Distinguishing Between Why Clients Leave, Come, And Stay With You

One of the positioning mistakes I see fairly frequently is this: confusing the reasons prospective clients choose you with the reasons existing clients stay with you. This is a problem because:

  • Pretty much every firm promises a similar experience and there's very little opportunity for meaningful differentiation around the working relationship.
  • Prospective clients can't adequately evaluate the promises you're making until they jump ship from their current firm and experience what a working relationship is like with yours.
  • There's a massive selection bias when you take what recently acquired clients say and assume that they won't say the same thing about you one day. In other words, you're paying more attention to the signals of newly acquired clients than the signals from recently departed clients who have left you for another firm.

Let's look at these three things, in the same order:

Client Experience Claims Are Not Meaningfully Different

Anybody who says anything about it will claim that it's great to work with them. Most firms drone on and on about transparency, cooperation, listening, and teamwork. And then some firms don't talk too much about it, but there's no one saying:

"We're a little different. We attempted the 'listen to clients' thing and found that it just slowed us up too much, clients were often wrong, and we decided to quit pretending and just apply our expertise from the start. It saves time and money, and you'll be glad we did."

Yes, you probably ought to put some sort of stake in the ground for what the client experience is like, but it's not going to mean much...just because everyone else is pretty much saying the same thing.

Client Experience Claims Are Unverifiable

Picture most any prospective client. Part of what it means to be a prospective client is that you aren't the first digital shop or creative studio or software engineering firm they've worked with, so they are leaving another provider to come to you. They are obviously unhappy, but they've also hammered out a way to get good enough work out of their current firm. There are things that irritate them, but the current firm is the devil they know; how do they know they aren't initiating all this disruption to just to end up in another similar situation nine months from now? Sure, you say you are different, but how do they really know? That information can come from references (which are always rigged), or from the selling experience (which can always be manipulated). But my preferred answer to that is some smaller, off-the-shelf diagnostic or roadmapping exercise where they can date you before they marry you. I know, I know. Some of you are still attached to your future ex-mates because you went too fast, you lied to yourself, or things changed, but why do we ask new clients to get married before we date a bit?

So what you are saying about what it's like to work with you might very well be true, but some of the claims just have to be taken with a dose of faith, or rather skepticism. Process, properly understood, can help with this, by the way. But it can also frustrate clients. The tighter your positioning, the more controlling your process can be; the looser your positioning, the more your process needs to mimic order-taking.

You're Plagued With A Massive Selection Bias

This one always makes me smile, and I'm smiling right now! Over and over again I hear my clients assure me that they are different. "Nearly every client that comes to us tells us how they are looking for a firm like ours: one that listens, digs deeper, and takes a more comprehensive approach." What they are missing is how selective this is. They are comparing what a client says who is just leaving a firm with what that client is saying about their new firm. They hate one of them and (for now) love the new one. It's not a fair comparison.

If you wanted a fair comparison, you'd compare what clients say when they leave that other evil firm with what they say when they leave you, the really special firm. In aggregate, the answers will all be the same. So you can't tell me—with a straight face—that "everyone else claims to be great, but we really are, and we know that because of what new clients consistently tell us!" Now, if you want to incorporate why those same clients leave you one day, then have at it.

Speaking of which, why do clients leave you? Sometimes it's because there's a new sheriff in town who wants his own deputy; sometimes you've switched the account person one too many times; sometimes your own abilities as a firm haven't kept pace with what your clients need. And a dozen other reasons. But usually it's because, later, you quit treating them like new clients and slowly slide into taking them for granted. You tweaked last year's plan rather than taking a fresh look from a zero-based perspective, but ultimately you quit growing the account in their best interest.

So, what does this mean? Be the kind of firm that clients want to work with over time, but don't assume that message is effective at attracting clients in the first place. They come to you for your great positioning, while you say the right things about relationship building; they stay with you because you keep your promises; and they leave you because you take them for granted, typically. For some great reading, check out this recent report by the good folks at the DBA in the UK.

If you need assistance with your positioning, service offering design, and lead gen plan, we can help with a New Business Audit ($15k). Or if you want help with that plus a performance benchmarking, how to structure roles and people and processes, and then some future proofing of your firm, all of those things are built into a Total Business Reset ($25k).

If you enjoy the illustrations that capture these concepts, the thanks go to Emily Mills at Flavor Graphics. She’s a leading graphic recorder and illustrator, and you can see her work in my upcoming book on the advisor’s tradecraft. She’s also authored an excellent book on the subject.

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