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Building Long-Term Client Relationships: Everybody Grows, Everybody Wins

Jon Reis

Jon Reis

Jon Reis

Jon Reis

We've all heard the business truism that 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your clients. It may be much easier to keep your current clients than to find new ones, but it seems sometimes we ignore our steady clients and they stray to some new kid on the block. In my studio, new clients are welcome, even if they turn out to be a one-time shot. For example, studio portrait clients who have a specific need and are not likely to call again soon.

When a client comes along who offers you exactly the kind of work you love to do, it makes good sense to make them a client for life, to nurture them and keep them happy.

The Blueprint

How do you create a client for life? First of all, do whatever it takes to get the photos the client needs. Second, work within their budget. This will make them happy and more likely to hire you again. Third, recognize that keeping a good client takes less effort, gives you the kind of work you like to do, and is more productive than chasing new work that may bring clients who aren't as easy to work with.

Stay in touch with your best clients via a short phone call or email each month. As your business relationship develops, be sure to pick up on personal information they share with you. For example, if they mention their kids' names or that they love dogs, inquire about their children or pets when you call so they know you are more than just a business relationship to them.

If you do it right, if and when they change jobs, they'll remember you and hire you for their new company. And if you have a good track record with their old company, you'll retain that account, as well.

Case in Point

The best way to illustrate the value of long-time business relationships is with an example. An acquaintance of mine took his love of historic preservation, understanding of building materials, and knowledge of technical climbing, and founded a company called Vertical Access in 1992. Vertical Access provides specialized inspection for architects, engineers, and conservators who are planning major renovations of tall historic structures without having to install swing stages or building scaffolding.

The company started out shooting video and still images of the building surfaces. Eventually, the owner asked me to take documentary photos of them at work on some well-known buildings to build credibility with larger clients.

The jobs were fun. They got me out of the studio and eventually out of town. On two occasions, I offered to get myself to far-flung locations with my frequent flyer miles in order for them not to hire a "local photographer." I also bought specialized equipment, such as better tripods, long, fast lenses with polarizers, and walkie-talkie radios to communicate with climbers on high structures a quarter-mile away.

With each job, I did my scouting, plotting sun angles and shadows. I also contacted building managers to gain access to their roofs or ledges so I could show the climbers working by shooting across one to three city blocks.

We've worked together 10 years now. As the company has grown and prospered, I have also grown and prospered. The owner now records the building materials with digital cameras and I have bought digital cameras, as well. Although we only work together a few times a year, we often discuss the challenges of the new technology we share. We also share business-marketing advice and give each other tips on managing employees. I even referred my bookkeeper to him. Now he's her new client.

In 1999, Vertical Access won a prominent assignment. A team of architects and engineers selected them to inspect the spire and upper roof of the Chrysler Building to identify leaks in the structure. I did my usual homework, rented long lenses, spent three days getting access to high places, and got the photos they wanted.

In his last online newsletter, my client recently ran a story about his "company photographer," which brought an inquiry from an architect who was looking to hire a photographer. I'm awaiting their decision. Being in the newsletter has often led to inquiries from other architects and third-party sales.

Any way you look at it, building long-term relationships is clearly a win-win situation.