We all have stories of that great project we worked on once, or that fabulous client with whom we established the world’s best working relationship. These experiences make inspiring stories that spur us onwards and upwards, to new projects, and new adventures.
But this week, I began to wonder: what had happened to those past clients I’d loved so much? For various reasons, I’d lost touch with some of these guys, but now, in the search for work, getting back in touch with them seemed like a sterling idea.
There was just one problem: some of these contacts were really old. I hadn’t been in contact with the first one on my list in four years. Four years! How was I going to overcome four years of distance to reestablish contact with this client?
It’s Business, Not Pleasure
Small business pundits are always stressing the importance of maintaining relationships over time, no matter what. Most of us agree that staying in touch with past clients is very important. For these reasons, it’s easy to feel a sense of guilt as you approach your neglected client.
Don’t! Unlike a neglected friend, my past client is hardly likely to ask me where I’ve been for the last four years or why I never call her anymore.
Client relationships aren’t like friendships: both you and your clients are busy, and most of us understand that our business focuses shift over time as new projects and challenges crop up in work and in life. If a past client that you contact has no need for your services, that’s fine — at least you gave it a try. But if you both felt your work together was good, that person will likely be happy to hear from you regardless.
Taking the Plunge
Whether you email or call your long lost contact, you’ll need to sound your usual, confident self. I decided to email first and follow up with a call later, so the opening lines of my email were crucial. “Hi Brenda, Sorry I’ve been busy for the last four years,” didn’t seem like a great way to begin to rebuild a relationship. What are our options for opening up a dialog with a past client?
The thing to remember here is that you’re not trying to create an excuse for making contact with your client: you need to catch that person’s attention in a way that prompts them to contact you, or request a meeting when you speak to them.
Match Your Skills to Their Current Area of Work
First I checked my client’s web site and blog to see what her company had been doing recently, and whether I could identify any obvious opportunities for me to promote my offering. This way, I could start my email with something like:
“I noticed that you’ve been working on XYZ recently, which is an area I’ve been focusing on over the last few years.”
This opening gives me a nice segue into an explanation of my expertise in that area, any experience or training I’ve had, and so on.
Use Your Recent Projects to Pique Their Interest
I also considered my folio and the work samples I was about to send her. If a piece is of particular relevance to the client, I can use that as my starting point for the message:
“I’ve just finished a project that I thought would be of interest to you, so I thought I’d get in touch.”
Here, highlighting a particular folio piece or project would be the obvious next step.
Outline Your Expanded Offering
Of course, in the four years since I’d worked with my client, I’d expanded my capabilities and service offering. In some cases, this might provide a good way to grab the client’s attention:
“Since I last worked with you, I’ve gained considerable experience in Topic A, which is fast becoming essential to the ongoing success of organizations like yours.”
From here, it’s an easy segue to invite a meeting so that you can explain to the client how Topic A will benefit them, and, of course, what you can offer in that field.
Leverage Industry News, Reports or Whitepapers
Though it may seem comparatively impersonal to mention or point your contact to a whitepaper, news report or other piece of publicly available information, in some cases this may be the most effective way to reestablish communication with your client.
For example, if the piece or research or news directly relates to their business type or industry, and/or makes a clear case for your offering to their organization, your client may well view it as compelling objective evidence for them to speak with you — and soon.
The key is to tie the crucial message of the report to an essential aspect of your client’s business, or an element of their operation that you know is very important to them.
The All-important Follow-up
If you’re emailing your client as a first step, be sure to follow up with a call a few days later. I usually let my long lost client know in my email that I’ll be calling them, so that they’re not sitting on the other end of the phone trying to remember who I am, which would be an embarrassing moment for all concerned.
It’s important not to be daunted by the passage of time and shifts in your focus or lifestyle that have allowed you to drift apart from past clients. How do you overcome these hurdles to re-ignite working relationships with long lost clients?