How to Change (and Improve) A Client Relationship

We’re sometimes faced with the challenge of desiring to keep a valued client while also altering the nature of the relationship. The impetus may be an antiquated billing arrangement, a desire to move to another level of buyer, an intent to introduce additional products and services, and similar, legitimate ends.

But what can we do when we’ve been “locked in” to a given position and perception by dint of our own success? In other words, the client is happy and might regards any changes as de facto not in his or her best interests, and the last thing you want to do is jeopardize the relationship (and ongoing income stream).

It’s not easy to dig out from under our own success, but here are some techniques which can work when carefully applied.

  1. Introduce new value.
    Accompany your desired change with clear added value. This might be in the form of greater access to you without a meter ticking, or a complimentary newsletter, or additional coaching for select people, or a new workshop offering, etc. If you want the client to change, consider a value proposition in the client’s best interests which will lubricate the shifting of the right gears.
  2. Provide a precedent which appeals to ego.
    Inform your client that you’ve initiated a new type of relationship recently with new clients, and it’s been so well received that you’d be remiss not to offer it to your best client. You may cite it as a “platinum relationship,” or “top priority response,” or “best client” program. Stress that it’s a limited participation program, but the client may opt to remain under the prior arrangement. However, you’re obligated to offer it to your best current relationships.
  3. Offer a trial period.
    Establish a 60-day period during which the new relationship is tested and overwhelm the client is value. Allow the client to revert to the old relationship if he or she prefers. Don’t bill for the new one until the client expresses a willingness to change.
  4. Reach out to new buyers.
    There is no reason to automatically enter into similar relationships with new buyers. Stress to them that the work you’re doing is different from other work, and that the relationship you are suggesting is much more in their self-interest, more economical, and easier to manage. You are not obligated to reveal the details of concurrent projects with the organization. (If the new relationship works our as you expect, then offer it to the old buyer, citing the new buyer’s delight.) 
  5. Transition to a retainer.
    Separate out those occasions when the client requests specific project work from those when the client merely wants a sounding board and advice (in other words, access to your “smarts”). Continue the old model with the projects, but use a retainer model for the access. Explain that project work usually has a fairly clear end point which can be forecast, but access should be ongoing and not subject to frequent investment decisions.
  6. Explain that there is no other option but to change.
    If you truly believe that you’re seriously underpaid, limited in your scope, and/or overburdened, then diplomatically but firmly explain why the relationship must change if you are to remain true partners. In this case, of course, you must be prepared to walk away from the business, but that shouldn’t be too great a risk if you’re truly unhappy or uncomfortable.

Most of the time, changing the relationship is about fees and billing practices, but it can also be about the nature of your work, the client expectations, labor intensity, support, access to other parts of the business, and so forth. Remember that you usually have to let go of some clients before you can reach out to new ones, so don’t be too timid in attempting to change long-term, low-profit or uncomfortable relationships.