Sunday, September 21, 2003

Get more from your one-timers



By Rhonda Abrams
Gannett News Service

For the first decade of my consulting business, I depended on "one-off" clients: I'd do the work for them, and then they'd have no need for my type of work again. I'm not alone. Many businesses are built around one-time customers, but that's a dangerous business strategy.

I developed business plans. And once a person had a business plan, they didn't need me any more. Right?

Wrong. As I've learned in my own company, a successful enterprise needs to revise a business plan at least once a year. But I wasn't getting this potential recurring business.

The truth is that whenever you have a business totally dependent on new clients, you're vulnerable. If economic conditions change, or a new competitor enters the market, you may suddenly see your customers disappear.

Many of us know we need to become less dependent on "one-off" customers, but we don't know how.

So, what types of things can a one-off business offer its customers to create a renewable income stream?

• "Tune-ups" and "check-ups." Your doctor and dentist and auto mechanic all have you come in regularly; why not ask the same of your customers? A landscape designer can provide semiannual or quarterly garden updates. I should have offered annual planning sessions. This might not bring in a great deal of income directly, but it keeps your name in front of the client for referrals.

• Support services. Many businesses dependent on one-off customers provide design or construction services. But most customers also need ongoing maintenance and support. For instance, a Web site designer's clients need site hosting and ongoing updates. Can you provide a one-stop shop - hiring a low-level staffer to do updates and subcontracting the hosting?

• Products. Are there products you can sell or create that customers need to replace regularly? Just think about inkjet printers - the real money comes from selling replacement cartridges.

So, what's holding back those of us who continue to serve only one-off customers?

• Fear of being bored: Face it, working with new clients can be more interesting than working with customers over and over. Creating a new design is more fun than maintenance. But, trust me, you'll appreciate the humdrum stuff when new business dries up.

• Business structure: Providing service to clients on a repeat basis means managing a more complex schedule, hiring subordinates or dealing with subcontractors. That isn't the kind of business you want to run. But do you want to risk having no income at all?

• Ego: I know what you're thinking: "My clients are hiring ME! So I can't bring in anyone else to help with the ongoing stuff. And I've got all the work I can handle now." Well, your clients do want to work with you, but they'll understand that you have staff to do some of the ongoing tasks.

You never want to lose a satisfied customer. Look for ways to keep - and serve - them on a repeat basis. Your bank account will thank you.

Rhonda Abrams is the author of "The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies." Register for her free newsletter at www.PlanningShop.com.




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