How To Build Long-Term Client Relationships

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Everyone loves a happy ending: the hero slays the dragon, true love conquers all, the Death Star is destroyed, the new website is launched and both client and users alike are thrilled. While this last example may not have the Hollywood ending that the first few examples do, for those of us in the Web design industry, it is the story ending we want for all our project.

Much attention is given to how you kickoff projects, or how best to design and develop websites. But the final stages of the Web design process are never discussed as much as those early and middle stages are. How you wrap up a project, as well as what you do after the project is completed, is critical when it comes to building long-term relationships that will lead to future business.

In this article we will look at some ways in which you can end projects on the right note, and also what you can do after they are launched to help your project stories have happy endings (and many successful sequels).

Fairy tale storybooks1
We want a fairy tale ending for all our project stories – (Image: ZeRo’SKiLL).

Avoiding Unhappy Endings

Before you can create a happy ending to your project’s story, you need to make sure you do not create an unhappy ending. Oftentimes, when a project goes bad, it happens in the final stages of the process. There are a variety of reasons why this happens, but a few easy ways to avoid some of these common pitfalls.

  • Address issues as they happen — When a problem arises, discuss it with your client immediately. We often avoid issues (such as a bit of scope creep, or something taking a little longer than expected) hoping that we can “make it up at the end.” We do this so we can avoid having an uncomfortable discussion with our clients about change orders and increased budgets.

    This is a nice sentiment, but it usually does not work out. Budgets don’t magically grow at the end of a project to compensate for overages earlier in the process. If you wait until the final stage of an engagement to address a problem, your client will feel blindsided by the news coming at that late hour, instead of being able to handle the issue when it occurred. One way or another, you will need to discuss the situation with your client, but if you do it later rather than sooner, you risk leaving them with a negative final memory of an otherwise successful project.

  • Planning a website’s launch — The date of a website’s launch is usually planned very early in the process. Other times, that launch date is more flexible and is determined as the project nears completion. In either scenario, preparing for the launch of a new website is extremely important.

    Regardless of testing done prior to a launch, last minute issues discovered after a website “goes live” are certainly not uncommon. Preparing for the launch means that you take a look at website analytics to determine the best time (based on website traffic) to make the changes needed. You want to find a time that will have as little impact on business as possible as these changes are made. You also want to ensure your team is available and ready to resolve any issues that may arise. Whether the date of the launch was determined well in advance or more recently, as you firm up those launch plans, you want to make sure you have the appropriate personnel on hand for that launch.

    By preparing to quickly address unexpected issues, you minimize chances that a small problem will turn into a large one, resulting in downtime, frustration, and that aforementioned negative final memory.

    Calendar built of Lego bricks2
    Planning for a website’s launch ensures your team is on hand to handle any issues. (Image: Pedro Vezini).

  • Dealing with the money situation — Very few of us enjoy talking about money and payments with clients. It is an often uncomfortable (yet necessary) part of our jobs. Whether your contract calls for your project to be paid in full prior to the launch of the new website, or if you make other arrangements with your client, problems with payments are one of the quickest ways to turn a good relationship into a strained one. There is no secret formula for handling issues with payments, just some common sense rules you can follow to minimize any damage that outstanding money concerns may affect your client relationship.

    This includes discussing the payment terms and your expectations at the very start of the process, getting everyone in agreement on. It also includes giving clients ample time to pay any invoices and being respectful (and as accommodating as possible), when something does not go according to plan. Financial issues can cause a strain on any relationship, client or otherwise. How you handle those strains can either damage (or strengthen) that relationship.

Leaving A Lasting Impression

First impressions are important, but lasting impressions are just as crucial. Just as a few mistakes at the end of the process can cast a pall over an otherwise successful project, a really great and memorable end to a project can turn an engagement that was unremarkable into one that clients will enthusiastically share with others. Here are a few simple ways you can leave your clients with a very positive, final memory of their experience:

  • Send a token of your appreciation — It seems so basic (and it really is), but it amazes me how rarely we take the time to show our appreciation after a project is completed. This isn’t unique to Web design. When was the last time a company you hired to provide a service went out of their way to thank you after the work was completed and paid for? It doesn’t happen very often — which is why it will have an impact if you do it.

    Your “thank you” doesn’t need to be extravagant to be effective. Some companies you work with may even have a policy against “gifts.” One of my favorite ways to show appreciation at the end of a project is quite inexpensive and very simple — sending a handwritten note, with a personal message, for the client. I also like to have others in our organization (including people who didn’t work on the project, or have any interaction with the client at all) sign the card. This shows how important their business is to the company — the entire company, not just the few of us that they’ve worked with so far.

    The main thing here is to show the client that, even after their project was completed, you were thinking of them. The handwritten nature of the note shows that they were important enough for you to take the time to recognize them in a personal way (instead of just sending a standard “thank you for your business” card or email). Simple, yet effective.

  • Celebrate the launch — A celebratory event of some kind is a great way to cap off a project. Again, this does not need to be elaborate. The “party” could simply be a breakfast or lunch for the client and their employees to introduce them to the new website. Doing this not only shows your appreciation, it also gives you some time with a larger segment of the organization. It allows members of the company who may not have worked directly with you on the project a chance to connect with you and ask any questions they may have about the new website. In some cases, a project may actually warrant a bigger party.

    If the new website is part of a larger initiative (such as the launch of a new company, or a big change in that organization), then they may already be planning an “open house” type event. Ask your client about their plans, and if they are intending to throw a party, request to be involved. Being involved in this party is great for you, giving you exposure to all the attendees in a very positive way — but it is not only a self-serving request. I have found that clients love it when you ask to be involved. They truly appreciate the fact that you care enough to want to be a part of their event and they like the idea that someone who can speak for the technical side of the project may be included in the festivities. It’s really a win-win situation.

    Party balloons3
    Celebrate the launch of a new website and end the project in a memorable way. (Image: SimonWhitaker).

  • Share with others — Clients are often very proud of their new website and are eager to show it to others. As such, they will be very appreciative when you help them spread the word of that new website.

    As long as your contract allows you to do so, you can help raise awareness of the new website by blogging about the project or sharing lessons you have learned during its creation in articles that you author. You can also share it with the Web design community through websites like dribbble or others social networks you use to communicate with your peers or your friends. You should also be on the lookout for the occasions when others talk about or share the new website. If the website is recognized in one of the many online Web design galleries out there, be sure to point this out to your client.

    Seeing this type of recognition from outside sources is a great way to remind them of the successful process and positive results of your project with them.

  • Refer some business — Another simple way to do something positive for your client after a project is completed is to refer them some business. One of my favorite things to do is to identify two clients of mine who may be able to help out each other with the services that they offer, and to make a connection between the two. Schedule a casual lunch to introduce the two companies and you will not only be able to make business referrals for each of them, but you will also get some time with both of those clients under very positive circumstances. This process of referring business and connecting with clients after the project is completed is a perfect segue into this article’s next section — how to build long-term relationships with your clients.

An Ongoing Relationship

The best source of new business for your company comes from your existing clients. It is much easier to work with organizations that already know and trust you than it is to sell your services to companies you have never engaged with before. As such, a process to connect with your existing clients on a regular basis can be very important to your long-term success.

As a project is wrapping up, one of the final things you should do is schedule a follow-up meeting — or better yet, a series of follow up meetings (to review the website post-launch). Regularly scheduled meetings between you and your client allow you to discuss not only how the website is performing and what feedback they have received from their audience, but also what changes may be happening with their company (or what changes you are seeing in the industry that they may need to be aware of). It is a rare instance that I sit down with a client to discuss their business where some kind of work doesn’t come out of it. This is the value of long-term relationships and being a trusted partner to their business. When you help them identify business needs, and can help offer solutions for them, you are more able to develop new business for yourself.

So I don’t give the wrong impression here, let me be clear — even though there is a sales element to these meetings, these are not sales calls. I have long trumpeted the value of creating real relationships with your clients4, and these follow-up meetings are part of that process. This is less about selling them something and more about having a conversation to determine what they may need, and how you can continue to help their business succeed.

Clients Spread The Word

Another great way to get new business is through word of mouth, and the words that come from the mouths of your clients carry lots of weight.

Clients talk to others about their website and the company that helped them build it, so striving to forge a good relationship with them will result in more leads for you.

Statue of women in conversation5
Clients talk to others about you and the work you have done with them. (Image: lawgeek).

You can also encourage your clients to talk about the work you did for them by asking them for a testimonial as soon as the project is done. Even if you don’t use testimonials on your own website, asking your client to provide one (or asking them to act as a reference, or provide a recommendation on LinkedIn) allows them to verbalize their experience with you and your company while it’s still fresh in their mind. The process of writing it down will also help them commit it to memory. Later, when someone asks them who did their website and how their experience was, the positive comments they wrote will come to mind and you will get a quality referral.

Your Work Spreads The Word

Your clients’ websites can also help spread the word of your services if you add a link to your website at the bottom of theirs. This practice of “signing” the website is a bit controversial. I have heard passionate debates from both sides of the argument as to whether or not it is appropriate to add a “designed by” link to a website, one that you were paid good money to create. In fact, for many years I felt it was wrong to do so. What changed my mind was two things:

  1. I saw many other Web design agencies, both big and small, doing this on the websites that they had developed. Many of the agencies I saw doing this were ones that I greatly admired and whose teachings and examples I had followed in many other aspects of my work. I decided to also follow in this and give it a try with my own projects. This led to the second reason why I changed my tune on this practice of signing websites…
  2. The company I work for has added a “website designed by” message and link to every client project that we have launched over the last few years, and in all of that time, not one client has complained. On the contrary, I have had clients actually tell me that they liked having our link on their website because it made it easier for them to find us or to send others our way.

Needless to say, my mind has been completely changed on this practice of adding our link to clients’ websites and hearing “I saw your link on a website and I really liked your work” from a qualified lead is a great start to a conversation with a prospective new client.

Consistency Is The Key

As you read through this article, you most likely said “I do that already” for some (or maybe even all) of the examples presented here — but how often do you do them? It’s one thing to say that you show your appreciation to clients or schedule regular follow-up meetings, but do you do it for all projects, every single time? Not likely.

It is very easy to put off sending a thank you note until later, only to have it be forgotten in the mix of other responsibilities that you have. It is easy for a meeting to be cancelled and never revisited, causing your schedule of regular conversations with your client to fall apart. The ideas presented in this article are not ground-breaking — they are all things you can easily add to your projects, but they are also things that are easy to dismiss or set slide.

The key to realizing consistent returns from these practices is to apply them consistently to your work. If you make them a part of your regular workflow and essential to your process, then the positive results you enjoy from them will also be consistent.

Storybook ending saying Happily Ever After6
Happily ever after starts by ending projects well and building client relationships. (Image: Steve Snodgrass).

In Summary

  • Be mindful that bumps at the end of a project do not derail an otherwise successful engagement.
  • Look for small things you can do at a project’s end to really leave a positive lasting impression with your client.
  • Connect with your clients for regularly scheduled meetings and build long-term relationships that will lead to future projects (and great referrals).
  • Establish a process internally to make these tasks a consistent part of your workflow so you can consistently realize the positive benefits that they can deliver.

By ending projects well, and establishing quality relationships with your clients, you will be one step closer to ending all of your project stories with “happily ever after.”

(jc)

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Jeremy was born with six toes on each foot. The extra toes were removed before he was a year old, robbing him of any super-powers and ending his crime-fighting career before it even began. Unable to battle the forces of evil, he instead works as the Director of Web Development for the Providence, Rhode Island based Envision Technology Advisors and teaches website design at the University of Rhode Island. His portfolio and blog, at Pumpkin-King.com, is where he writes about all things Web design.

  1. 1

    Great article! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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  2. 2

    Eduardo Domingues

    November 24, 2012 1:39 pm

    I loved it : )

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  3. 3

    I’d like to hear about options for post launch maintenance on non-product type sites. I’m adding maintenance terms to my scope of work documents, but I am not in love with the terms and would like to find terms that are a clear win for both my clients & I.

    -2
    • 4

      When you say “maintenance”, are you referring to break/fix type situations, the addition of new features, or ongoing maintenance of content – such as adding new press releases, articles, project stories, etc.?

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      • 5

        By maintenance I mean things like new minor features like a print stylesheet or turning on the forgot password feature, or changes to existing ones based off new content.

        New websites tend to have a bumpy hand off period, at least in my experience, where the client is taking over their CMS and having to put their training into practice. Often there’s frustration associated with learning a new application, and sometimes there’s a gap between expectations and the Scope of Work.

        My latest iteration for maintenance is to have Office Hours the first 3 weeks where I show up on site once a week for an hour or so to go over any questions or concerns & combine that with a heavily discounted block of maintenance hours for the first month after production deployment. I think this is going to mitigate any learning curve frustrations, and make it easy to fill the gap between SOW & expectations while still setting the expectation that my hours are limited and valuable.

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        • 6

          I understand what you mean. Well, I certainly think that the ease of use of the CMS and the training givene would play a big role in how difficult or easy the client finds that hand-off.

          My CMS of choice is ExpressionEngine and I include a few hours of training in all project estimates. This time covers an actual training session using the CMS and their website (not some theoretical “demo” site), a short instructions document (again, tailored specifically to their website, not just the software’s user guide), and a little bit of follow up time after the training to answer questions as needed. In my experience, there really are very few “bumps” in the road with this training plan and the ease of use of the CMS.

          In terms of minor new features, I handle those on a case-by-case basis and they are billed according to an hourly rate. Hopefully all necessary features and functionality was identified in an earlier Discovery process and proper expectations were set, so it should be some time after launch for these new features to become necessary, but even if they do become critical immediately after launch, I would consider that a change to the project scope and proceed accordingly.

          1
  4. 7

    Justin Moore-Brown

    November 24, 2012 9:17 pm

    Dig the article and appreciated the part about “signing” websites. I’ve always heard mixed opinions about this myself but personally, I felt it was a good thing to do!

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  5. 8

    Helpful and Interesting! Liked it from top to bottom.

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  6. 9

    interesting one.., a soothing way which will make make any client to return..,

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  7. 10

    I like the Author’s bio/about me snippet :)

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  8. 11

    Love the part about sending a handwritten note – such a simple gesture, but goes a long way to leaving a lasting impression. I’ve also started the process of sending thank you gifts to people who refer me.

    Thanks for the great write up!

    1
  9. 12

    “Very few of us enjoy talking about money and payments with clients. It is an often uncomfortable (yet necessary) part of our jobs.”

    Don’t make this out to be a taboo subject.

    A freelancer/independent/contractor needs to have a solid grasp of how payment is defined in a contract and how to hold a client to those terms. Its business, social niceties play into it a bit, but at the end of the day when a service is rendered in good faith then payment must be made.

    Work hard to overcome “feeling uncomfortable” about talking payments with a client, you do yourself a disservice otherwise.

    4
  10. 13

    I do like the article, but I think it’s more agency related…
    I personally think (as a standalone freelancer) it is allready hard to find clients who are willing to pay the price you ask them for your quality of work. (In times of crisis, people tend to go shopping more often).

    I do include building personal tutorials (in PDF, how to use the CMS, etc) and I give a presentation explaining the tutorials.

    But if I have to visit my clients afterwards, (next to visiting new customers for offers) I totally don’t have time to do what I love to do, building websites.

    Don’t get me wrong, I keep this definetly in mind when I start up my own agency…

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  11. 14

    This is a timely article to remind us of consistency in building relationships with clients.

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