You can wine them and dine them, but it is going to cost you.
For the small consulting firm and independent consultants, building strong customer loyalty can make or break your business. Weak customer loyalty, at the very least, will make the struggle to keep your sales pipeline full a lot more difficult. Strong customer loyalty will provide dividends for years to come. Some of the common approaches to loyalty building are:
- Wine and dine (or lunch and brunch) your clients
- Provide outstanding service
- Be professional
Spoiling your clients with good meals and drinks is fun for all involved, but I do not recommend this as a general rule. There are too many ways for this to go wrong: company policy violations (improper gifts), setting a precedent for future dealings, liability concerns, and the risk of being the next big thing on YouTube. Reserve this for post-go live celebrations, if you must. Providing outstanding service is an obvious choice and professionalism speaks for itself, though the monetary value of either is difficult to quantify.
I have found one method that is not as obvious, but is absolutely effective and profitable: adopt your client’s vision, mission, and culture. There are three steps to doing it right, which I term the RDI Method: Reconnaissance, Disguise, and Integration.
Step 1: Reconnaissance:
Find out everything you can about the company. This is fairly easy for most organizations, although you might have to do a little more work for closely held private companies.
- Find their mission and/or vision statements;
- Read everything you can find about them. You can infer a bit about an organization’s purpose just by reading about them;
- Take a look at the job postings, in particular the area in which you will be working;
- Pay attention to pictures, see what people are wearing, and determine what appears to be important to the organization.
- Start with Wikipedia. This may seem odd, but you can find out a lot about a organization’s culture by their history.
- Search for news articles from reliable news sources.
- Look for company events, especially pictures.
- Check their stock price history, if they are publicly traded, and do an EDGAR search.
- Find community events or local causes where they take part and support.
- Ask your peers if they have worked for or know someone who has worked for the organization.
- If you are going to a client through a recruiter, gather as much information as you can from them.
- Ask your client contact about the dress code, culture, and environment. This is obvious, but often overlooked.
Step 2: Disguise
This sounds a lot more clandestine than it really is, but you are essentially adopting a different persona when working with your client. The main things on which to focus:
- Dress code
- Body language
You need to dress like your client does. Ask them simply: “What is your dress code?” Don’t have time or cannot get an answer? Pack several changes of clothing if you must. Don’t wear Armani suits when working for a heavy construction firm, even if you’re dealing with the back office. Don’t wear a polo shirt and jeans if you are working with a multi-national bank.
Your body language and speech should communicate that you are on par and equal terms with them. Even if you went to Cambridge or Harvard, do not speak above your client, else you risk alienating them. Speak to them using their terminology and their manner of speech.
Step 3: Integration
The Integration step is the most difficult, because it requires you to ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ and embrace your client’s culture and vision for the future. This is tricky because it requires you to:
- Create a good first impression (“first impressions are lasting impressions”);
- Adopt their philosophy of doing business when dealing with them, without going native;
- Learn about any internal drama’s and power plays that exist in all organizations, but do not be drawn into them;
- Be empathetic to their problems;
- Communicate with the client often that you understand their vision and that you are there to help them achieve their goals;
- Make your interactions with staff memorable;
- Leave your ego in your suitcase;
- Learn the names of everyone with whom you work, even the entry-level staff. These are people who will be the managers and directors of the future, who will bring you back for repeat projects later.
- Deliver excellence in service and deliverables.
This is both a mental exercise and an act of diplomacy. If you are not sure what to do, start by listening more and talking less. Process what you see and hear, make notes if you must, and use that information to foster the lasting relationships necessary. I have seen many highly qualified consultants shown the door because they fail to grasp the concepts of adopting a client’s culture even a little.
The integration step raises some philosophical questions about adopting a culture that might be in conflict with your personal beliefs. A consultant that strongly supports Amnesty International may find themselves internally conflict by adopting the culture of their client, a defense contractor. That is a topic for another article.
Loyalty in the client-consultant relationship is a two-way street. Your clients will become loyal to you, as you become loyal to them. 98% of our work at Matrice Consulting over the past two years has come from repeat customers, and it has been constant, steady work. The bonds you create with your client representatives will pay huge dividends further down the road, sometimes many years later.
I close this article with two true stories of this concept in practice: the wrong way and the right way.
The Wrong Way
Once upon a time, there was a large retailer known for its frugality and lean operations. They needed some consulting resources to implement a new ERP module, so they hired a couple of consultants for the job. These consultants came to this company dressed in their best Hugo Boss and Armani suits, where they found everyone in the office dressed in jeans and polo shirts. The consultants met with the company’s staff to begin gathering requirements, but treated the staff like they were below them. After about two weeks, they were asked to leave and never come back.
The Right Way
Once upon a time, there was a small consulting firm that took a contract to implement a new ERP module with a large public-sector client. The consultant they sent learned everything he could about the organization. He adopted their dress code, listened to their problems and challenges, and adopted their mission as his mission, and their vision as his vision. He communicated his dedication to that vision and he delivered on that promise. After completing his work with this client, the client contracted with the consulting firm to do more work…again, and again, and again, and again.