Thursday, April 5, 2012

How to Get Repeat Business from Your Clients (contributed by Adriana Beal)

Adriana Beal (www.adrianabeal.com) spent 5 years as the principal consultant at a small IT consulting firm in Brazil, followed by 5 years as a consultant with a NY-based human capital boutique serving Fortune 500 companies. She now works for a large technology company as an internal IT Business Consultant. Adriana has two technical books published in Brazil, and work internationally published by IEEE and IGI Global.

Any consultant, working independently or as part of a consultancy firm, knows that getting repeat business from existing clients is at least as important as finding new clients. When I started providing consulting services to a variety of clients in different industries, I realized that I could classify my clients into two groups:
  • Organizations that needed my help for a specific reason that is unlikely to repeat for a long time (for example, a pension fund that no longer needed my services after implementing my recommendations from a fraud risk assessment).
  • Organizations that could benefit from my services from time to time, if they liked the results of the work performed (the majority of my clients).
Obviously, nothing changed in the effort I put into a consulting assignment because of this classification. I provided the same level of dedication to clients that were unlikely to need my services again as to firms that I knew could offer me repeat business. However, based on this classification, I was able to adopt metrics to monitor my performance as a consultant. I estimated that two years was enough time for another complex software project—the type of work I specialize in—to surface in a typical organization. Therefore, one indicator of my performance was the percentage of companies from the second group that offered me repeat business within a two-year period.

Recently, I realized that of more than ten consulting clients I have had since moving to the United States in 2004, only one had not yet asked me for repeat business. Even this exception didn’t reflect dissatisfaction with my services: a couple of executives kept in touch with me after the work ended, and one of them hired me to consult for his new employer when he changed jobs., Therefore, I thought I’d be a good candidate to answer a question Karl Wiegers posed: if you get repeat business over the years from the same clients, why do they keep calling you?

Combining my own observations with testimonials from former clients, here are the top three reasons why I believe the same companies kept calling me back during the past decade. I suspect these practices would also help you retain your clients.

1. Applying systems thinking skills


Systems thinking is a way of understanding reality that emphasizes the relationships among a system's parts, rather than the parts themselves. This is one of the most valuable skills for a consultant. Systems thinking doesn’t apply just to information systems, but rather to any system (people, organizations, etc.) whose components are interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.

It’s difficult to provide an example of how systems thinking can improve project results without talking extensively about the characteristics of a particular system, so to illustrate my point, I’ll use a simple case. One of my e-commerce projects received a change request to add a screening process during checkout to prevent certain products from being sold in regions where their sale is restricted by law. The business stakeholders approved the requirements, and the development team was ready to start coding the solution. However, I realized that what seemed to be a simple change affecting only one step during the checkout process also affected other business areas, including the call center operation. Without other changes, such as a new feature in the call center application to allow agents to filter out restricted items when recommending products to a customer, the sales process would suffer. Call center representatives would run the risk of wasting time convincing a customer to buy a product, only to learn at checkout time that the product could not be ordered from that location. This would increase the risks of customer frustration, lead to a higher abandon rate, and increase the handle time of inbound calls.

Systems thinkers aim to enhance total system properties, rather than trying to optimize certain parts of the system. A good resource is Thinking in Systems by the late scientist Donella Meadows. Meadows explains such phenomena as why everyone in a system can act dutifully and rationally and yet have those well-meaning actions add up to a terrible result, and why a system might suddenly and without warning jump into a completely unexpected type of behavior.

By using systems thinking, you will be able to forge more creative and satisfactory solutions for your clients, ensuring that separate groups keep the whole in mind while working on their individual parts. When a new challenge arises, the client will remember the benefit of bringing in an external consultant who is mindful of such causal relationships.

2. Being truthful and straightforward


I’ve always been very candid with my clients, telling them when I thought an idea didn’t sound feasible or a solution didn’t seem effective. Often, a team member would disagree with my approach, but throughout the years I kept my belief that speaking up early and honestly about problems improves your results and increases client satisfaction.

Here’s an example, based on a common business problem. In one of my client companies, the IT group had not met a software release date in years and budgets were out of control. As part of the process improvement initiative I was leading, the head of development wanted his project teams to stop lying and hiding problems that threatened the completion date, something they did mostly to look good in meetings. This manager’s proposed approach was to confront his subordinates and demand a change in behavior.

The problem, however, was that “lying to look good” was a practice that permeated even the top management layer. The only way to solve the problem was to acknowledge the role executives and managers played in it. It wasn’t easy to discuss this sensitive issue with my client, but being honest about the need for change to come from the top allowed us to modify the signals the development teams received from senior management. Before this problem was addressed, team members would hide issues they were experiencing, opting instead to wait until another person reported a delay. Their hope was to get the extra time they needed without having to be identified as the "source" of the project slippage. With the change in behavior starting from the top, the teams became more comfortable speaking up and dealing with any problem threatening project success as soon as possible. Such change caused a significant decrease in delivery delays, defects, and runaway costs.

During project retrospectives, a positive feedback I frequently received from clients who later went on to hire me again was related to my ability to speak up early and honestly about project issues. This "culture of candor" was seen by these clients as essential to having an early-warning system put in place to eliminate or minimize project risks in a timely manner.

3. Putting your client’s interests above yours


As a consultant, sometimes I saw that I was not the right person to take on an assignment or that the project I was being hired to assist did not have a solid business case. Even though taking the assignment would be financially desirable for me in the short term, my client always appreciated me confronting such problems directly with them. In several cases, the client and I were able to rethink the project’s mission and purpose, if necessary canceling either the initiative or my involvement in it. Whenever this type of situation arose over the last ten years, it led to repeat business with that client or referrals to other companies that could use my services.

By being candid with your clients, even when the truth is not in your best short-term interest, you help paint the picture of the real problems and you reassure the clients that you will stay with your mission and purpose and not compromise your principles. Most clients will appreciate your transparency, opening an opportunity for you to build solid relationships with those with whom you’re doing business.
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Getting repeat business from your clients, as well as referrals from them, is one of the most effective ways of growing a consulting business. My approach is not the only successful strategy to achieve this goal, but the practices described here have helped me develop lasting and profitable relationships with my consulting clients. However, as with everything else in life, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and each consultant needs to find a system that works well for her.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)


5 comments:

  1. Adriana, as you know, I've read a lot of your stuff. Your offering here just might be my favorite.

    Though it's been a while since I've worked as an independent consultant, it's easy to recognize that your three points are on target.

    Systems thinking is a hidden jewel. I second your recommendation of Meadows' book. She wrote, "...the more ways of seeing, the better. The systems-thinking [way] allows us to reclaim our intuition about whole systems." Is there anything more important to a problem-solver than intuition?

    Being truthful and straightforward. Easier said then done, right? Well, not really! I don't believe you can have regular and consistent success without being truthful and straigtforward.

    Putting your client’s interests above yours will "super-size" any consultancy.

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  2. Hi, Duane!

    Thanks for leaving your comment--I'm glad to know we share the same views on this topic.

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  3. Fantastic post, it's so rare to come across somebody's genuine tips that aren't just a 'sneak peek' to get you to buy their book. Consider this blog Ctrl-D'ed!

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  4. "Putting you client's interests above yours." -- Certainly, this is the most important thing to do to build up the reputation of your consultancy business, if you have. Clients want someone who can transform their interests in to possible profits, and most probably, this is the hardest part in consultancy. Some interests of the clients wouldn't do well for his/her business, and that's where you'll come in. Make that interests turn in to profits.

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  5. The third point definitely brings merit. Getting one’s ego out of the way is usually difficult, and while the work can and should be meaningful, good consultants do not pump up their own ego.

    - Adina Mauch -

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