Change Client Perceptions of Your Firm

by David C. Baker

Ever return to a reunion and been frustrated when former classmates are surprised at your success? It may be human nature to pigeonhole each other, and since (most) clients are human, they have a natural tendency to make assumptions about your firm’s abilities that will be tough to change.

Who is Responsible?
Before exploring ways to climb out of the rut, though, recognize that you are largely responsible for what clients think of you. If current clients have limited views of your abilities, the odds are that you are the one who provided the evidence they needed. In other words, take responsibility for the image that exists of you or your firm.

Earning Respect
Don’t despair. Everybody learns this lesson the hard way. Those that prosper move on and pay more attention to positioning themselves. Here are six ways to keep perceptions in line with reality.

First, market yourself all the time, no matter how busy you are. Marketing is the most important ingredient in the success of any business. But it is not primarily about getting more work, but about the kind of work you get. Marketing has very little to do with growth in the future. It has much more to do with sanity in the present.

Second, remember that there is an optimum level of client turnover, as long as it is for the right reasons. If client turnover is too low (less than 20% a year), your customer service is great and your marketing plan is poor. Every year phase some clients out with price. Without a steady stream of new clients, you’ll be frustrated trying to re-educate current ones.

Third, hire (or align yourself with) people who add a deep expertise to your existing ones. When you combine their experience with yours, it is legitimate to claim additional capabilities as a group. This is ethical, provided all claims are true.

Fourth, have a marketing lunch with every major client every year. Sit down with them and “re-introduce” them to your firm. Explain the kind of work you have been doing, what staff capabilities are now in place, and what is planned for next year. Remember that perception seldom keeps pace with reality, and educating your clients in smaller increments is more effective.

Fifth, be careful about justifying low paying jobs to establish yourself. You are selling problem-solving. Consider it a success if you get through an entire new business presentation without talking about your work. Focus instead on asking the client what they want to accomplish, how that goal can be measured, and if the approach in mind is the most effective way to do it.

Sixth, wait for the marketing manager (or whoever your contact is) to leave their position at the client, and then pounce. Since your chances are not as good, you have little to lose. Send them a memo that says: “Here’s our resignation from the account. We are resigning for two reasons. First, we recognize that any decision should be yours and we want the job only if you give it to us. Second, we have not been able to move beyond ‘vendor’ in this relationship, and it needs a fresh start.”

How current and potential clients view your organization and what it can do is largely based on perception. Take time to “re-introduce” your service offerings and capabilities. Perception seldom keeps pace with reality, and educating your clients in smaller increments isa more effective way of letting them know about developments within your company.

Quick Tips
Recognize that you need to be constantly marketing your firm and its capabilities—not just to prospects but also to current clients. Remind even your long-term clients about your service offerings.

Recognize that clients smell lack of confidence. They’ll generally believe anything you tell them, provided you say it with confidence. If you say you can do something, they’ll usually say “yes” and move on. And how much you charge is a big indicator of confidence.

Building an image in the marketplace is like tiling a kitchen floor. Those first few tiles are critical, and any misalignment will be magnified later. When we approach clients, though, we often are so desperate to get that first tile down (i.e., “get the job”) that we aren’t careful about how it is laid. We know that more care would be prudent, but tell ourselves that we can “fix” any ramifications later. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to change perceptions than to inform them in the first place.

Dig Deeper!
1. Discover additional resources for creative services firms and purchase white papers on client relations at Creative Business.

2. Download a 4-page version of this position paper from ReCourses.

3. Blair Enns’ Win Without Pitching offers excellent strategic information on positioning and client relationships.