Businesses, and business owners, go through a natural evolutionary cycle.
Often, small businesses are started by the young (or in my case, comparatively young!) full of excitement and enthusiasm. Small business owners start with an idea – sometimes it’s simply an idea that working for yourself has got to be better than working for the Man, more often it’s the idea of making or at least selling the better mousetrap.
At the start we jump at every opportunity to “find business”. We attend seminars and hand out business cards, we follow leads, we make friends with customers and develop relationships and referral bases. However in time, the energy spent finding business dissipates somewhat. Sometimes this comes from disappointment but more usually because running a business is genuinely hard and over time, as the business employs more and more staff, it’s natural that some of those duties to find new business start to fall on new staff.
I qualified as an accountant and spent the first decade of my career working in the world’s largest international accounting firm and watched how accounting firms reflect this natural cycle of business. In accounting firms, the primary contact with a client gradually evolves and drifts from the person who brought the client in, to a new generation.
Partners, when they are first admitted and enthusiastic, literally trawl for new clients. At that phase of their career they still service their clients personally and even if they don’t actually hands-on prepare their accounts and taxes, are aware of all the details of their financial situation. Over time however as they have more and more clients to deal with, they let the Managers in the firm start to take over this relationship with the client and.
In time, doing the work at the coal face, the Managers are the ones who take over that intimate knowledge of the day to day affairs of the client. Although at this stage the Partner may have a good 20 year relationship with the client, even the client will often acknowledge that while their loyalty is to the Partner, their preference for who does the work is with the Manager whom they know has all the information within reach. In time, the Manager becomes first contact.
In time the Partner, and the firm, run the risk of a Manager leaving and taking a swag of clients with him or her.
So if this is a natural evolution in the business cycle, how do businesses mitigate that risk of staff taking away customers? And even better, how can it be used to your business’ advantage?
Here are my three ideas.
1. Allow it to happen but be aware of it and control it. Ensure that you retain the customer’s loyalty by transforming your relationship with him or her from one where you are servicing them to one where you are their friend and ensuring that they are serviced well. Create a friendship with them, make sure you know what they seek from your company and be seen making that happen even if it is through delegating it to the right person. Be the hub of all their needs. Be seen by your customer to watch over the quality of the delivery and follow up by asking him or her “was that what you wanted?” It becomes very hard to take business away from a friend; it makes them feel cared for if they see that you are the person to make things happen even if you no longer do it yourself.
2. Encourage the transition to the new generation to take place, while ensuring you follow the above first rule. Actively introduce up and coming talent to the (secure) customer and mentor them in how to provide the service or goods. This trains your employees not only in business skills but also in the corporate culture and values you are trying to instill in your business. The first rule cements the customer to you personally; this second rule builds loyalty within your team because you are open and generous and they work in a happy place where they are encouraged to grow.
3. From time to time, be prepared to say “oh well…” Yes, you will lose customers. If business is a natural cycle, cycles include both losses as well as gains. Let it go, don’t be tempted to pursue legal recourse (unless there has been exceptional underhandedness) because that message will negate the message of Rule 2 and will not look good in the business, nor to existing customers.
What about you. Have you seen this happen and what did you do?