Why does it seem that our clients (and prospects) too often take the advice of '70s rock stars when selecting their professional services providers? Perhaps the following story will shed some light.

I Just Awarded That Assignment…

I recently conducted customer research for a client of mine on how often his clients wish to be contacted by their professional service providers. Like most professionals, my client's hypothesis was that his past clients would simply call when they have more work. Like many professional service providers, his assumption was that to contact past clients too often would be an intrusion, an imposition and (worst of all) unprofessional.

As a result, he was following the once-a-year(-or-less) approach to "staying in touch."

My findings, in keeping with what we have witnessed time and time again, can be summarized this way: Almost no service providers contact their current or past clients too often. In fact, it is difficult to do.

A typical conversation with past clients of my client would go something like this:

John Doerr: I am calling for Smith & Jones. Bill Smith did some work for you in the past and I am looking to find out the best ways for him to keep in touch with you in order to stay top of mind.

Client of my Client: How is Bill? I remember the work he did for us. Oh gee, it's been over a year now. How time flies. His approach was so unlike anything we usually get. He was thoughtful, asked great questions, and actually changed what we were looking for. In the end, his suggestions made a huge difference for us.

John Doerr: Bill is doing great.

Client of my Client: Good to hear that. You know, I had forgotten about how good his work was. Too bad you didn't call last week. I just awarded a major assignment that was right up Bill's alley. I am so busy right now. I have trouble remembering things from last week, let alone last year. The assignment came up and I called who I met with most recently. They were in two weeks ago. Too bad for both of us, Bill probably would have been a great choice. Tell him to give me a call soon.

This was not Bill's only client who said this. Bill missed that potential assignment from his client (and now maybe future assignments with as well—if the new provider is good, too). So what could Bill have done better to stay in touch with his clients, staying top of mind without being a pain in the neck?

Five Guidelines for Keeping Top of Mind

Here are five guidelines to make sure the above situation does not happen to you.

  1. Assess the potential: Staying top of mind takes time—something we all seem to have too little of. Before you launch into a six-times-or-more-per-year contact plan, make sure you want to keep in touch. Ask yourself: "How much work will this client potentially have over the next 12 months? Over the next two years? Is it worth my time to make sure we are the first ones they think of for new assignments?"

    As much as we can grow to like our clients on a personal level, not all are worth a continuing business relationship. In addition, freeing ourselves from those with limited potential provides us with the time needed to focus our efforts on those with the greatest potential.

  2. Provide value: The fear of bothering or annoying clients keeps many service providers from contacting them. In some cases, that may actually be the truth, especially if your conversations consist of you asking, "So, what have you got for me this week?" If in each contact you make with your clients you provide some sort of value, they will look forward to hearing from you and ultimately remember you because of the extra value you provide.

    You can provide value in the form of new information about trends in their industry, an article you thought would be of interest to them or simply a perspective on a recent news item about the client's company. Depending on how well you have connected with clients, simply calling them or taking them to lunch can be of value. (But don't rely on your own good company as the value proposition every time.)

  3. Expand their knowledge of you: If you call your clients only once a year, do not be surprised when a client says, "I didn't know you did that, too." It is OK to let clients know about new services or other services you provide that they may not have sampled. If they are happy clients, they will certainly be open to hearing about the other work you do.

    They will be even more receptive to hearing about your services if you provide value in the telling—case studies, nonproprietary data from the work, similarities of problems and solutions, etc.

  4. Change the communication texture: We like variety in our lives. Do not let your communication plan get stuck in the world of electronics. Letters, especially because they are so rare these days, stand out and get through. Hand-written cards, newsletters, brochures and phone calls provide a different feel and impression to your clients.

    By mixing up the vehicles, you stand a better chance of your clients' actually seeing and reading what you have sent. In addition, old-fashioned hardcopy materials will stay on the client's desk and become more than just top of mind—but maybe even closest at hand.

  5. Build the relationship: In the end, professional services are all about relationships. True relationships are honest, sincere and valuable to both parties. As you work to stay top of mind, also be true of heart in developing a relationship that is meaningful and desired as much by the client as it is you.

    The client relationship built on a strong foundation of constant, varied and sincere communication has less of a chance of being pushed aside when someone new comes along or happens to be the last one in the door.

Follow these five guidelines, and the chances of your phone ringing the next time your client needs a service will be much greater.

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image of John Doerr

John Doerr is principal of the Wellesley Hills Group (www.whillsgroup.com), a consulting and marketing services firm that helps service companies to grow. John can be reached at jdoerr@whillsgroup.com.