At the end of every quarter, I used to stare at my sales pipeline in dismay.  I sold a great product (high-quality animation services), most of our clients loved us, and we had plenty of Fortune 500s under our belt.  Still, I faced a crushing fear that my sales pipeline was about to go dry.

So I leaned into lead generation – I worked harder to lock down calls with all sorts of prospects, even if they weren’t right for our offering.  This made me more stressed, and it rarely moved the needle. I was holding up a giant boulder on each shoulder: one was the obligation to win new clients, and the other was the obligation to deliver for existing ones.

Eventually, I turned things around and got us to seven-figure revenues and dozens of Fortune 500 clients. The answer was not generating more leads, but rather implementing a reliable account management process. In this article, I’ll show you how to do the same…

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Why you should focus on existing clients

Does this sound familiar?  You get inspired by a new vertical, and you think it will be your ticket to massive growth.  You write cold emails, or you network to get a warm intro to your next dream client.  You land a meeting, which leads to a proposal, which leads to a signature on the dotted line.  You and your team work your butts off to deliver.  You pull all-nighters, you respond to emails within five minutes, and before long you’ve turned around that new website (or whatever) in record time.

Then what happens?

If you’re like most companies, nothing. You simply wave goodbye and say, “Nice working with you!”

This is a tragic case of squandered potential, and here’s why:

  • Trust

You earned it with your client, and your competitors didn’t. This gives you major leverage. The bottom line: approved vendors hear “yes” more than salespeople.

  • Organizational knowledge

You know how your client’s organization functions.  You’re at grips with the stakeholders involved,  the internal politics, the vetting and payment processes… you get it, and you fit into their system seamlessly.

  • Pain, challenges, and desires

For the above reasons, you know what’s hurting your client, which means you’re in the best position to help them.  Competitors and jury-rigged in-house solutions?  Not so much.

  • Compelling work

Even if you’re not interested in business growth, the above factors enable you to do work that’s more daring and interesting.  You’ll be able to run with unconventional ideas that a new client might be too wary to allow.

Once we implemented our account management process, bigger and more compelling work started coming our way.  Better yet,  I enjoyed those short, friendly conversations with our clients much more than the hour-long marathons of persuading outside prospects. Once you’ve built trust and understanding, the chips fall into place. The data seems to agree:

“The probability of selling to an existing customer is 60-70%. The probability of selling to a new prospect is 5-20%”
Marketing Metrics

So hopefully at this point we can agree that your existing clients are a great revenue source. So why then do such few companies focus on winning repeat business?  That stat doesn’t dig very deep, but it’s not too controversial to point out that historic behavior is a good indicator of future behavior, and your clients already paid you once.

My hunch: it’s uncomfortable returning to someone with whom you have a close collegial bond and asking them to open their wallets.  It’s much less scary to push for more traffic and more leads instead of nurturing your portfolio.  Plus, there’s often creative block about how you can continue to offer value.

Now it’s time to (A) make that undertaking much less scary, and (B) get ideas for offering long-term value.  Here’s how to start building your account management process…

Step 1.  Double down on 1-2 top verticals

After winning a lucrative project in a new industry, I used to get shiny object syndrome, and I focused my energy on winning more of that flock.  I closed an IT service provider for a large video project, an atypical vertical for us, and the next day I’m subscribing to IT Daily (or whatever they read).

Due to the high opportunity cost, this was the wrong strategy – don’t go chasing rabbits.  Before you pursue a particular niche, make sure it’s not simply a distracting one-off.  If you devote your account management process to every client, you’ll run out of hours in the day.  Instead, focus on the one or two verticals that will lend themselves to long-term growth.

Here’s how to identify those verticals:

  1. Growth potential

Is the market growing or shrinking?  Maybe you win a couple projects with printing companies, and you’re well-positioned to win more.  Still, you would consider the printing industry’s gradual obsolescence before doubling down on this niche.

On a micro level, consider the verticals that come with a big basket of needs as opposed to just one.  If you’re an agency, the medium-sized law firms that need everything (website, social media management, PPC) might be valuable than the tech giants that want a new landing page once a year.

  1.  Unique leverage

Does the vertical tend to come in with problems that only you can solve?  That’s a slight exaggeration, but if you’re in a unique position to assist over competitors or in-house solutions, then the niche should be valued higher.

  1.  Smooth sales process

When you’re presenting to buyers in the vertical, must you spend hours educating them about how your offering works, or do they “get it”?  Is the sales process smooth and easy, or is it aggravating?

It’s much better to work with clients who intuitively understand your unique value.   We received strong interest and many leads from small financial firms, but persuading these beancounters to invest top dollar for high-quality cartoons was an uphill battle so that niche lost points in this category.

Forecast repeat business

To dig deeper and see what repeat business will mean for your bottom line, try out The Account Management KPI Calculator.

The tool will let you plug in estimated volumes for inbound, outbound, and repeat leads, and determine ROI.  No worries if you don’t have all your stats dialed in right now – there’s plenty of benchmark data to use as a starting point.

Step 2.  Win the worthwhile accounts

Now that we’ve covered why it’s worth it to construct an account management process, and how to identify the types of customers who are worth the effort, how do you win them?

As you can probably appreciate, sales as a whole is too big to put to bed in this section, but let’s cover the big takeaways:

Qualify effectively

Your first call is all about making sure your prospect is worth further time and energy.  You’re answering the question, “Should this person continue taking up real estate in my pipeline?”  Asking the tough questions sooner rather than later will save time in the long run.

First, your prospect must have significant pain, challenges, or desires – a “bleeding neck” as Perry Marshall would say.

Second, they must have an imminent time frame – good: “this quarter”, bad: “someday…”

Third, you must be interfacing with the decision maker.  If that’s impossible, then you must paint a complete picture of their decision-making process.

Fourth, budget – they must be able to afford you.  Most of the time, you should not provide a firm quote on the first call, but you’ll need to get a reaction to a rough range, or your price floor, to make sure you’re playing at the right table.

Fifth and finally, you must add value to their decision-making process.  It’s not enough just to qualify.  To have an edge over competitors, in-house solutions, or simply inaction, you must be helpful and make your prospect feels confident about your industry.  Here’s how to do that…

Use a well-defined yet flexible sales process

You have to be assertive and take the lead, but you should be able to mold a bit when the situation demands it.  The important thing is that you have several tools in your toolbelt from which to draw.

Start with an overarching process that can encompass most situations.  It usually looks like this:

1st meeting: qualifying

Subsequent meetings: presentation, buy-in, and/or clarification

Final exchanges: proposal review and decision

Now that we have the overarching process, let’s load each compartment in the toolbox with “flexible” actions:

1st meeting: qualifying

If the above qualification points (pain/challenges/desires; budget; decision maker; time frame) are checked, then proceed

Subsequent meetings: presentation, buy-in, value, clarification

  • Webex tour of product
  • Conference call with all stakeholders from yours and the prospect’s organization
  • Strategy session

Final exchanges: proposal review and decision

  • Webex review of proposal or SOW
  • Call to discuss decision – yay or nay

If I’m selling a complex campaign of advertising services, the sales process I use for a tech startup might be speedy and straightforward.  After all, there are few stakeholders, they have more technical understanding, and their organization uses efficient sign-off and purchasing processes.  So I might go from qualifying straight to a proposal.

On the other hand, if I’m dealing with a Fortune 500 organization, then I know that more stakeholders will have to be involved sooner rather than later in order to move the big, unwieldy ship toward a purchase.  I’d probably push for a strategy meeting with our side and theirs, and insist they loop in all decision makers before I move to the proposal stage.

What closing really means

Most new consulting clients I take on think there is some magical combination of words that must be uttered toward the end of a sales process in order to “close”.  In reality, closing is simply the last logical step in the process.  If you want to “close” more effectively, first make sure you fulfill all of the steps above, and then define exactly what your prospect needs to do to cross the Rubicon into customer-dom – usually this entails some sort of signature and payment.

Step 3. Adopt a partnership mindset

At this point, you know how to identify the clients that will lend themselves to repeat business, and you have a high-level view of what it takes to win that first engagement.  Now it’s time to get your relationships to become “marriages” instead of “hookups”, and that means implementing a reliable account management process.

Most of us are fine selling to strangers, but friends and close acquaintances are tougher.  Many salespeople and business owners feel hamstrung into simply calling up old clients and asking, “What’s new?  Ready to work with us again?!”  (or some other straw-grasping salutation).

I used to do that before realizing it was a fool’s errand.  Your clients might humor you, but they mentally shuffle out of the room.  To avoid this, you have to cure new areas of pain instead of trying to convince your clients to hire you again because you really want the business (in essence, that’s what the “What’s new?” call is doing).

In the next section, I’ll cover specific ways for finding and alleviating pain, and offering further value, but first you have to get over the awkwardness of going for the follow-up deal.  Understand this:

You’re doing your client a disservice by not compelling them to work with you again

Why is that?

  • You’re not going to be convincing your clients to buy things they don’t need.  Aside from the ethical argument, it’s a lot harder to pull that off.
  • After learning about new pain, challenges, or desires, you’re best-equipped to help because of all the mutual understanding and trust you established.
  • As we’ll cover in the next section, your next actions are not limited to a full-scale re-engagement, and you won’t necessarily have to ask your client to make another major investment right way

Step 4. Make repeat business part of your normal process

As covered, most salespeople get pushed into a corner where their only option is the “What’s new?” call.  The main reason this happens is because repeat business is treated like an afterthought.  Instead, bake it into your normal process at the beginning of each engagement.

For example, most ad agencies will set clear expectations for the process.  Here’s a grossly simplified rundown offered to clients:

Dear New Client,

Here’s the process you can expect:

Step 1: Client signs SOW and we get started
Step 2: Client sees initial website mockups
Step 3: Feedback is collected and final mockups are started
Step 4: Final mockups returned, engagement complete, and you pay us – Goodbye!

Best,
Agency Owner

Repeat business means finding a compelling reason to work together again, and that’s impossible if you send clients on their merry way after each project.  A great device for continuing the relationship is a debrief call.

Build in a Debrief Call

Sometimes known as a post-mortem, your debrief is your chance to provide additional value, learn about your client’s experience, and find new opportunities to work together again.

Here’s how the above process would incorporate the debrief:

Dear New Client,

Here’s how our process works:

Step 1: Client signs SOW and we get started
Step 2: Client sees initial website mockups
Step 3: Feedback is collected and final mockups are started
Step 4: Final mockups returned, engagement complete
Step 5: Debrief Call – discuss plans for website, gather feedback, provide new strategies

Best,
Agency Owner

Here’s how to structure the conversation:

Start it off by getting feedback.  A client who is completely delighted should be handled differently than one who’s dissatisfied.  Some questions you might ask:

  • What were you skeptical about before hiring us?
  • What was your experience like overall?
  • Where did we do well?  Where can we improve?

Find new pain, challenges, or desires.  This won’t be much different than your earlier qualifying process, but the context changed.  An ideal starting point is learning about your client’s imminent plans for the thing you’ve built for them…

  • What are your initial plans for the website?
  • How will you be measuring success?
  • How will you be developing continuous content for it?
  • How do you envision it looking six months from now?

Be opportunity agnostic.  You have many more options than just re-selling your old client your flagship product or service. The only rule: pursue no more than one action at a time, otherwise, it’s difficult to get an agreement.

Some ideas:

  • Pursue a re-purchase of your main product or service

If there’s an imminent need for it, go for it

  • Upsells and ancillary offerings

For example, a website creator might offer continuous content development or a periodic site maintenance service.

  • Value adds

Consider additional features that tie your customers to your hip.  Example: an automated report system that updates your client about their daily advertising impact.

Referrals

Be specific about the type of introduction you’re going for, and make it easy for your client.  Good: I’m looking to meet mid-size accounting firms with old, dusty websites; Bad: I want to meet anyone who needs a new site.

Case studies and testimonials

Remember those earlier feedback questions from the debrief call?  If you have a client giving you glowing reviews, but they’re not ready to re-purchase yet, then a case study may be a great option.  Consider outsourcing the interview and case study creation process because (A) your client will be more likely to give a flattering review about you to a third party, and (B) it’s less work for you.

Preferred customer programs

Does your client have a major continuous need that you can fulfill?  How can you make it cheaper or easier for them to engage you?  Maybe this means more flexible payment terms, some sort of ‘bulk’ discount, or a process that’s customized to their situation.

Networking intros

Does your client need a product or service you can’t provide?  Intro them to someone in your network.  This will keep them in your world, and you’ll enjoy the goodwill of helping them out.

Ready to implement an account management process?

Hopefully, these actions will jog further ideas.  The big takeaway is that you’re playing the long game here, and all actions, however small, propel you closer to the next big re-purchase.  Furthermore, they ensure you’re never left with anything to say but “what’s new?”  Some of these strategies might seem time-consuming, so it’s worth a reminder that you won’t be extending your account management process to every client, just the highest value ones.