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Issue № 334

Marry Your Clients

by Published in Business, Graphic Design · 5 Comments

I run a distributed agency where our longest client relationship is now in its eighth year of active collaboration. We have been working together longer than the average marriage in the United States.

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We’ve tried to break up twice, did a minor stint in therapy, renegotiated the agreement a few times, apologized a lot, set new ground rules, and more. Just like maintaining a marriage, nurturing a long-term client is an active and ongoing effort. Try Googling “marriage advice” and replace the words “husband” or “wife” with “client” or “customer,” or the word “marriage” with “work” or “business”:

“If I am unhappy with my client about something, it stands to reason there are things about me he is unhappy about. We need to work together.”

“I should love my client, but not wrap myself up in my client. I should always remember that I was a person before her, and I should do my best to stay a person while working with her…second best advice was to never completely tie your finances to your client—always have something of your own.”

“From the time we were little kids, my dad told us ‘Never take a gig for anyone you wouldn’t work for long term’…when we were kids this made zero sense, but as I got older, it became clear that a lot of people take clients they don’t much like/fit with well, for a variety of reasons. The selection process of who to work with is complex, but makes a huge difference.”

“The best business advice I received was from my grandmother: business is not always 50/50. Some days you will wake up and may have to give 90% and your client will give 10%. Other days you may wake up and give 25% and your client will have to put in the 75%.”

The parallels are remarkable and the journey far from simple.

Do you have to wear your old bathrobe every time I see you?

Do I consistently work to stay sexy and engaged, or do I get comfortable? With new projects and new clients, it’s easy to make the extra effort. The longer we work together, the easier it becomes to feel satisfied with the status quo, while giving your best energy to the shiny new client. In the back of my mind lives a false certainty that our good ’ol client will always be there.

Rather than pretend this won’t happen, I’ve concluded I need to prepare for it and have a strategy to combat it. Every week, and for each long-term project, I schedule a chunk of time to think about a few simple questions:

  • Where can we add extra value and how could this be better?
  • How do we win? How does our client win? (I am amazed how often this answer can change over time; working under the wrong assumptions here is dangerous.)
  • Is there anything cool I have seen recently that I should share with my client?
  • Did I remember to listen? Did I remember to give them an update?
  • What are the three most important individual actions I can personally take to make things run smoothly and make them feel appreciated?
  • What’s the next project that we should be doing with this client?

The key is to build the necessary environment for a prolonged relationship. I strongly believe that environment is a collection of specific moments in time—the product of an intentional effort. In marriage speak, schedule “date nights.” It’s not just the thought that counts. Follow it up with action.

Find moments to be thoughtful and figure out your client’s “love language.” Some of our clients really like it when we send gifts or do additional acts of service. The key is to find ways to highlight how you value your relationship. At the end of the day, a company is made up of people and your relationship is individual. Work hard to demonstrate that you appreciate them.

Fireworks to fizzle

Many years have passed. The project was amazing, but your passion has fled.

At the heart of bringing your best is a vibrant personal interest in the project. How do you stay excited about a project when the spark dies? The best marriage advice I have found is that a strong marriage is based upon shared goals and a common vision of the world and the future. In simple terms, you want the same thing.

I often revisit our project checklist to see if we are getting value from the relationship. It lets me examine the project from a neutral perspective without coloring my response with ennui or frustration. It usually shakes me from my funk. Oh yeah, the money is great! I am learning a lot and we are having a real influence on people’s lives! Sometimes, spending your day buried in pixels means you forget these things.

You don’t have to love every minute of every day to be together. Television has set unreasonable expectations upon relationships. The fact is, sometimes you love most of what you do, and sometimes you only love some of what you do. For me, I often come back to a key question: is this taking me where I want to go with my life and our business? If the answer is yes, I can find happiness in it, even if at that moment it isn’t personally glamorous or terribly interesting.

Make friends with their friends

Make sure your spouse’s best friend likes you. That way when your spouse is momentarily frustrated and voices it out loud, their best friend will listen and be neutral, or even back you up, rather than tear you down. The longer the project and the larger the company, the more likely you will end up collaborating with internal staff in addition to your key stakeholders. Even if your actual client loves you, other people in their organization can poison the relationship over time. The converse holds true as well: having a wide range of internal cheer leaders is often the key to longevity.

Approximately two to three times a year, Peter (one of the three principals of Shane & Peter, Inc.) makes the pilgrimage to New York. Three of our larger clients are there, and he visits simply to be social. The goal of these trips is to make a friend and remind them that we are human and have their best interest at heart. He visits with the entire internal team: designers, developers, QA, system administrators, art directors, ad sales, writers, project managers, and so on. He rarely talks tech or business. Those trips pay long-term dividends and build a base of trust we couldn’t earn any other way.

In one visit, Peter brought a client a pile of homemade hand-screened custom t-shirts that we made to commemorate the launch of a huge project. We’ve hosted roof top barbecues, met families, and played board games till the wee hours. We find ways to make personal connections. The result of all this is that we have friends that call us first when opportunity knocks.

Change of leadership

The client I mentioned in the intro is a giant non-governmental organization. Every two years they change elected leadership. We’ve loved some of the stakeholders. Some have loved us. With others, we’ve shared a mutual sense of frustration. Management turnover is often the point at which a relationship crumbles. Why? Because SAP or eBay or MTV didn’t hire you; Fred, Nathan, or Sue did. So, if they leave and the short project you are on ends, who do you have a relationship with for the next round?

The key to longevity with most clients is diversity of relationships. Make friends with the team. Meet and work with other project managers and stakeholders. Stay in touch with people outside of the direct project. As soon as you know that a leadership change is taking place, work closely with your contact and get them to introduce you to the new team and make friends fast. And be prepared for the eventuality. As Frederick Reichheld quantifies in his book Loyalty Rules!, the average turnover in a silicon valley tech company is still three to four years. In this business, long-term company relationships are often polygamous.

Fight fair and stay on topic

If you do enough projects together, one is bound to fail. Heck, do even more projects together, and one is bound to fail spectacularly. Fighting over a project during a long-term client relationship is inevitable; but it’s important to make a distinction when that fight arises: are you fighting over a specific problem related to the project, or are you fighting over the relationship itself?

If you are fighting over the project, they key is to fight fair and keep it about the topic at hand. Don’t get emotional and drag in past baggage, and never lob accusations or get defensive. The more effectively you can contain the emotion to the topic at hand, the more successful the outcome.

Sometimes the fight isn’t about a specific issue within a project but the relationship itself. This can result from personality conflicts, differing communication styles, or loss of respect and trust. Peter is one of the most gifted members on our team at resolving struggles in this area. Any time we are having a hard time with a customer, or resentment is building, he calls up the client to apologize:

“I’m sorry, I’ve obviously done something wrong, as I can tell people are feeling upset. How can I be a better manager / freelancer / technician?”

This creates an open, safe place to talk, and bypasses both our and the client’s instinctive defensiveness. It allows us to start by listening. Often when our customer feels heard, 90% of the emotion dissipates and their communication skills shoot through the roof. To be clear, Peter is genuine. He really is apologizing. I don’t think this would work as a phony bait and switch, as people are too perceptive.

You can also use this tactic as a preventative measure: ask your client how things are going from time to time, even if everything seems alright. This allows you to expose any brewing issues and handle them before they escalate into a fight.

If only they would change

Advice sometimes stays for life.

“Shane, in the last fifty years, I’ve been married to three entirely different people. He just happened to be the same man. Our success in marriage came from a willingness to accept the things that changed—and the things that didn’t—with equal flexibility.” —Selba Pearlman (my grandmother)

Almost every long-term client is composed of a set of serialized projects. It is to everyone’s advantage to treat them in such a manner. Providing a defined start, scope, and finish helps foment a feeling of accomplishment and provides a clear demarkation for value. The risk in a large, amorphous, never-ending list of tasks is that our customers see a stream of money going out, but have a hard time quantifying the return. It is key from the perspective of accountability and warranty to have clear stopping points.

Sometimes, people and projects change without anyone noticing. It happens so slowly it passes you by. Take a step back and check that you are still solving the same problem you started on. Navigating a fixed scope is like walking on water: it’s easier to do when frozen. The reality of all great projects is that requirements change; as everyone digs in they learn more and gain greater understanding. Once a quarter, ask this question to everyone on your team and to your client: “How do we win on this project?” Make sure that the answer is still accurate.

From cradle to grave

At the heart of every project and customer is a person, and any long-term relationship requires work and will have its dramas. Who do you treat better, your clients or your spouse, and if so, why? Shouldn’t they both get your 100%? When you have your business hat on, stay focused on the relationship and manage it with an intention for longevity. When you have your spouse hat on (put your clients aside) and be present. Remember that it is your job to be engaged, to stay sexy, to fight fair, and to to prepare for and accept change.

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