In most businesses, managing customer relationships is a key to success. If you’re able to build and preserve a good customer relationship, you’ll encourage that customer to do more business with you. Even better, you’ll incentivize them to refer other customers your way—resulting in both customer retention and customer acquisition with a single approach.
There are some obvious do’s and don’ts when managing customer relationships—for example, it’s a bad idea to play elaborate April Fool’s Day pranks on brand new customers—but customer relationship building requires a nuanced approach, with attention to areas you may not initially consider.
In this guide, we’ll explore some of the best tips and strategies for creating and reinforcing great customer relationships.
Managing Customer Relationships: High-Level Objectives and Priorities
There are a few important fundamentals that are going to apply to multiple categories at once. Master these, and you’ll be well on your way to better customer relationship management:
1. Make the customer’s objectives your objectives.
Your first step in managing customer relationships is to align your objectives with your customer’s. Your business has its own set of objectives, such as making a profit, selling as much as possible, and following certain procedures. But if customer relationships are important to you, they should sometimes take precedence; for example, if you usually sell combination web design and web development packages, but your client already has designs drawn up, consider offering a development-only package to fit their needs. Compromise is key here, even though you won’t always be able to compromise; the trick is to lean toward the client’s objectives whenever you can, and learn to withdraw or bow out if you can’t meet those objectives.
2. Under-promise and over-deliver.
You’ve probably heard this advice a million times in your career, but it really is that important. Too many new account managers and inexperienced professionals try to make a bold impression or land a new sale by promising more than they can reasonably deliver; they get aggressive when setting deadlines, project low costs, or pledge features and services they can’t truly accommodate. Inevitably, they end up disappointing clients. Instead, under-promise and over-deliver—surpassing expectations instead of missing them. It leaves a great impression and builds trust and confidence.
3. Respect their time.
Everyone is concerned with time management, to some degree, and time is important to your client. It’s important that you respect their time, and understand that your business relationship isn’t necessarily their main goal or priority. Whenever possible, shorten their time obligations (e.g., send shorter emails, host shorter meetings, etc.), and try not to bother them in the meantime. Also, don’t automatically expect them to attend meetings or answer phone calls; respect their other responsibilities.
4. Observe and adapt.
I could list hundreds of tips to make your clients happy, but there’s a problem—not all of them will work equally well with every client, or for every business. There are simply too many variables at play when it comes to business relationships and personal relationships; there’s no one set of procedures that will always work. Accordingly, your best course of action is to constantly observe and adapt. How does this client operate? How are they responding? What’s working and what isn’t? Use these insights to tweak your approach over time to managing customer relationships.
Managing Customer Relationships: Onboarding
First impressions matter. When you’re bringing clients on, or working with them for the first time, it’s important to set the right tone. A good first impression can provide the runway for a long-term, successful partnership—but a bad first impression can jeopardize your chances.
5. Meet face-to-face at least once.
I think email is the best communication medium overall. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it leaves a permanent trail. But it has weaknesses, and I’m not reluctant to admit that. You can’t convey tone or body language over email, and it’s harder to make a personal connection. That’s why I recommend always meeting your clients face-to-face at least once, and preferably early on in the process. Depending on the nature of your relationship, more face-to-face meetings may be warranted.
6. Break the ice and get personal.
The first meeting is going to set the tone for your entire relationship. Most people take this as a cue to be as polished and professional as possible. While this is generally a good thing, it can also make you seem stilted, cold, or robotic. In addition to maintaining an aura of professionalism, try to break the ice—crack some jokes, make small talk, and work to establish a real, human connection with your customers.
7. Send new or long-time customers a physical gift.
When I was working as CEO of my marketing agency in my last job, we started an initiative where we would send a gift basket to new customers with a custom thank-you note for trusting us with their marketing goals. It resulted in lots of positive feedback, including publicly on Twitter, like this one!
— Ryan Bartlett (@seo_direct) July 18, 2014
You can send gift baskets easily to anyone from Amazon.com, and it’s not that expensive – you can find them in the range of $20-40. It adds a real-life touch to your relationship, especially if you mostly deal with clients in an online or digital capacity only. A gift basket full of treats lasts for days, and can be shared with the whole office, which makes everyone’s attitude toward your brand instantly favorable. It helps with customer retention, too!
8. Set goals together.
Taking the time to set goals together is vital, for a few reasons. First, it allows you to thoroughly understand your customer’s definition of success, while also setting proper expectations on how you can help them achieve those goals. Second, it gives you something concrete to work for; no matter what, you can always compare your progress to this goal. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it’s an opportunity to engage with your customer. Don’t let them see you as a simple arm of their organization, or a cleanup crew to take care of something they want to do. Instead, make them see you as partners working toward a common goal. This sets the tone for a productive, lasting, and mutually beneficial partnership.
Managing Customer Relationships: Communication
Managing customer relationships depends on your ability to communicate effectively, both in terms of conveying your ideas accurately and in terms of managing customer expectations and feelings.
9. Be transparent and open.
Transparency and openness are necessary if you want to build trust, and they can go a long way in preventing (and smoothing over) hard feelings after a mistake. Transparency requires that you’re honest and upfront about how your organization works; when asked a question, you should answer honestly. When talking about your process, don’t exaggerate anything. If your client ever finds out you’re lying, or that you’re hiding something significant, they may never trust you again.
10. Acknowledge uncertainty.
In all forms of communication, client managers love to be seen as experts. This desire is completely understandable; if you can provide better insights and more trustworthy efforts, clients will be less likely to consider a competitor. However, too many novices use this as an excuse to make things up, or provide an incomplete answer. Ultimately, this works against you. It’s typically better to acknowledge your own uncertainty, so long as you do it positively; for example, say “that’s a really good question, but I’m not 100 percent sure on the answer. Let me research and get back to you so I can address your query confidently.”
11. Meet at regular intervals.
Most people don’t “like” meetings, but they’re an important opportunity to exchange information openly in a group. It’s also a good chance to catch up in general. No matter what your objectives are or how you operate, meeting with clients regularly is a good idea. The exact intervals and meeting agendas will depend on the nature of your business and the nature of your relationship.
12. Don’t make the client come to you with questions.
For the most part, if a client comes to you with a question, like “what kind of results should I expect?” or “how exactly do you do this?”, it’s a sign that you’ve got some work to do. It’s your job to make everything clear from the outset, and if something changes in the course of your work, it’s your responsibility to notify them. The only exception here is if your client forgets something you’ve explained in the past or needs a refresher; the main point is to be proactive.
13. Be clear about the client’s responsibilities.
Sooner or later, you’ll need the client to provide something, whether it’s a file, an answer to a question, or a piece of contact information. Don’t assume they’re going to provide this to you, and don’t be ambiguous with your requests. Be clear and upfront about what you need from the client, and be prepared to follow up if they aren’t timely in their response (without overloading them with email).
14. Always meet deadlines.
Managing customer relationships means managing deadlines carefully; these are real make-or-break moments for your client relationships. If you miss a deadline with no forewarning, even once, you may never be able to fully restore a customer’s trust. Watch your deadlines closely, never assuming you’re going to meet them without evidence. If you ever get an indication that you might be late on something, address it as soon as possible, explain why, and do what you can to get back on track.
15. Be proactive with recommendations.
Are you sensing a theme with proactivity? As the expert in your field, you should have recommendations for your client, whether it’s new services to enlist, different tactics to take on, or a new direction for their strategy. Be proactive, thorough, and frequent with these recommendations to prove your value. Just be careful if you’re recommending additional services; you don’t want to come across as a pushy salesperson.
16. Contradict the customer when it’s in their best interest.
“The customer’s always right” is a fine sentiment, but an inaccurate statement, especially if they’re coming to you as an expert in your field. If the client makes a request that violates best practices or otherwise isn’t the best course of action, let them know. Be polite about it, but don’t be afraid to assert your opinion. You’ll likely earn more respect and trust—not to mention getting better results in the campaign.
Managing Customer Relationships: Troubleshooting
Inevitably, things are going to go wrong when managing customer relationships. You’ll miss a deadline, forget a document, or otherwise embarrass yourself in front of the client. Yikes. But don’t worry, these missteps happen even to the most experienced professionals; what really matters is what you do next.
17. Keep a cool head.
The most important thing is to stay calm. If you sound panicky or eagerly apologetic in your communications, your client is going to think two things: one, the situation is worse than they think, and two, you aren’t able to control your own emotions. Don’t let this happen. Instead, use deep breathing, meditation, or whatever other strategies you want to stay in charge of your emotions and keep a flat affect.
18. Stay positive and future-focused.
Keep all your messages and intentions focused on the future, and be optimistic about it. It’s important to acknowledge what went wrong in the past (as we’ll see in the next point), but don’t dwell; instead, talk about what you’re going to do next. Sure, things are bad, but how are they going to get better?
19. Admit to your mistakes.
That said, admit to your mistakes. Nobody is perfect, so if you try to make excuses for whatever went wrong, you’re going to come off as desperate, or deceitful, with no personal accountability. Instead, it’s usually much more effective to explain what went wrong on your end; for example, was it a flawed internal process? A miscommunication between coworkers? An app failure? You’ll earn more respect and trust this way, and you’ll also get the chance to explain how you’ll prevent this from happening in the future.
20. Restore and make up for problems.
This is an obvious tip, but an important one. If you make a mistake or encounter a problem that comes with bad results for the client, do what you can to make up the difference. A discount on a future purchase, a free additional service, or a partial refund can serve as a gesture that you care about this client and you understand the extent of your mistake.
Managing Customer Relationships: Portfolio Control
Understand that how you manage your client portfolio will also play a role in how well you manage your client relationships. Let me explain.
21. Assign designated point people whenever possible.
Customers typically prefer to have one dedicated person to contact at your organization, even if that person is responsible for multiple customers. It helps them focus their messages and efforts, and gives them more of a chance to develop a personal bond. This person will be responsible for ongoing communications, service management, and a collection of other responsibilities meant to improve the customer relationship. Don’t try to split these responsibilities among multiple people for a single client.
22. Understand that not all clients are equal, and divide attention accordingly.
Some clients are more valuable than others, from a revenue or profitability standpoint. Some clients are needier than others, requiring more meetings and more attention. Some clients are more straightforward or “conventional” than others. Understand this, and balance your efforts accordingly; if a low-revenue, unconventional, needy customer is demanding your attention, you may need to scale back your resource allocation to them in favor of a straightforward, minimalistic, revenue-heavy customer.
23. Always part on good terms.
Some customers may have needs that are too complex, or may otherwise not be a good fit for your organization. When you discover them, firing them may be the best option. If you do have to part ways, make sure you don’t burn the bridge; even if you never talk to this customer again, they may leave reviews or make recommendations that affect your business’s customer-facing reputation in the future.
As you’ve come to learn, the most important ingredient in managing customer relationships is your ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and consistently. But how can you tell whether you’re effective in this area?
One of the best communication analytics tools available today is EmailAnalytics, our own tool, which we’ve designed to integrate directly with Gmail and G Suite to tell you more about your productivity, email habits, and even your client relationships. With it, you’ll learn your top senders and recipients, your busiest times and days, and even metrics like your average response time and average thread length. Sign up for a free trial today, and learn more about how you can become a better communicator.
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.