Building External Client Relationships

As a service-based business, you’ll be working with external clients. For clarity, ‘external clients’ are customers outside of your organisation who decide to use your core services. In doing so, you engage in a professional relationship that involves customer service. Whether the level of service each client receives is positive or negative, depends on several factors. For example, staff training & development, motivation, morale, experience, skills etc. Most importantly, every step of your customers’ journey involves customer service. Certainly, for your clients to have a positive experience, you and/or your resources need to provide effective communication. In particular, in a fast-paced and ever-changing digital world.

Before working with external clients, set up a business contract. This is a legal document, which lays out things like service deliverables and fees. Most importantly, contractual terms that are designed to protect both parties in the unfortunate event of a dispute. For example, a client who withholds payment or is late paying invoices. In addition, deliverables aren’t of the agreed quality or delivered on time. Alternatively, a client decides they no longer require agreed services, but cancel last minute. There are several other reasons, but this gives you a flavour. Therefore, a robust contract includes clauses on Termination, Cancellation, Liability, Intellectual Property, GDPR and much more.

The Customer Service Journey

Before delving into some tips to help you with working with external clients, let’s categorise and explore the different customer service touch points. For example, pre-service delivery, during service-delivery and post service-delivery.

Pre-Service Delivery

The pre-service delivery phase includes the sales pipeline. For example, the pre-sale communication and interactions (client enquiries and leads) + conversions (clients who have been won). This phase also includes anything leading up to the point of service delivery. For instance, creation and issue of proposal letters (details client requirements, along with a proposal and quote), contracts, agreement of the services to be produced and acceptance from the client to begin service delivery (work).

During Service Delivery

The during service delivery stage or work in progress phase, is when you start working on a client’s requirements. Depending on the nature of your business, this might include designs, drafts and final deliverables. In addition, depending on your Finance/Accounting processes, this is typically when invoices are issued.

Post-Service Delivery

The post-service delivery phase is just as important as the other phases. For example, it includes any contractually agreed customer service aftercare. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to gain client feedback and to request a Trust Pilot, Google etc. business review. It’s good practice to follow up with clients, regardless of whether reviews are requested or not.

Post-service delivery may also include chasing debtors, remarketing activities and follow up to support your brand values.

Best Practice for Working with External Clients

First and foremost, it is important to ‘sing from the same hymn sheet’. What does this mean in practice?

  • Respond timely and within 24 hours. This includes acknowledging, whether by automated email reply or other. Potential and existing clients need to know requests haven’t gone into a black hole. In addition, clients want to feel valued. Certainly, actively listen and hear what your clients want
  • Note, a response doesn’t have to wait until full a resolution/solution. Whilst working with external clients, a simple acknowledgment and/or part answer can go a long way. Most importantly, help secure a 4 or 5-star review
  • Write and/or speak clearly; be structured, organised and succinct. Be sure to adapt to your audience demographic
  • Consider what information is necessary versus nice to have. What does your client want/need to know as a priority? Just because you think something is important, doesn’t mean your clients’ have the same expectations. Throughout, be clear to carefully set client expectations
  • Provide a consistent response/message, which conveys and promotes your startup business’s values and style
  • Note, if you don’t know the answer or how to respond to a specific question, it’s ok to respond with something like; “Thank you for your email/question about [xxxx]. We are looking into this for you and we will get back to you later today/tomorrow with an answer.”
  • Communicate timely and use a communication means that reflects the nature of the request. For instance, if you’re concerned an email reply could be mis-understood or mis-interpreted, call the client and/or draft a response first. Secondly, give yourself time to reflect and re-read before sending. In addition, ask a colleague what they think

Pre-Service Delivery Customer Service

  • Follow the general guidelines for working with external clients, noted above
  • Set clear expectations and goals with enquiries, leads and conversions. Think about what you are advising and agreeing you can provide and whether it’s feasible, along with a feasible timeline
  • Think S.M.A.R.T with your goal setting and objectives. i.e. are they Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant and Time-Bound?
  • Respond with when you plan to provide proposals and/or come back with responses. Don’t leave an enquiry hanging and needing to chase or ask you for something. It’s ok to take a bit more time, but follow up to advise the client. If enquiries, leads and conversions feel that ‘service’ quality and excellence is top of your list, it will go a long way to customer satisfaction. In addition, facilitate repeat business and recommendations. Failure to deliver, regardless of the phase, could be very costly
  • Issue proposals and quotes timely and ensure they include the necessary detail to facilitate a sale. In addition, ensure a good comparison with other competitors
  • Issue a notification about Terms of Business, Cookie and Privacy Policies, which are available on your Company website
  • Issue Contracts timely and ensure signature before work commences
  • Save and file all client data, including contracts securely to ensure GDPR and business-specific compliance
  • Follow up with enquiries/leads. For instance, if you don’t hear back from a client within a reasonable timeframe. In addition, be mindful of style, tone and don’t be pushy

Working with External Clients During Service Delivery

  • Follow the general guidelines for working with external clients, noted above
  • Continue to set clear expectations and S.M.A.R.T goals and objectives. Think about what you advise and agree to provide. For example, is it feasible, along with a feasible timeline?
  • Keep in regular, reasonable contact with clients. For example, provide progress updates, follow up etc. (as part of setting expectations and in accordance with any contractually agreed deadlines)
  • Issue designs, drafts and finals in accordance with any agreed timescales. In addition, allow reasonable time for clients to respond with their feedback
  • Action client feedback within a reasonable timeframe and in accordance with any contractually agreed terms. In instances where feedback is different to what you think is best, be careful about how you communicate recommendations and alternatives. For instance, don’t push your view or specific business style, if the client has made it clear what they want and the reasons for it

Post-Service Delivery Customer Service

  • Follow the general guidelines for working with external clients, noted above
  • Respond to clients with any concluding project questions and do so timely. Most importantly, in accordance with the project’s agreed service provision and contractual terms
  • Ask the client to complete an online review and/or to write a short testimonial about their service experience. The latter could be added to your Company website, if the client provides agreement. When requesting reviews/testimonials, consider if it is a new or repeat client. In addition, the benefits and possible disadvantages of doing so, the timing and type of client
  • Consider any additional aftercare and ad hoc service provision, which may be considered a gesture of goodwill and service excellence (carefully balance the amount of time and input with other priorities)
  • Send a thank you follow up email (maybe 7-10 days after project completion. For instance, to check-in with the client and see how things are. Are they happy and if not, why not? How can you rectify it to ensure a better service experience?

Further Support & Reading

If you’re a startup business in and around London, contact Maximum Solutions Consulting Ltd for business coaching and advice.

The below reading list is provided to support this blog post: