Build Strong Client Relationships: Three Simple Rules

by Marcia Hoeck

I’ve felt for some time that traditional marketing communications and design firms were missing some critical understanding when it came to reaching clients online—our years of offline training didn’t prepare us for the invisible online client and the new ways in which he’d purchase services. So I felt it was my duty to learn what successful online marketers knew that I didn’t—and I found some major differences between online and offline approaches.

But by far the biggest thing I came away with is the major similarity—and that’s the importance of relationships. Offline and online, marketing is built on relationships. There are different ways of building relationships with people you’ll probably never meet in person, but the bottom line is that people buy products and services from people and companies they like and trust, and ignore those they don’t.

Here are three simple rules for building those important relationships.

1. Know who you need to talk to.
You can have the best service in the world, but if you’re building relationships with the wrong market or aren’t specific about who you’re talking to, you won’t make sales. Is your web copy niched to a narrow client profile? Are you networking with your target market instead of your peers? Identify your ideal client first, then you can start building relationships.

2. Be top of mind with your clients—all the time.
Building relationships is a long-term proposition, it doesn’t happen overnight. Do you try to build relationships with tactics and programs that are difficult to sustain, and then abandon them? Regular phone check-ins with clients sound like a great idea in January, but dwindle off as the year progresses. Direct mail programs are suspended because it’s hard to tell if they’re working (did you get through to them, even if they didn’t respond?) And online programs like e-newsletters and blogs are produced sporadically, fit in around your “real” work. It’s not easy to be consistent, but listen to this: one online study found the most stated reason for purchasing a product or service was “it was what we needed at the time.” This means you have to be there, in front of the prospect, all the time—because if clients don’t see you when they need you, they’ll choose someone they do see.

3. Make it easy for your customers to work with you.
Here’s an interesting way to look at making things easy for your clients, relayed by marketing guru Bill Glazer. He says that the old story of “give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you’ll feed him for life”—doesn’t apply when it comes to clients. Clients, he says, don’t want to learn how to fish—they don’t want to think that your product or service will add work for them in any way. Busy clients “just want the damn fish.” Tell them exactly what you’ll do for them, how it will help them, and exactly what they need to do (hopefully not much), in order to get them to act. Just give them the damn fish.


Plate of fried fish with words "They just want the damn fish."

Bill Glazer, marketing guru, says the old story of “give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you’ll feed him for life”—doesn’t apply to clients. Clients just want things to be easy. They want to know what you’re going to do for them and how it will help. In other words, they just want the damn fish.


Quick Tips
1. Clients searching online don’t have the benefit of getting vital in-person cues from you, even when you get to the point of having a relationship building phone conversation. You may have heard the much-debated statistic that 93% of communication is non-verbal, from the 1972 study by Albert Mehrabian. The study says 55% of your meaning is conveyed through your body language, and 38% from your tone of voice. Only 7% of the effectiveness of your communication comes across through your words. While this theory has been criticized and analyzed with varying conclusions, keep in mind that impressions are made very differently online than they are offline—and these impressions greatly affect your ability to build relationships.

2. Clients are people first and companies second, and it’s the same with you. And these client/people like to buy from and build relationships with people—not companies. Resist the urge to present yourself too much as a “company” in order to look “professional.”


Dig Deeper!
1. For an interesting study of the economic power of high-quality customer relationships, check out Fred Reichheld’s The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth. The book is based on evaluating a company’s ability to have long-term profitable growth by asking just one relationship-based question: “How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?”

2. Learn tips from Marcia Hoeck on how to strengthen your business.


4 thoughts on “Build Strong Client Relationships: Three Simple Rules

  1. Dale Berkebile

    This is a really great article. I too have gone through this situation where I was trained for print advertising/design and after a few years in started picking up the online side of things. It has only been recently though that we have really started effective online marketing. Have a website alone is not the key. The point you make about knowing your audience is really key. Then speaking in their language, not design speak is important. The web can be a powerful tool to open the door, but then you also need to know how to sell and close the deal once you get people on the phone. I personally do a lot of business nationally and a few international projects most of which come from our website. The conversation doesn’t really get started though until we have a phone conversation. Being enthusiastic and and interested in how best to help the client reach their goals really helps. They can certainly hear if you are genuinely interested in more than just a check. So in my mind beyond just design, you also need to have a sales system in place so that you do not have to reinvent the wheel each time someone calls or fills out your contact form online.

    One thought on the fish idea. When it comes to a single design project maybe you want to do all the work for your client, but in a more strategic relationship (this is what most of our work is), you need to give clients homework to make sure you have everything you need to help them reach their goals. Since the name is strategic “partnership” everyone has to pull their share or the partnership fails. I know this site is focused on design, but keep in mind marketing strategy can feed a lot of design projects and can be very profitable.

  2. Marcia Hoeck

    You betcha, Dale. Of course strategy is always a part of the relationship. The point of the fish analogy is to take the focus back to the expertise of the communicators (you). You should be able to clearly and confidently deliver to the client — too many designers wait to take direction from the client, educating, drawing things out, and justifying their solutions. I say you’ll have more success if you can show them you can confidently deliver — get their input, sure. Be strategic, absolutely. But in the end, just give them the damn fish!

  3. Clare Michael

    Hi Marcia,
    Your article demonstrates the conclusion I’ve come to also. Treat people with utter politeness online as well as in life. We kind of forget that in our mad dash toward online presence and now it would seem we are recovering manners. Thanks for promoting rapport and manners.

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