Without clients, you don’t have a business. But they are more than what’s keeping your business afloat. Your client list tells the world that you are trustworthy, that you know what you’re doing, and that you might be the solution that a potential client has been looking for. This is the best kind of marketing—substantive and free.
William Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” Past clients will determine your firm’s future, so you should energetically engage with the clients you have already earned, to build on your success.
How can you think strategically about current and future clients?
1) Introductions and recruiting: A great client may not pay you the most but will evangelize on your behalf, and refer you within their sector and circles to new clients. This is far better than receiving a larger check from a less proactive client, because you have traded one large client for a broader stream of revenue, which won’t dry up if your whale suddenly moves or goes out of business.
2) Acquiring new expertise: Working with a client on a key issue area can brand and distinguish your firm. Eighteen months ago, my firm began working with a new client, Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a cutting-edge neuroscientist and pioneer in the field of cognitive health. She had the second-most watched TED talk on Facebook in 2018, with over 32 million views of her speech on the brain-changing benefits of exercise. As a client, her unmatched reputation in her field has advanced my firm’s profile in the medtech, neurotech, and wellness areas.
3) Reflecting your values: Choosing distinctive clients that reflect your values sends a message to like-minded people who may need your services. For example, Nike intentionally continued its relationship with former quarterback Colin Kaepernick despite the hostility of the National Football League, sending a clear message to its customers and its partners. Similarly, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz committed to providing health insurance for even part-time Starbucks baristas despite the costs, as he thought it was important, it would help retain workers, and be demonstrative of how he hoped people would see Starbucks. Sometimes sending a public message leads people to your door. (And makes people feel better about spending $7 for a latte).
4) Marketing: A client with a vibrant public profile may be worth more to you in total value than a higher fee from a less public client. Tracy Anderson‘s fitness empire owes a great deal to her famous clients that include Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna, public associations that have motivated many other clients to choose her fitness studios. At my firm, our early successes spearheading Santander UK’s New York trade missions made us stand out as results-based experts in helping foreign companies enter the U.S. market.
5) Opportunities to expand: A client can allow you to expand into a novel area, but on their behalf. This is an opportunity to test your skills and acquire additional expertise, while getting paid for it. For example, in 1998 Oprah Winfrey hired jury consultant Dr. Phil McGraw when she was being sued over her comments about the beef industry and mad cow disease. He was so effective and distinctive for her that she brought him onto her show, then built him his own show on her network. This took Dr. Phil from being a fairly compensated, barely known jury consultant to becoming a nationally recognizable, astronomically well-paid TV talk show host.
And now, a few words on saying goodbye.
There are two main reasons to fire a client. The first is if you don’t think you can succeed on their behalf. A recent foreign tech client of ours had promised to implement important structural changes, but then failed to do so. As a result, we didn’t think we could accomplish our promised goals, so we felt it necessary to end our engagement. The second reason is if a client can actively damage your brand. The San Antonio City Council just banned Chick-fil-A from its airport on account of the company’s “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.” The fast food business was due to open there, but the City Council decided its presence would harm business and tourism and negatively affect San Antonio’s reputation. Fair or not, you will publicly be considered complicit with your clients’ views and actions, so understanding when to regretfully disassociate from them is critical.
Clients are the lifeblood of any business. They can open up new avenues, recruit new clients, teach you things you didn’t know, and make you look better than you already do. Understanding how your clients help or hurt your business is a level of strategic analysis critical to solid management and business planning. You may not know what the future holds for your company, but your client list is certainly a good harbinger of things to come.
Alexandra Stanton is the CEO of Empire Global Ventures LLC, a New York City-based international business development firm.