Why Aren’t You Still Working with that Client from 2008 (or Earlier)?

by Peter Bowerman on September 11, 2012

I recently heard from an old commercial writing client for whom I hadn’t worked in probably five or six years. She had a small copywriting project, along with a vague “and we’ve got a few other things cooking we might need your help with.” Always a nice treat when old clients surface, but there’s always a bit of a nagging voice that comes with it…

“How come you stopped working with them in the first place?”

The easy answer? Well, the project you were working on for them ended, you both got busy, and the old “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” thing took over. Never sounds very satisfying, because it points to laziness on my part in the follow-up department. It’s like the natural order of things is that YOU should be contacting them and discovering they have a job for you. NOT them having to reach out to you.

The latter seems to imply that there might very well have been many other commercial freelancing jobs, big and small, you could have done for them in the ensuing years, but you missed out because you weren’t top-of-mind when those gigs came along. And not being top-of-mind also means missing out on possible referrals as well. Sigh.

As confirmation (the self-flagellation now begins in earnest…), she said she was reaching out because the copywriter she’d been using just wasn’t getting it done. Sheesh. And it gets worse. She says, “I need a writer who can write like only you can.”

You know, like he did on that flurry of work five years back, all of which they loved, and after which, he just vanished. What was I thinking? That that would be all they’d ever need? Turn that knife.

I have a dear friend—and fellow commercial freelancer—here in Atlanta who’s been working with one client steadily for about five years. Seems, every time we talk, their name surfaces as part of the “what’s-on-my-plate-now” conversation. They’ve made her multiple offers over the years to come onboard full-time. But, she’s resisted. Hey, why buy the cow, etc., etc.

She gets constant work from them because she knows their business inside and out, is a great writer, incredibly thorough, knows PowerPoint like the back of her hand (along with several other programs; no, you don’t have to be so technically inclined to succeed as a commercial freelancer, but it doesn’t hurt). In short, she’s incredibly capable and versatile.

So, when the workload with a client is steady and ongoing, as it is with hers, it’s easy to not lose touch. But clients like that (i.e., providing a virtually unbroken streak of work) are most definitely the exception, not the rule, in this commercial copywriting business of ours.

Now, I’ve been pretty good at keeping in touch with most of my clients over the years, but if I’m going to be honest here—and Exhibit A above makes it hard to come to any other conclusion—there are a handful of clients who would have been turning to me far more often over the past years had I done a better job of keeping in touch.

Recently, thanks to that blast-from-the-past client call, I reached out to a bunch of those “fell-through-the-crackers.” While nothing’s come of it yet, I’m back on their radar, with an OK to check back in on X date, so that’s all good.

Yes, as we all know, there are a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with us, why we might stop working with a client: company goes out of business; our contact leaves for another company, and the new one has their favorite writer; company hires an in-house writer (or just dumps the writing off on that overworked admin), etc.

But, that’s not the whole story, and we all know it. As the marketing truism reminds (uncomfortably, perhaps?), “It’s far easier to get more work from an existing client than to land a new one.”

Have you had an old client get back in touch after several years, making you realize you’d done a sorry job of regular follow-up?

How do you ensure good clients, even those without steady, ongoing work, keep you “top of mind” for when they do need a writer?

Have you had a steady client that’s hired you for at least 3 years? If so, what do you do (besides write really well) that keeps them coming back?

Have you just thought of a few clients you lost touch with? And what are you going to do about it? ;)

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy Miller September 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Since this is only my fifth year since starting my business, I do not have a huge stable of former clients. Most former clients are from my early days of naive underpricing of fees. But, I still keep in touch with ones I’d like to work with again (in terms of easy to work with). You never know when their situation could change.

I have two clients where I like to say they spawned new clients. My contacts went to new employers. I ended up keeping their old employer as a client and added their new employer as a client.

But, you’re right, Peter. I can think of a couple where I could do a better job of cultivating.

I have a couple of methods I use for staying in touch. 1) I share industry information I think would be of interest to them. 2) I follow their company on LinkedIn (if they have a page) and will send notes of congrats if there’s promotions or what have you, 3) I also follow the individual on LinkedIn to see if there’s any changes -like a new employer, 4) I (selectively) share their business blog posts or announcements.

I have three clients – 1 for all 5 years and 2 for 3+years – who keep me in projects. What helped there was prodding them into discussing their marketing/communication strategy for the year. One put me on a retainer as a result. The other two have a targeted number of projects per quarter.

Thanks for a great noodge, Peter. I’m going to touch base with those 2 clients I mentioned. :-)

Joseph Ratliff September 11, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Peter,

Great topic.

In the beginning, I was dumb enough to think that once a project was done, the client would just assign another project if they continued to need my services.

In short, I was what I now call a “Freelance Order Taker”.

Now, I try to do two key things with each client to encourage those new assignments (in addition to the regular “build relationship” type of stuff).

1. I try to make an impact with my attention to the project details, listening to the client, and with my work ethic on a project. The better the impact, the more of the “We can’t live without your services” reaction I get.

2. I also try to discover any additional ways my services can benefit my client’s business. They might hire me initially to write a sales letter… but then there is an opportunity for emails, additional marketing materials, direct mail, etc…

It’s served me well, and I’ve worked with 2 – 4 clients off and on for the last 4 years. Two of them continuously for that time.

I guess the short version is… make yourself valuable. You have to help your client use your services to their fullest value.

Peter September 12, 2012 at 6:51 am

Excellent post. It’s much easier to get new business off existing clients than new ones.

I like Cathy’s idea of keeping up with clients on Linkedin. Also Joseph’s ways of helping out clients – I try to do the same. As many of my projects involve writing websites, I often check up on the website six months or a year down the road, make sure everything’s in place (e.g. the tags) and see how they’re doing on Google. I then have a valid reason to get in touch, even if it’s just (hopefully) something like: ‘Great to see you ranking so well for those important keyword terms, now how about …’

Peter DeHaan September 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm

I don’t know if it applies to commercial writing, but when I was a consultant, one of the best pieces of advice I was given was that at the completion of each project, pitch the next one.

Jake P September 13, 2012 at 2:49 pm

I call these “Halley’s Clients”–not quite 80 years between re-entering my orbit, but it can seem like it. I’m generally pretty good about keeping in touch, but this is a good reminder to schedule a few coffee klatches with folks I liked working with but haven’t seen for a while. So thanks for the gentle kick in the pants.

I still work regularly with the very first client I ever successfully cold-called based on The Well Fed Writer, way back in 2000. (I couldn’t begin to calculate the number of referrals they’ve generated, either.) I can’t say there’s any real strategic magic to it–they’re a mom-and-pop pair of designers and we hit it off from day 1. I’m extra-responsive to their projects, have helped them out in countless emergency situations, and bonded through some tough slogs with unruly end clients. There’s definitely something to be said for being unflappable.

Peter Bowerman September 20, 2012 at 9:09 am

Great stuff, everyone!

Cathy, excellent strategies all, for keeping in touch with clients, without specifically badgering them for work. Keep reminding them of the value you bring to them, keep having them see you as a partner, not a vendor (or as Joseph so accurately put in, an “order taker”). In that same vein, getting them to think and TALK, about the long term, is a great strategy for keeping those cards and letters coming… ;)

Making yourself valuable, as Joseph outlines, is where it all starts: great, error-free copy, that makes their life easier, and takes things off their plate, doesn’t add to it. My friend (discussed above) with the long-term client is definitely perceived as a “can’t-live-without” resource by her client, and what a wonderful position to be in THAT is. Not only because she does great work, but because she has such range, and can work on so many different projects.

That’s where being a generalist can really make a difference, when working with those small- to medium-sized clients who have needs across the spectrum, and don’t want to hire 5-6 different writers to handle 5-6 different project types.

And good idea, Peter! Because that’s just the kind of thing (SEO stuff) that can go by the wayside over time. Not that we’re all experts on that, but it’s not hard to get some basics under your belt.

And Peter D., yes, pitching the next one would ensure continuity, but that may not always be feasible in our business, unless we HAVE done some digging around on their site and seen some things that could use attention. At least, we should be asking, “What’s next?” And at the VERY least, we should set the next time to get in touch.

Good stuff, Jake! And how cool it is that you’re still working with the first client you picked up in 2000. NOT a common occurrence, for sure. But then when I read that they were graphic designers, it made sense. While projects have slowed down some from my main graphic designer, we worked together steadily for 15 years!

They’re ideal candidates for long-term, steady clients: if you establish a good working relationship with them, and they love the work you do for them (work that makes them more successful, their clients happier, and their portfolios more impressive), as long as they’re in business, why would they go anywhere else?

Which, of course, was my rap in my ebook on the subject I came out with last year. Sorry, I couldn’t resist! ;)

Anyone else have stories to share?

PB

Star September 22, 2012 at 12:34 pm

A lot of my clients went under–no, it was not my fault, I don’t think. My best, WebMD, tanked when a fact checker and I disagreed–and she prevailed–and celebrities called and said my article was wrong. Yes, I know! Anyhow, life in the fast lane. I do think clilent relationships can have a lifespan–that this is a somewhat fickle business. But thinking back to who is still around can’t hurt.

Lori October 1, 2012 at 9:50 am

Who hasn’t let that one client slip through the cracks? Guilty as charged. Though I will say some of the clients who did slip through the cracks are ones who probably would not be able to pay my new hourly rate. Still, there are a few who can.

Because I’m more visually oriented, I started a client spreadsheet. I list the client’s name, contact info, date I contacted them, and any notes regarding the interactions/projects. It’s helped keep me in front of people with whom I’ve made direct, face-to-face contact, and with those who are “email pals” only. As I get the gigs, it’s too easy to slack off marketing, so I make myself promise to market a little every day, even if it’s contact via Twitter or LinkedIn.

I get in touch every six to eight weeks. That’s how they remember who I am. That said, I left a blog comment once about 10 months ago that resulted in a phone call and gig last month. Didn’t follow up on that one like I should have!

At the moment, I’m working with three clients who have funneled work to me steadily for three years of better. I’d take a bullet for a few of them, too (figuratively, of course). What I do is keep them happy and create a friendly rapport. One editor considers me the honorary fourth staff member (as does the editor-in-chief). I make their jobs easier by doing beyond what they expect, and I make it fun. Even if you’re not into sharing quips with the clients, you can show your value by being flexible and friendly.

Oh, and for the editors, toss them some ideas on occasion. They love it when you make their jobs easier.

I can think of a handful of clients with whom I’ve lost touch (only briefly — just a few short months). I have one on my list of contacts for today’s marketing efforts, but maybe it’s time to put the other one on there, too.

Another client stopped calling shortly after a little misunderstanding about how payment is not contingent on their using what I’d worked two months on. Their marketing firm intervened without my knowledge, and I got paid. But I suspect the marketing dude wanted me out of the picture because HE was someone who didn’t pay until I threatened litigation. Not sorry to see them go entirely. They were always last-minute, need-it-today people and while that worked in the first three years of our relationship, it wouldn’t fly today. I simply don’t have time.

Peter Wise October 5, 2012 at 11:58 am

Sadly, as Lori touched on, there’s sometimes another reason why you aren’t still working with those clients you’ve been with for years. I’m thinking of one translation agency client I used to do a lot for three or four years ago, until the deadlines got shorter and shorter and the money less and less.

Over recent months they’ve also developed a habit of putting writers on standby for jobs that never materialise. The final straw was just a few days ago when I was asked to do some proofreading (for a very well-known client of theirs). Not only was it a rush job, the rate they were prepared to give would have worked out at less than you would get flipping burgers. I’ll probably just ignore them from now on, but I am tempted to formally tell them to get knotted permanently.

Peter Bowerman October 9, 2012 at 6:54 am

Stay in the game long enough, and stuff (as in not very positive stuff) inevitably happens, like what what transpired with Star. No fun, I’m sure. Thankfully, the overwhelming bulk of my work has been corporate stuff (vs. researched articles for public dissemination), where you’re getting your source material from the client, and as such, they’re responsible for its accuracy.

Great stuff, Lori. The spreadsheet idea is a good one, as it graphically gives you a current snapshot of your client base, so the “contact gaps” can’t hide! And good reaffirmation of the basics that’ll keep clients coming back: staying flexible, delivering more than expected, being easy and fun to work with, always looking for ways to make their lives easier, etc.

And I liked your (and Peter’s) subtext about dealing with problem clients: the gradual evolution (by virtue of growing portfolio and confidence, and the accompanying self-respect) of what you will and will not put up with anymore. While good, well-paying clients don’t fall out of trees into our laps, they’re definitely out there, and worth working to find, if the alternative is being abused by clients expecting more for less.

And there’s also sort of a “circle-of-life” thing going on here. As we outgrow certain clients, it’s just smart to leave them to those starting out, who understand the importance of paying their dues, and for whom tight deadlines and lower fees or okay at that point in their careers. if it provides the crucial stepping stones to a better place.

PB

Diana Schneidman October 18, 2012 at 8:53 am

I love Jake’s designation for clients who show up rarely: Halley’s Clients.

I was writing a newsletter every 2 months for an out-of-town client. It kept going like clockwork. Then came the time he didn’t start the process on time as I expected. Turns out he had been let go by the company and the replacement had an agency he had long worked with.

Oh well. That’s why we have to keep marketing.

-Diana

Martin Sayers October 22, 2012 at 6:48 am

Some great tips here – thanks all. I have always found it hard to stay in touch with former clients.

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