a common goal. This sets the tone for a productive, lasting, and mutually beneficial partnership.
Managing Customer Relationships: Communication
Managing customer relationships depends on your ability to communicate effectively, both in terms of conveying your ideas accurately and in terms of managing customer expectations and feelings.
9. Be transparent and open.
Transparency and openness are necessary if you want to build trust, and they can go a long way in preventing (and smoothing over) hard feelings after a mistake. Transparency requires that you’re honest and upfront about how your organization works; when asked a question, you should answer honestly. When talking about your process, don’t exaggerate anything. If your client ever finds out you’re lying, or that you’re hiding something significant, they may never trust you again.
10. Acknowledge uncertainty.
In all forms of communication, client managers love to be seen as experts. This desire is completely understandable; if you can provide better insights and more trustworthy efforts, clients will be less likely to consider a competitor. However, too many novices use this as an excuse to make things up, or provide an incomplete answer. Ultimately, this works against you. It’s typically better to acknowledge your own uncertainty, so long as you do it positively; for example, say “that’s a really good question, but I’m not 100 percent sure on the answer. Let me research and get back to you so I can address your query confidently.”
11. Meet at regular intervals.
Most people don’t “like” meetings, but they’re an important opportunity to exchange information openly in a group. It’s also a good chance to catch up in general. No matter what your objectives are or how you operate, meeting with clients regularly is a good idea. The exact intervals and meeting agendas will depend on the nature of your business and the nature of your relationship.
12. Don’t make the client come to you with questions.
For the most part, if a client comes to you with a question, like “what kind of results should I expect?” or “how exactly do you do this?”, it’s a sign that you’ve got some work to do. It’s your job to make everything clear from the outset, and if something changes in the course of your work, it’s your responsibility to notify them. The only exception here is if your client forgets something you’ve explained in the past or needs a refresher; the main point is to be proactive.
13. Be clear about the client’s responsibilities.
Sooner or later, you’ll need the client to provide something, whether it’s a file, an answer to a question, or a piece of contact information. Don’t assume they’re going to provide this to you, and don’t be ambiguous with your requests. Be clear and upfront about what you need from the client, and be prepared to follow up if they aren’t timely in their response (without overloading them with email).
14. Always meet deadlines.
Managing customer relationships means managing deadlines carefully; these are real make-or-break moments for your client relationships. If you miss a deadline with no forewarning, even once, you may never be able to fully restore a customer’s trust. Watch your deadlines closely, never assuming you’re going to meet them without evidence. If you ever get an indication that you might be late on something, address it as soon as possible, explain why, and do what you can to get back on track.
15. Be proactive with recommendations.
Are you sensing a theme with proactivity? As the expert in your field, you should have recommendations for your client, whether it’s new services to enlist, different tactics to take on, or a new direction for their strategy. Be proactive, thorough, and frequent with these recommendations to prove your value. Just be careful if you’re recommending additional services; you don’t want to come across as a pushy salesperson.
16. Contradict the customer when it’s in their best interest.
“The customer’s always right” is a fine sentiment, but an inaccurate statement, especially if they’re coming to you as an expert in your field. If the client makes a request that violates best practices or otherwise isn’t the best course of action, let them know. Be polite about it, but don’t be afraid to assert your opinion. You’ll likely earn more respect and trust—not to mention getting better results in the campaign.
Managing Customer Relationships: Troubleshooting
Inevitably, things are going to go wrong when managing customer relationships. You’ll miss a deadline, forget a document, or otherwise embarrass yourself in front of the client. Yikes. But don’t worry, these missteps happen even to the most experienced professionals; what really matters is what you do next.
17. Keep a cool head.
The most important thing is to stay calm. If you sound panicky or eagerly apologetic in your communications, your client is going to think two things: one, the situation is worse than they think, and two, you aren’t able to control your own emotions. Don’t let this happen. Instead, use deep breathing, meditation, or whatever other strategies you want to stay in charge of your emotions and keep a flat affect.
18. Stay positive and future-focused.
Keep all your messages and intentions focused on the future, and be optimistic about it. It’s important to acknowledge what went wrong in the past (as we’ll see in the next point), but don’t dwell; instead, talk about what you’re going to do next. Sure, things are bad, but how are they going to get better?
19. Admit to your mistakes.
That said, admit to your mistakes. Nobody is perfect, so if you try to make excuses for whatever went wrong, you’re going to come off as desperate, or deceitful, with no personal accountability. Instead, it’s usually much more effective to explain what went wrong on your end; for example, was it a flawed internal process? A miscommunication between coworkers? An app failure? You’ll earn more respect and trust this way, and you’ll also get the chance to explain how you’ll prevent this from happening in the future.
20. Restore and make up for problems.
This is an obvious tip, but an important one. If you make a mistake or encounter a problem that comes with bad results for the client, do what you can to make up the difference. A discount on a future purchase, a free additional service, or a partial refund can serve as a gesture that you care about this client and you understand the extent of your mistake.
Managing Customer Relationships: Portfolio Control
Understand that how you manage your client portfolio will also play a role in how well you manage your client relationships. Let me explain.
21. Assign designated point people whenever possible.
Customers typically prefer to have one dedicated person to contact at your organization, even if that person is responsible for multiple customers. It helps them focus their messages and efforts, and gives them more of a chance to develop a personal bond. This person will be responsible for ongoing communications, service management, and a collection of other responsibilities meant to improve the customer relationship. Don’t try to split these responsibilities among multiple people for a single client.
22. Understand that not all clients are equal, and divide attention accordingly.
Some clients are more valuable than others, from a revenue or profitability standpoint. Some clients are needier than others, requiring more meetings and more attention. Some clients are more straightforward or “conventional” than others. Understand this, and balance your efforts accordingly; if a low-revenue, unconventional, needy customer is demanding your attention, you may need to scale back your resource allocation to them in favor of a straightforward, minimalistic, revenue-heavy customer.
23. Always part on good terms.
Some customers may have needs that are too complex, or may otherwise not be a good fit for your organization. When you discover them, firing them may be the best option. If you do have to part ways, make sure you don’t burn the bridge; even if you never talk to this customer again, they may leave reviews or make recommendations that affect your business’s customer-facing reputation in the future.
As you’ve come to learn, the most important ingredient in managing customer relationships is your ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and consistently.
Awareness of customer needs
Unless you know what your customers need, you’ll struggle to attract their attention and convince them to do business with you. Knowing your industry’s priorities is an essential part of demonstrating your value to prospects and building relationships.
One of the best ways to learn more about your target market is by surveying existing customers to learn about what they do and don’t value. You can do this using online surveys and interview forms that simplify gather information.
Join over 200 students and learn how to survey your customers to learn what keeps them coming back to your business in our course, How to Interview Your Customers and get Useful Feedback.
Direct marketing skills
Many businesses carefully monitor the amount of money they spend on customer acquisition, but not their time. Your time is valuable, and being able to quantify the value of your time makes calculating your relationship management ROI simple.
Learn the basics of direct marketing – from the cost of your time to improving your sales conversion rate – and you’ll find it easier to form business relationships with new customers and maintain links with your existing customer base.
Time is money, and tracking your time makes calculating your return on investment from customer service easy. Learn more about tracking key performance indicators for your business in our blog post on KPIs to track using your sales dashboard.
The ability to connect with strangers
Reaching out to prospects and turning them into customers isn’t easy. Even the most capable salespeople feel anxiety and fear when a certain prospect has less interest in doing business than they previously imagined.
One of the most important relationship management skills is the ability to get along with strangers. From cold calls to prospect met at trade shows and events, the skill of conversion and persuasion makes relationship management far easier.
Do you struggle to make conversation with prospects? Learn how to get ahead and turn cold leads into loyal, satisfied customers using the sales and networking skills in our Power of Persuasion course.
Ambition and motivation
An ambitious, motivated attitude is essential for business success. People that are willing to reach out to prospects and call existing customers to learn what they’re interested in almost always excel past their complacent, passive counterparts.
There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious in sales and customer service – in fact, in the age of automated customer service and online support forms, plenty of your customers will appreciate speaking to a representative that cares about them.
With a motivated, ambitious and results-focused attitude, you’ll never struggle to connect with your customers and learn what they need. Need help staying focused and motivated? Enroll in our Motivation Booster course for entrepreneurs.
Sales funnel knowledge
It’s a lot harder to get your first customers than it is to get your second. Many small businesses struggle with relationship management because they can’t acquire new customers at the right cost and pace for constant growth.
One of the most important relationship management skills is the ability to acquire new customers while retaining existing ones. The easiest way to do this is with an automated, systematized sales funnel.
Do you need to create a customer acquisition system to develop new relationships and increase your customer base? Enroll in our How to Build a Customer Factory course and learn the secrets to turning complete strangers into customers.
Strategic thinking skills
When you’re managing less than 100 customers, it’s possible to get by without any strategy. However, when you’re managing relationships with tens of thousands of customers, the ability to form strategies becomes essential for success.
Regardless of how good your customer service skills are, it’s impossible to manage relationships using a team without a strategy in place. From guides for solving the most common problems to simple principles, relationship strategies matter.
Are you transitioning from an independent relationship management role into the head of a customer service team? Learn how to build a customer service strategy in our blog post on strategizing for customer experience.
CRM software knowledge
Managing thousands of customers is far from simple. By using modern customer relationship management (CRM) software, you can keep a record of interactions with customers across your entire organization.
From Salesforce.com to Zoho CRM, knowing how to use the most common CRM applications will give you a huge advantage in maintaining relationships across large companies and organizations, as well as forming new ones.
Are you managing a sales and customer service team that uses Salesforce? Learn how to use Salesforce.com as an administrator and control your CRM software in our Salesforce.com Admin Essentials for Beginners course.
Big picture thinking
Customer service and relationship management isn’t just about keeping customers interested in doing business with you – it’s about forming relationships that allow your business to evolve alongside its customers.
Because of this, it’s essential to have knowledge of the bigger picture – the way your business fits into the lives and needs of your customers. What benefits do you bring to the table, and why do customers do business with you instead of a competitor?
In many ways, relationship management is about positioning your business as the best choice in your market. Learn how to position your business as a leaders in its industry and customer favorite in our Market Positioning course.
A friendly, personal attitude
When you do business with another company, you aren’t dealing with a monolithic corporate entity, but with the people that it’s composed of. Being able to stay both professional and friendly is one of the key features of successful managers.
Try to strike a balance between the importance of professionalism and the benefits of being friendly and sociable with key customers and clients. In many industries – particularly IT – a less formal attitude is often a benefit in forming relationships.
Do you have trouble starting conversations with customers and prospects? Learn how to connect with customers like a close friend with our course, The Fine Art of Communication.
Fantastic research skills
From finding someone’s email address to locating journalists that are interested in writing your product, being able to research your target audience and learn how to contact them is essential for forming business relationships.
One of the best ways to research people is through creative outsourcing. With a VA (virtual assistant) on your team, it’s possible to dig up new prospects and learn how to contact them while you focus on your daily to-do list.
Client Relationship Management Strategies
Saying relationships are the heart of business success and actually prioritizing relationships are two totally different things. The latter takes a lot of hard work over a lengthy period of time, but there’s no better time to start than now. Here are seven client relationship management strategies to consider.
1. Respect the Client’s Time
Time is the most precious and finite resource you and your clients have. If you want to build healthier relationships, you have to respect their time. Here are a couple of ideas to help you do that:
- Don’t just tell a client to drop by if they want to meet with you. You’ll inevitably be in the middle of something and have to make them wait. Open yourself up to clients and allow them to schedule appointments with you. There are free tools that can automate appointment scheduling.
- Small talk is definitely part of building relationships, but recognize when it’s time to talk shop. Don’t waste a client’s time. Get straight to business and you’ll be seen as respectful and self-aware.
This might seem like a really small thing, but it sets the tone for the rest of the relationship. When you extend respect, you’re telling your client that they matter to you — it doesn’t get much better than that.
2. Get Face to Face
“When things go wrong and the client knows, call. Email does not always translate circumstances or feelings well as there is no voice inflection and a client usually places more value on a phone call,” entrepreneur Marshall Zierkel suggests.
While Zierkel is right — a phone call is better than an email — there’s something that’s even better than a phone call: meeting in person. If at all possible, you should get face to face with clients — when things go right, wrong, or are otherwise indifferent. The more you’re able to be face to face with a client, the stronger your bond will grow.
3. UNDER Promise and OVER Deliver
It’s a cliché saying, but it can’t be stressed enough: under promise and over deliver. If you make this a habit, you’ll rarely put yourself in a situation where you’ll let a client down. Instead, you’ll dramatically increase your chances of looking good — even when you barely exceed your own expectations.
4. Don’t Burn Bridges With Pettiness
How many times do you let small, petty things cost you a relationship with a client? Entrepreneur Craig Valine is one of the first to admit how dumb he used to be in this area. As he explains, there was a time where “I wouldn’t return phone calls; I wouldn’t follow-up with a referral from a client; I’d miss an appointment and not call to apologize; I wouldn’t pay my vendors on time; I’d squabble over a few dollars; or I’d act apathetic from a good deed from another.”
How many times have you let something small and petty cost you a relationship with a client? If you’re honest, burning a bridge rarely turns out to be a positive thing when you look back on a situation. Try to understand this and be willing to lose the battle in order to win the war.
5. Set Mutual Goals
Do you ever feel like you and your client are on totally different pages? Well, it’s probably because you are. You have your objectives and your client has his. The solution to this common issue is to set mutual goals from the very beginning.
As soon as you start a new project with a client, sit down together — face to face, if possible — and come up with mutual goals. This puts you both on the same page and gives you something to point to later on when challenges arise.
6. Build Credibility Over Time
It takes time to build credibility, so stop trying to make it happen overnight. So what if a client doesn’t fully trust you the first or second time you meet? You haven’t done anything to make him trust you!
Remember that trust takes years to build and can be destroyed in a matter of minutes. Be consistent and methodical in how you deal with your clients. Focus on slowly building credibility with each and every thing you do and say. With this sort of conscious precision, you’ll eventually wake up and realize that you have healthy client relationships that are defined by trust.
7. Be Transparent and Human
Stop trying to be such a polished version of yourself in front of customers. In an effort to clean yourself up, you’re actually cheapening your image and transforming yourself into someone you aren’t. They don’t want some ideal image of you. They want the real deal.
Mistakes are going to happen and it’s much better to be open about them. This proves that you’re human and, while they may be frustrated at the moment, it ultimately puts them at ease.
How Are Your Relationships?
How would you grade your client relationships on a scale of 1 to 10 right now? If you’re like most, you’d probably struggle to honestly reach a 5 or 6. You might even fall closer to the 1 end of the spectrum, which is — unfortunately — totally normal these days.
In an effort to push your business to the next level, you have to start prioritizing client relationships over things that really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. It’s hard work, but the payoff can be tremendous.