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Can freelancers and consultants keep customers for life?

Sounds good but it hasn’t happened to me. Have you been so fortunate?

Someone started a discussion on exactly this topic on a LinkedIn group called “Succeed: Small Business Network.” Most participants agree that the keys to eternal customer retention are great customer service and establishing relationships. Both are highly recommended—after all, “it is easier to keep a customer than to get a new one,” said the individual who proposed the thread.

While those offering most products and services can develop very-long-term relationships if they put in some effort, it is rare for freelancers and consultants to enjoy this good fortune.

It’s not for a lack of quality service and relationship effort. Here are some reasons solopro-client relationships eventually fail:

  • The client hires a freelancer or consultant because they need a temporary or sporadic service. If they need ongoing expertise, a full-time employee is often the best way to go.

  • There is a change in the client firm’s staffing. The person who selected you has left the company or has been terminated. Their replacement wants to establish his independence by bringing in his own freelancer or consultant, perhaps even a coworker or solopro he worked with at his previous employer.

  • The client wants to save money and go with someone cheaper. He’s heard good things about fiverr.com or other bargain online services and figures he can save a bundle.

  • The client wants fresh blood. Let’s shake things up. Familiarity really can breed contempt.

  • The client goes out of business.

  • Life happens. This is especially the case for small, even one-person, businesses. Death, illness, bankruptcy and other life issues throw a monkey wrench in business as usual. When business as usual goes astray, long-standing relationships can also fall apart.

  • There is a change in the business model. I believe this happened a lot when there was a seachange from printed business communications to websites and the like. Companies mailing customer magazines and newsletters, distributed in print for years or even decades, decided to toss aside the old, including the writers and designers of the old, and go with someone(s) different. At the same time, many of their former service providers also got into e-publishing and went on to new clients, resulting in a massive game of musical chairs over time.

I started freelancing and consulting in 1991 and retain not a single client from that year or even several years following. In part this is because I have held full-time jobs in addition to self-employment on the side, which affected my availability to clients and my prospecting / relationship practices during certain time periods. In addition, the specific services on which I focused shifted over time and there were many changes and events on the part of clients as well.

On the other hand, I have profited from a great many repeat assignments from existing clients. Also, some clients have come back for new work although I had not heard from them for years.

That’s just the way my work has evolved. I refuse to see this as a failure, though it sort of seems like failure relative to the claimed victories of others in the LinkedIn discussion.

An aside:

What is a lifetime? asked one participant in the LinkedIn group. Is it the client’s lifetime or the solopro’s lifetime?

Funny question. I guess a lifetime relationship relies on both parties continued existence.

Originally posted 7-22-13

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