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Client Apathy and How to Cure It

There aren’t many funny stories in the newspaper these days, but I found one recently. It was an article detailing the closing of a furniture store in Albuquerque. When asked why they were shutting their doors, the owners cited “customer apathy”. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I read that. I’d never heard of customer apathy before. I’d certainly never seen it used as an excuse for mediocre service, or for products and pricing that consistently missed the market.

I stopped laughing when it occurred to me that sometimes professionals behave the same way. When our supply of work runs dry, we talk ourselves into believing it’s not our fault. Maybe we blame market conditions (“the work’s just not out there”), organizational problems (“I’m too busy and, besides, this firm doesn’t support marketing”), or clients who fail to bring us more work (“these darn clients are so apathetic”) .

Whoever we blame, the responsibility ultimately lies with us, and we all know it. So, as we begin this brand new year, here are nine ways to cure client apathy.

  1. Understand intellectually and emotionally that business development is about only three things: finding, creating and sustaining relationships. If you accept this premise, it will guide you effectively toward the most productive business development activities, whether they’re with prospects, referral sources, or clients.
  2. Know that clients become apathetic (and go to your competitors) when you are apathetic. If you are indifferent, clients will be, too. There are many ways to demonstrate indifference, but here are the top four that plague professionals: not returning phone calls promptly (WHY do we still have to talk about this?); writing or speaking too technically for your clients (making people feel stupid is stupid); treating clients as just another case or problem (an attitude that comes across in your tone of voice, in your eye contact and level of engagement in the conversation); and, talking more than you listen.
  3. Make your best first impression each time you see or talk to clients. Relationships begin with the first impression, and most of us work hard on that initial encounter. The key is to put the same effort into every exchange with a client.
  4. Inject passion into your interactions. You can convey excitement and optimism while maintaining your professionalism and intellect. People are drawn to upbeat energy. If you exude it, they will respond positively. If you are consistently removed emotionally, which so many professionals feel the need to be, you cannot possibly connect with your client on any meaningful or lasting level.
  5. Be completely focused on your client at every encounter. Turn off your cell phone, don’t even think about sneaking a glance at your Blackberry, and even if you aren’t thrilled to be where you are, act as though you are.
  6. Do what you say you will do. When you promise something to a client, fulfill that promise or let them know immediately when and why you cannot. It is stunning how often professionals do not do this. Clients will often be understanding if you can’t meet a deadline, but only if they hear from you beforehand. If you tell a client you’ll call her for lunch or send her some information she wants, do it. Don’t let it slide. People remember those who follow through and those who don’t.
  7. Genuinely look for ways to help your client. Stop worrying about whether you are selling, cross selling, or not selling. Start thinking about your client and how you can help. Often, this results in more work for you. The client appreciates it and remembers you for it.
  8. Leave your clients with a sense of hope. As professionals, we’re not always dealing with sunny outlooks or outcomes, but it is in our best interests to convey hopefulness to our clients that things will improve, that you can help, that life will be alright. Admittedly, this may fall into the category of practicing psychology without a license, but you don’t need to make it complicated or overly emotional; it can be as simple as looking someone in the eye and saying a kind word or two.
  9. Sustain a positive attitude. When clients ask you how business is, your answer needs to be “Business is great, thanks, and we’re looking for more.” No client cares how busy you are, how overwhelmed you are, or how difficult your profession is. But they do care – intensely – about how you make them feel. If you are positive in your approach to them, they are far more likely to feel positive about you.

© Melinda Guillemette 2009