Group of people smiling and talking.
Growing a business

4 ways to improve client relationships (and grow referrals)

Relationships, relationships, relationships. Much like how location influences property value in real estate, solid relationships impact business success. Yes, you need solid marketing and effective sales. Sure, systems and processes matter. Certainly, you must deliver excellent services or products.

But, while each of these aspects of your firm matters, one of the greatest drivers of business success is the connection to other people.

Relationships within a business can be defined in three core spheres:

  1. Network relationships: Colleagues and business connections that open opportunities and help get things done.
  2. Internal relationships: Employees and contractors who help the business run
  3. External relationships: Clients who benefit from your services or products.

Each sphere matters. Greatly. In this article, we’ll focus on external relationships with clients who put their trust in you to deliver quality service. Solid relationships can lead to inbound leads via referrals, happy clients who evangelize your awesomeness, a long list of testimonials and online reviews that make it easier to win new clients, and a sense of satisfaction as you delight your clients over and over again.

I’m sharing my personal experience from running a service-based small business for nearly 13 years, as well as insights I’ve gleaned working closely with CEOs and top executives in mid- to large-size companies ranging from valuations in the millions to $1 billion. While these tips are scalable depending on your business stage, I’ve targeted them to solopreneurs, small business owners, and leaders.

1. Systematize all things

I can’t emphasize this point enough. No matter the size of your firm, systems matter because they enrich relationships. Whether your systems are visible to them, they’ll feel it. You’ll also feel less overwhelmed, and better able to meet or exceed expectations.

I recently benefited from a quality system when I was looking for a subcontractor to work on a project with my team. I submitted a form on her website, and she got right back to me with a link to book a call. After the call, she sent me a proposal through an automated system that made signing and paying the deposit easy. Her process felt organized, and boosted my trust in her ability to deliver the quality I needed on the project. And yes, I did end up hiring her!

What do I mean by systems in relation to client experience? Put simply, a system is a standard process for workflow, usually accompanied by checklists and documentation. It might sound like a big undertaking to create templates and track every detail of a project, but it doesn’t have to be. Start where you are by creating responsive systems. Create a new template as you deliver on a project, and then continue to tweak the template with future clients.

Examples of processes that can be systematized include discovery calls, proposals, deposits, invoicing, payment, client onboarding, client projects, client communication, updates and reporting, project delivery, testimonials, client celebration (sharing client successes with their permission), and more. 

2. Be proactive and clear with your communication

One of the most important currencies in relationships with clients is trust. If you are in a field that requires longer work periods for deliverables, clients need to hear from you often. You should never—and I repeat never—get an email from a client that says something like, “Just wondering how the project is coming along.”

I learned this early on in my business when I transitioned from editing to ghostwriting books. When I first started writing books for clients, I would retreat into what I call my “writing cave,” only to emerge when the draft was complete and ready to send to the client. While I communicated with my clients, gave them a clear delivery date, and updated them every couple of weeks to assure them everything was going well, I realized I was missing an opportunity to build trust and a relationship during the writing process. Now, my team and I aim to update clients weekly, set monthly calls to stay in touch, answer questions about the book or publishing, and build a solid foundation for the rest of our work together. Today, I have strong relationships with clients that far outlast the time we work together. 

Here are some tips for developing solid communication:

  • Be proactive. Set a regular interval for updating clients, and let them know when they can expect to hear from you. Depending on the rhythm of your work, the right frequency might be daily, twice a week, or weekly.
  • Respond to emails in a timely manner. Notice that I didn’t say “immediately.” Being married to your email inbox prevents you from focusing on the work you need to do to delight clients. Strive for a 12- to 24-hour response time during business days, and let your clients know when they can expect to hear back from you.
  • Provide emergency contact information. I personally don’t check my email on weekends, so I provide clients with a phone number in case they need to get in touch with me. If a phone number doesn’t work for you, perhaps set up a specialized email address and turn on notifications during off hours. However, I do not recommend keeping your email notifications on all the time. Instead, I suggest time blocking your calendar, creating dedicated periods for discretionary time, emailing, calls, and other important areas of focus each day.
  • If you can’t make a deadline, communicate with your client. Do so as early as possible; don’t wait until 11:56 p.m. on the day of. Nothing feels worse to a client than silence, especially if they send emails asking for updates or expect a deliverable that never shows up. While they may be disappointed to know you didn’t deliver on a promise, you’ll build trust through owning the situation and providing the clear next steps.
  • Own your mistakes. I was recently on the receiving end of a sincere apology and an immediate correction of an issue. Seeing this person own the mistake and quickly work to make things right boosted my confidence. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it without excuses with an apology and a clear plan to fix things.

3. Harness the power of email

Messaging applications, video, phone calls, and even texts can be an important part of establishing a connection with clients, but love it or loathe it, email is still the primary method of communication in most business settings. The quality of your emails can improve client trust and connection. Along with timeliness, a well-written email should be:

  • Complete, by having fully responded to the client’s questions or needs from the previous email.
  • Clear, without additional fluff or wordiness that wastes a client’s time. As a general rule, write the email quickly, then edit it down as much as possible before hitting send.
  • Correct, without typos or formatting errors, I recommend using a read-aloud macro or an email plug-in such as Grammarly.
  • Personable, with the correct level of formality for the situation, married with a human touch. For example, open the email by asking about an important project they’re working on or end by wishing them a great weekend.

4. Surprise and delight your clients

Similar to Intuit®, one of my business’ core values is “delight,” which I define as seeking moments of pleasure and happiness in our lives, and creating unexpected moments of pleasure and happiness for others. This includes clients. I’ve seen similar company values in a wide range of businesses, whether solopreneur-led or run by a growth-focused founding team. In each scenario, focusing on delight has resulted in rock-solid client and customer relationships.

How could you create unexpected moments of pleasure or happiness for your clients? Here are four ideas:

  1. Send a welcome gift. Add gift giving to your process for onboarding new clients, whether you’re sending a simple card or a box of curated items. This can be automated by working with a local company to create themed welcome baskets or selecting a go-to client gift online.
  2. Package deliverables in an exciting way. Look at your deliverables with fresh eyes and ask “How could I make this delightful?” For example, a colleague runs a program that uses a workbook, so rather than sending the workbook in a standard mailing envelope, she packages it in a beautiful box with a few other small gifts. Delightful!
  3. Deliver early and beyond expectations. Simply getting work done early and with excellence can strengthen relationships with clients.
  4. Send videos. When delivering a project, use software such as Loom to record a walk-through of important points for client projects. Create a screen recording with audio only, so you can focus on the content rather than your camera presence. For example, if you are sending a quarterly accounting report, include a short video discussing the P&L you’ve attached.

Relationships are about connections. Find ways to connect with your clients. You’ll have happier clients, an enriching work environment, and, hopefully, a steady stream of inbound referrals.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the Intuit® Tax Pro CenterAccess a free professional story writing guide created for Stacy Ennis’s popular QuickBooks® Connect session.

Get the latest to your inbox

Get the latest product updates and certification news to help you grow your practice.

By clicking “Submit,” you agree to permit Intuit to contact you regarding QuickBooks and have read and acknowledge our Privacy Statement.

Thanks for subscribing.

Relevant resources to help start, run, and grow your business.

Looking for something else?

Get QuickBooks

Smart features made for your business. We've got you covered.

Tax Pro Center

Expert advice and resources for today’s accounting professionals.

QuickBooks Support

Get help with QuickBooks. Find articles, video tutorials, and more.

How can we help?
Talk to sales 1-800-497-1712

Monday - Friday, 5 AM to 6 PM PT

Get product support