With the economy in a downturn, business-to-business vendors must be concerned with maintaining relationships with existing clients and using those contacts to develop new business. Remember the adage: It costs less to keep old clients than to find new ones.
“I’ve always had this mantra that the best way to get new business is to focus on existing business,” says Charles Epstein, President, BackBone, Inc., a marketing, PR, and business development services firm.
Epstein’s approach is a twist on the familiar marketing strategy of networking. He employs the technique with his existing clients to uncover new business opportunities and to maintain existing customers during critical junctures in the typical business relationship, such as the inevitable transitions that occur when a contact switches jobs.
Through his networking techniques, Epstein has been able to “follow” clients from one job to another, retain customers even after his main contact has moved on, land referrals, and expand his services within client companies. As a result, in the 13 years he’s run his business, he says he’s never lost a customer due to dissatisfaction with his firm’s services.
Epstein offers his top six tactics for networking with existing clients:
->Tactic #1. Keep communication lines open between business tasks
Some vendors work closely with clients on a specific project. Epstein and his team don’t let their communications with those clients lie dormant even when there is no direct task at hand. His team maintains at least weekly contact with customers between projects using the following techniques:
- Email relevant industry reports, articles from a trade publication, or other information related to the client’s business or industry.
- Pitch new ideas or future proposals, even as one project is in progress.
“We’re in the business of coming up with new ideas,” he says, “It shows that you’re always thinking about the client.”
- Monitor a client’s business activity and email questions or comments about new developments.
By following news about the company’s new ventures, partnerships, or management changes, Epstein’s team finds events that can trigger a new communication with a client to take the pulse of the company. “It’s always good to have someone on the inside of a company, cultivated as a source, who can be your eyes and ears about what’s going on.”
->Tactic #2. Maintain relationships with contacts who move to new jobs
Turnover at your client companies is inevitable. Typically, a contact will notify vendors and service providers that they’re leaving the company. Using email primarily, Epstein works to maintain relationships with his client contacts when they switch jobs.
o Use email:
-If a client doesn’t volunteer where they’re going, Epstein’s team sends a polite email asking for their new contact information.
- An email also thanks them for their business, and offers to be a resource for that client at their new company.
“We reinforce the idea that Backbone’s service is something they can count on, and when they are in their new position and have evaluated their needs, they can give me a call.”
Although the client doesn’t always have discretion over which vendors they’re going to engage at their new company, the technique has helped Epstein land new contracts with eight former clients once they've become situated in their new positions.
Tactic #3. Reach out to new contacts at client companies
Someone will usually replace your previous contact at a client company. Begin
nurturing that relationship.
o Nurturing techniques:
- Epstein and his team introduce themselves with a quick email.
Besides the introduction, they will offer to go over their previous work and future plans.
- They offer materials to help support that individual in their new position.
The team might pull together an electronic file or PDF that outlines all the work the firm has done with that client over the years. It could include a clip package, white papers they’ve written, marketing initiatives they’ve worked on, etc.
The goal is to provide an update on the services the team has provided, and also demonstrate that the team understands the company and its challenges, and can be a resource during the new employee’s transition period.
- If requested, the team also will conduct an in-depth audit of all the services they’ve provided to the company over the years.
They want to make sure the new contact’s goals and plans aren’t working at cross-purposes to past initiatives.
Tactic #4. Ask contacts for introductions to other key contacts at client companies.
The team turns to its client contacts as potential ambassadors when they hear of a new business opportunity at a client company -- such as an initiative within another business unit.
Do not assume, however, that a contact is willing to work on behalf of a vendor. Epstein recommends approaching customer contacts and asking them what they’d be willing to do to assist you as you pursue additional business opportunities within that organization.
o Suggested actions a contact could take:
- Provide a basic introduction to one or more of the committee members involved with a vendor selection process in another business unit.
- Provide an introduction along with a cover note describing their experience with your firm and attesting to why the relationship might be a good fit.
- Offer background and personal details on the committee members.
This information could help the firm in its marketing and sales process, such as learning a little about the key players, how long they’ve been with the company, what their major goals are, etc.
- Pass along supporting documents, such as a dossier of previous work or sales and marketing materials. This can help the committee evaluate your firm as a vendor.
“You should go in with fairly modest expectations and inquire about what they’d be willing to do based on your relationship.”
Tactic #5. Conduct regular face-to-face networking with clients
Epstein suggests meeting with your clients on a regular schedule -- once a quarter or twice a year. It is so convenient to conduct most business virtually. But Epstein says vendors can find themselves in a bit of an email rut when it comes to networking with clients.
o Opportunities for face-to-face interaction:
- Trade shows.
Plan to attend when your client is attending or presenting at a trade show.
- Personal visits to client offices.
While making personal calls, you can meet other members of the client’s team. These visits can help you gauge how the organization is structured, who else is involved with buying decisions, and the interpersonal dynamics of the office that can help you pitch your products or services.
Tactic #6: Maintain relationships with former clients
Epstein says the only time he has lost a client is when a contract lapses over budget issues or when a project has run its course. But the relationship doesn’t have to end just because the work ends.
Epstein recommends staying in email contact with former clients. You never know when they’ll be in a position to renew a services contract or purchase additional products.
o Use email:
-Epstein’s team periodically sends a new research report, an industry news article, or another relevant piece of information that the client might find useful for their business.
- If there is a more personal relationship, he periodically emails notes that highlight something in the news, entertainment or sports worlds that would interest the former client.
- They pass along contact information for potential employees and executives in the job market who might be a good fit based on their knowledge of a former client’s company.
“Even if there isn’t a need, it shows that you’re mindful of this former customer,” says Epstein. “It also sends a good signal that the relationship is not over.” Useful links related to this article