Professional relationships are similar to personal ones in many ways: Sometimes you feel totally in synch, sometimes you have petty disagreements and sometimes you break up. Whether you’ve actually ended the relationship with a client or simply feel the two of you are growing a part, there are ways to rebuild the bond.
Before embarking on a campaign to win back business, you have to take a trip down memory lane. Did the client often make unreasonable demands? If you frequently pulled all-nighters as a result of the firm’s disorganization and were made to feel it was your fault, you probably don’t want to work with this client again. Similarly, if the company was frequently late with his payments or withheld some of your fee without explanation, there’s little reason to restore the relationship.
However, if you and the client had a few minor incidents—or just seem to be slowly drifting apart—it’s worth it to try to make amends. Perhaps you worked with the firm when you first started your business, and your disorganization while you were ramping up led to some missed deadlines. The client didn’t "fire" you, but just gradually called you less and less. In situations such as this, a good first step is to send an e-mail or gift to your contact. You might use a holiday such as Groundhog Day to send a note saying something like, "The groundhog decided not to make an appearance today, but I’m here to provide you with the top-notch design services you need to survive those long winter days." Or use Valentine’s Day as an occasion to send a box of chocolates to the client, along with a note that says, "I want your business back."
In either case, also include a note or follow-up e-mail admitting your mistake and explaining what you’ve done to change since you last worked with this person. Maybe you were working with a partner who was frequently rude, and you didn’t find out until you and your partner split ways. Let the client know that you’ve stopped working with the person and apologize for any difficulty he had with your firm in the past. Emphasize your commitment to individual service on each account. You might even offer a discounted rate on the first new project as compensation for past difficulties.
If a client seems to be slowly drifting away, and you don’t know why, send an e-mail. You might write something like, "It’s been a long time since we’ve spoken, and I thought I’d check in to see if you need any assistance on projects." You also could offer to take that person to lunch and try to gauge the reason for the reduced project flow. You might find the client thinks your rates are too high or that business has slowed down. Even if you’re unable to make adjustments to better suit the firm’s needs, you’ll at least have insight into what went wrong.
To this end, consider creating some sort of quality-assurance system for your business. It doesn’t have to be complicated: All you need to do is send an e-mail after you’ve completed a project and ask the client for feedback. Were they happy with the end result? Did you meet their deadlines effectively? Do they have suggestions for improvement so the next project is even better? A simple e-mail system may help you prevent rifts with clients because you’ll find out what worked and what didn’t, allowing you to make any necessary changes.
Like most romantic relationships, not all business liaisons are meant to be. But keep in mind that whether or not you lure the client back, what’s most important is that you tried to make amends—and learned from your previous mistakes. It’s a good educational experience that will serve you well in future business relationships.
The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.