Getting repeat and referred business is one of the most powerful means of creating a profitable and sustainable consulting business. This means that clients you have worked with bring you back to do more for them, and they refer you to other people for business.
It’s a beautiful thing. Why? Because it allows you to spend less time pursuing new clients and more time serving clients and generating revenue. And, as you work with clients over time and on other engagements, you get to know them more broadly and deeply, which lets you better serve them.
But…getting repeat and referred business is not guaranteed. You have to earn it. Let’s dig into how you do that.
It’s Not About Upselling
When you first work with a new client, your focus needs to be on them and helping them achieve the outcome they want. Your focus should not be on how you can get more work and, therefore, more money from them. If they have worked with consultants before, they likely have had bad experiences of fielding constant upselling. When I used to hire consultants, I had “upsell assaults” happen to me over and over. They were, at best, annoying, and, at worst, flat-out disrespectful.
That doesn’t mean you don’t offer to help them achieve other things that are meaningful to them. Don’t deprive them of your value! That just means don’t keep the focus on yourself and your desired business outcomes. When in doubt, just remember: it’s about them, not you.
Getting more business and having clients refer you is usually based on the excellence you deliver. There are two ways to understand excellence. The first excellence is the value you give them. Value is the outcome you help them achieve for the price they paid. They need to feel good that they got what they wanted out of the engagement and that the price was worth it.
The second excellence is ensuring that they have an excellent experience. It’s one thing to help them get to their outcome for the right price, but they always have to have experiences of working with you that they like. What you want is for them to easily recall good memories about you and have a positive emotional response when they think of you or hear your name. What creates an excellent experience? Being pleasant and respectful. Doing what you say you would when you say you will do it. Reducing their stress and frustration and not being the cause of it. Taking responsibility, apologizing, and fixing things if you make a mistake. All the things that you like people to do with you!
If those things are missing, they will be much less likely to ask you for more work or refer you. For example, I worked with a consultant who gave me a great work product at a price that was worth it, but I constantly had to bug him to get me deliverables because he never delivered them when we agreed he would. He was consistently late to meetings or canceled them at the last minute. Did I hire him again? No. The frustration wasn’t worth it. Did I refer him to people I knew? No. I didn’t want to attach my name and credibility to what I knew would be a frustrating experience.
Relationships > Selling
When you engage with clients you worked with in the past, that should be an excellent experience as well. All the time. As an operating principle, treat any client relationship as you would any relationship that matters to you.
That means you can’t always and only sell to them. No one likes that because it doesn’t honor the relationship. It also doesn’t keep the focus where it should be: on them and what their struggles and aspirations are.
So the best approach is to show past clients that you care about them. The best way to engage without selling is to give them value. You can alert them to opportunities or threats or other things happening in their market that will impact them. You can ask to include them on your email list and send them regular emails that provide them with valuable insights and information. You can engage with their social media and celebrate them publicly. You can check in to see how they are doing if something significant happens to their company or organization.
For example, I recently sent a past client a notice of a federal opportunity that aligns well with work we did together. I am not the right person to help them with that opportunity, but I wanted to make sure the CEO saw it. She had not seen it and was grateful that I sent it. And I did not try to get business from her. I was merely generous with my value.
But Sell When You Are Selling
However, when I am the right person to help them achieve their outcomes and overcome their struggles, then I sell. I’m not coy or manipulative about it. I don’t act like I’m not selling. I make a clear offer that will help them achieve something important to them.
Being straightforward and honest is part of giving them an excellent experience and opening the door to giving them value. For example, I have reached out to past clients and said, “I see X happening in your market and have some ideas of how I could help you get ahead of that shift and achieve X.” Once, I emailed a past client told her, “I have a wacky idea about how I can help you generate new types of recurring revenue, and I think you’re going to dig it. Can I take you to lunch and tell you about it?” Because the email intrigued her, and I had credibility with her—by delivering excellent value and excellent experiences in past engagements—she was thrilled to do it. More than anything, she was delighted that I still cared about her and her organization enough to think of ways to help them.
Ask, Don’t Hope
Often clients who loved working with you will automatically come back to you time and time again or become your best marketing ambassadors, even without you asking them. But my advice is never to leave that to chance. If you can help, offer. If you want them to refer you, ask them to do it. Suggest who they can refer you to and share the type of value you are hoping to provide other clients.
If a past client agrees to refer you, make it easy for them to do it. You are asking them to do work on your behalf so honor that by making it as low burden as possible for them to do it. If you want them to refer you by sending an email or calling someone, offer to draft the email for them or give them a few bullets for how to describe you and what value you can bring.
Don’t Neglect Them
Past clients are key to your consulting success, especially if you have shown that you are key to their success. So don’t just move on to the next client and forget about them. Nurture the relationships so you can do more good for them and for others in your market. And, by doing so, you can build a profitable, sustainable business more quickly and easily.
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