I have no trouble getting new clients, but I just can’t seem to keep them. What gives?


Is there a secret to making sure clients stick around?

It might not seem obvious on the face of it, but design is a customer-service business. It doesn’t feel like it a lot of the time, but I assure you that it is, especially in agency-land.

Something else I can assure you is that clients almost never want to leave an agency. Occasionally there will be times when a hot new designer or agency bumps you out of incumbency with a client, but those times are fortunately rare.

Changing designers is a stressful and risky business, so most clients would much prefer to stick with the devil they know when they can. It’s just easier.

From your perspective, it’s extremely important to understand why clients might be leaving because getting new clients is an order of magnitude more labour-intensive than retaining those clients you already have.

I have a favourite bar I frequent in my neighbourhood. Their drinks are good, but they are not the best. Nor are they the cheapest. But their service is by far the most attentive; the staff make an effort to know my name and order, and they give me an extra drink for free now and then. When I sit in the outdoor seating, they bring out a bowl of water for my dog. Oh yeah, and one time they spilled an entire tray of drinks on my lap.

They apologised and comped my bill for the night.

I was back the next day.

I didn’t return because I’m an alcoholic, but because the million other things those guys do have purchased a lot of loyalty from me. One tray of spilled drinks is no big deal in that context.

There’s a parallel in what we do. I can admit to you that I have in the past lost clients. I’m not proud to say it, but naturally it has happened. However, in none of the cases where a client has suddenly moved on has it ever been because we made a massive mistake. Believe me, in a career of 20 years, I’ve made some absolutely staggering mistakes. But big mistakes — mistakes to which you own up, for which you apologise, and for which you make recompense — people can and do forgive.

What people will not forgive is a stream of tiny errors. Every time you say “I’ll get it to you close of business Wednesday” but deliver instead at the start of business Thursday, that’s a mistake. When you use the wrong version of the corporate logo on the website, that’s a small mistake. When you cancel a meeting for the second time, again, that’s a mistake. On their own, none of these mistakes is a big deal.

But taken cumulatively, you’ve become a pain in your client’s behind.

It’s this drip-drip-drip of tiny and apparently insignificant things that eventually gets clients to the point where they start thinking about looking for other people with whom to work. It’s like how your significant other might forgive you for forgetting their birthday, but they develop a wandering eye when you constantly leave the toilet seat up or never do the dishes when you say you will. Once that eye starts to wander, it takes a great deal of work on your behalf to convince it to stop.

So your job is always to ensure that as well as delivering great design, you sweat the small stuff. That’s how you build a relationship that people won’t want to lose.

That’s all general advice though. You know, “just be better”. Old-person advice. What then are the concrete things you can actually to do make sure that clients never want to leave?

First, consider the terrible possibility that your work isn’t quite as good as you think. Talk to other designers, look to the work of your peers (but for the love of all that is holy stay the hell away from dribbble), and try as hard as you can to get a mentor. Be critical of your work and always be open to the possibility of improvement. Remember that you can always get better, no matter at what stage you are at in your career.

Next, note that to be a designer worth her salt, you need to develop and foster real empathy with the people who touch your work. That means more than just putting yourself in the shoes of the people who will look at your websites, read your publications, and use your products. It also means thinking about the needs of your clients.

That’s a difficult one, because you may have a completely different work life to the people with whom you work. Your job is nothing like that of a brand manager, and likely nothing at all similar to that of a product owner on an agile team. You have to learn to be interested in what other people do, and develop an empathetic understanding of what the pain-points are in their days.

An example: one thing I tell my clients is that a key part of my job is to ensure they can sleep soundly as we approach deadline.

Find out what it is that causes your clients or product owners any level of concern and see what you can do (within the boundaries of your role) to alleviate those worries. In alignment with the project’s goals, try as hard as you can to think beyond yourself.

One thing that designers can be guilty of is developing their own aims for a project on which they work. Your client wants to sell 50,000 Science Ovens; you want a folio piece that wins awards. That’s going to be painful for you and your client unless you can work out a way to ensure your aims don’t compete. That’s not to say that you must sublimate your expertise, nor that you simply become arms, legs and cursor-operator for the client. But think carefully before you push off on your own agenda — is the award really worth the loss of the client?

And finally, do what you say you’re going to do. Follow through with your promises the same way that is expected of people in every other profession. Be on time. Deliver the executions to which you agree. Don’t try to ‘get away’ with things. Be reliable. Honour your commitments. People respect that, and it’s very hard to find a reason to stop working with someone you respect.

Ross Floate is the creative director of Floate Design Partners, and he is still learning every day.


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