Keeping your clients long-term
More leads. More sales. More clients.
This is the mantra of many agencies, doing everything possible to win new clients.
But new clients cost a lot more than existing clients, and depending on which study you believe, a new client project can cost between 5 to 25 as much as a project from an existing client.
- You have a whole new relationship to build from scratch
- You have an entirely new project to understand and scope
- You have a whole new bunch of risks to mitigate
Client retention is key to a successful thriving agency - especially a smaller agency.
But building long-term client relationships isn’t always simple, so you need to embrace some strategies and techniques to make it part of your business.
Offer the right service 🛠
If your niche is “Logo design for small businesses” or “WordPress to Craft CMS Migration”, then your clients are probably not the type to use you more than once or twice.
That’s ok, as that business model is targeted towards fast-turnaround high-volume work.
But if you want long-term clients, you need to offer long-term services.
Custom software fits nicely here, as besides the main build there might be ongoing feature work, ongoing contracts such as support & maintenance and retainers. As the client's business grows your work can grow, and it becomes a mutually beneficial relationship.
Always think about lifetime value 💸
That small integration project may just be the tip of the iceberg.
I had clients that started off with a small job, and eventually lead to high 6-figure jobs within a year or so. This can happen on all scales - your $300 dollar client can lead to a $3k job - and your $100k project can lead you to a 7-figure project.
The lifetime value (LTV) of a client is often tricky to determine when you first meet them, and even when you work on the first project for them.
Million-dollar businesses may never need you again, and that small family-run business may end up being your best client, having new work for you every year.
As you don’t know in advance your client's LTV, you should treat every client like they will end up being your best client, with high-quality interactions from day one.
Moving from a transactional “project-based” mindset to a “longer trusted partner” mindset is the first step you need to take to start retaining your clients.
Don't think of short-term projects, think of long-term relationships.
Truly understand your client's goals 🏆
Just as your client has a lifetime value to you, you also have a lifetime value for your client.
To achieve this, you first need to clearly understand their goals.
I’m not just talking about the goals of this project, I’m talking beyond this project in one, three, or five years’ time
You need to align yourself as the expert in your field, not just a “dev shop” for hire.
Don’t think about transactional relationships (what can I get in return), think about what you can do to help this other human.
A Project Workshop is a great place for this to happen, a dedicated time where you can understand their past, present, and future goals.
If you know where they want to go, you can help them get there. Then you’re in a great position to be a long-term strategic partner.
Make exceeding expectations the norm 🚀
Meeting your client's expectations should be the baseline for any project, and if you consistently do that, there is a good chance they will stick around.
To make sure they keep coming back, you want to exceed expectations. This depends a lot on your business and your client, but some examples include.
- Create an amazing client onboarding experience
- Be exceptionally organised, and be one step ahead of your client's needs
- Recommend your clients services or products to other contacts
- Compete on quality when the others are competing on price
- Deliver the project under the scheduled time (often done via handing scope creep well)
- Deliver the project under the estimated budget (if charging time and materials)
- Build great living documentation for your client (that becomes a long-term asset)
- Go above and beyond to meet the client's needs (within reason)
- Provide a free workshop or scoping phase to longtime clients
- Add a bonus feature once the project has been completed (if charging fixed price)
You don’t have to execute all of these all the time, but if you build up these skills slowly you will find going above and beyond is your standard.
Don't be a penny pincher 🤏
When I first started freelancing, I would literally charge for every minute. That’s how it works right?
After 6 months of working with a great client, they mentioned how I was charging for a “5-minute phone call”, and that they hadn’t experienced that before.
Instead of building in buffers and contingencies into my estimates, I was literally charging for every minute, and this was affecting our relationship.
It’s hard to build strong relationships when everything is so transactional, it might work ok for lawyers, but it’s not the norm in other industries.
So when I started my agency I realised that providing a better estimate (and setting better expectations) meant I didn’t need to charge for every minute. I could ignore the time spent emailing, or on small phone calls and instead, charge more for the actual core value of the project.
This was a turning point, and when I first realised that client service is a relationship game. If instead of dollars, you obsess over quality relationships and deliverables, then the money will follow.
Keep in touch 📞
During a project, you communicate with your client a lot.
But then the project ends, and you get busy with another project. The original client has a whole business to run so they’re busy too, and slowly your communication fades away, and so do the opportunities.
Make client communication an ongoing part of your business, and not just during a project.
Don’t do this just to win new business either. Sure, that’s a nice side effect, but remember you’re playing the long game, lifetime value, and this means building actual professional relationships. Even professional friendships.
Catch up in real-life or virtual (not email), and check how things are going.
There are so many topics you can talk about.
- How's business? (what do the next 6 months look like)
- How's the last set of features we worked on going?
- Have you seen XYZ technology?
- Ask for advice, e.g. How does your business manage ZYX?
And this is very much not a one-way street.
You should share.
- Your business goals
- New or interesting things you’re doing
- What do the next 6 months look like for you
People trust people who share, so put yourself out there.
Break your own rules 🚨
Sometimes, it’s ok to strategically break your own rules.
As part of your onboarding, clients need to clearly understand how you work, your processes, and specifically what you don’t do.
For example, my agency didn’t do production deployments on a Friday, and I let clients know this from the start.
It was just too risky, and I didn’t want my team working late on a Friday night, or over the weekend to deal with any issues.
On very rare occasions for specific clients, I would break this rule.
This would only be a once-a-year type of situation, and only if they were a close client, who had a very important internal reason why they needed to go live on a Friday.
I don’t recommend this all the time by any means, but on occasion, it served me well and reinforced client relationships.
- Take an emergency call on the weekend
- Work hard to meet a clients deadline
- Fix an issue out of the agreed support window
I would never work “stupidly hard to meet a deadline” if it was due to scope creep, or even my misestimation. Where I had worked that hard was when the client themselves had a deadline, such as a launch date.
I would also make it known that it was a very big ask, but that we would try our best because we valued them as a client.
Again, be sure to do this strategically, and not by default. Otherwise, you will burn out and end up resenting your client - which completely defeats the purpose of trying to retain them.
In the first couple of years of my agency, I didn't think about long-term client retention
Honestly, I was too busy looking for the next project - or having too much work, and being under pressure to quickly finish one project in order to start the next.
But when I (finally) figured out what my end goal was, I realised to achieve a more relaxed, technically focused, happy, and lucrative agency - I needed a small set of very close clients, not hundreds of different clients with who I only speak once every 2 years when their domain expires.
So I quadrupled my effort on real relationship building with my core group of existing clients.
Focusing on value adds such as support and maintenance contracts and retainers (recurring revenue!), and also scheduling regular catchups between projects, so both myself and my client always knew what was on the horizon, which allowed scheduling future work a lot easier.
This was one of the best decisions I could have made for my agency.