My first client, a 35-person engineering firm, boasted a repeat business rate of 85%. Unfortunately, almost all that repeat business came from one client, a large energy company. When that company was acquired by a still larger one, the work began disappearing. Within a few years, the firm was out of business.
Most A/E firms tout their repeat business rate as a sign of distinction, an indicator that clients love them so much they keep coming back. But it is hardly a reliable measure of health. PSMJ reports that the median repeat business rate (percent of revenue from repeat clients) is 75%. Interestingly, that number has changed little in the last 10 years, even through the worst of the recession.
Given how A/E firms struggled during the recession (and many still are), any financial indicator that remained unchanged would have to be judged suspect. In fact, many firms undoubtedly saw their repeat business rate improve as revenues fell, because it was so difficult to acquire new clients. Has client retention held steady as the repeat business metric might suggest? The evidence indicates that holding onto clients is harder than ever.
So why does it matter? Well, firms often resist measuring client satisfaction or improving service because they can point to a favorable repeat business rate. Others (like my first client) find themselves vulnerable to a major client defection because they become too comfortable simply keeping busy without winning new clients.
A misleading metric like repeat business rate can have an adverse affect on your business. It can lull firm leaders into complacency, or obscure significant threats or weaknesses. The fact is that the best firms I've worked with had repeat business rates of 75-80%, as did the worst firms. In some cases it indicated satisfied clients and strategic relationships. In other cases it pointed to an inability to grow the business with new clients.
It's not uncommon for A/E firms to derive 80% of their revenue from a relatively small proportion of their clients (15-30%). So the reality behind the repeat business rate is that most firms suffer from a fairly high rate of client turnover. Of course, it's debatable what percentage of those clients have a realistic potential for becoming repeat clients. Some aren't prone to showing loyalty to any firm; others only sporadically have need for A/E services.
There's no easy way to measure client retention in professional services. If you're looking for marketing value, writing "68% of our clients hire us again" probably sounds better than "80% of our revenue comes from repeat clients." But what's a good number? You don't have any industry benchmarks. And the business value of that metric is questionable without bringing revenue or profit into the discussion.
This white paper by consultant Harry Mills describes some interesting ways to analyze the correlation between your revenue, profit, and clients. If you want meaningful metrics to gauge how you're doing with clients (in addition to measuring client satisfaction), I'd suggest starting there. If you happen to have any other good ideas for this kind of metric, please share them!