Let them cry on your shoulder, if they need to. Let them kick and scream, if they want. Stroke them. Help them strategize. Listen. Show compassion. In today's slow economic times, clients need special care and feeding. Companies know it's tough to get new customers, so many are taking extra steps to nurture those they already have.

“When you keep more of your customers and keep them happier, that’s a cost cutting strategy. It’s expensive to get new customers,” said consultant JoAnna Brandi of Boca Raton, who specializes in customer retention and uses the moniker, “The Customer Care Lady.”

 

For export consultant Jaime Si­gal, nurturing customers means spending lots of time on the phone, talking with candy and cookie importers in Latin America who face huge obstacles to busi­ness: A banking crisis in Argenti­na. Political strife in Venezuela. Urban violence in Colombia.

 

Sigal knows many of his con­versations won’t produce immedi­ate sales, but he says it pays long term to listen.

 

“They want to talk. You have to show understanding,” said Sigal, president of Miami-based export consulting firm Trexco Inc., which specializes in food sales to Latin America. “You can’t say, ‘But last year, you bought $1 million from me by this time.’ You have to see what you can do to prudently ex­tend credit or other assistance.”

 

That might mean working with clients to produce a smaller pack­age that is more affordable for consumers in strapped econo­mies, he suggested. Sigal said firms that pull back from custom­ers in tough times run the risk their clients may look elsewhere in rosier days.

 

Candy importers in Latin Amer­ica, for example, may opt to switch purchases from more expensive U.S. manufacturers to lower cost suppliers from Brazil, Colombia or Mexico.

 

“If you want to keep that client long term, you have to be pro-ac­tive,” Sigal said.

 

‘PULL OUT ALL THE STOPS’

 

Market researcher Rick Tobin said his company has become more aggressive with clients ac­tive in Latin America, sending in senior staff to help customers fine­tune strategies for slower times.

 

Among the firm’s recommendations: Research that more closely tracks the results of advertising campaigns, so that limited ad funds can be spent more effectively. And more customer-satisfaction surveys, so that businesses can better meet the needs of their existing customers.

 

“You don’t ever want to lose a client, but when economic times are tougher, you want to pull out all the stops, because what you don’t get is new clients,” said To­bin, president of Miami-based Strategy Research Corp., which specializes in Latin America and U.S. Hispanic markets.

 

Tobin hopes his aggressive ap­proach can help Strategy Re­search grab market share from other research firms that “may not be as targeted.”

 

For Victoria Goldstein, president of the Latin American division of public relations firm Bro­deur Worldwide, nurturing clients often means taking over more of the burden from public relations counterparts at the corporations she serves.

hose corporate executives now are “busier than before” be­cause of staff cutbacks, so Bro­deur now “acts more autonomous­ly” to provide them services day-to-day, she said. That might involve designing a new public re­lations campaign or writing a press release -without immedi­ate input from the corporate exec­utives. That shift requires closer coordination, however, on longer­term planning and evaluation.

 

“We’ve always tried to have ‘ex­pectations’ meetings before we start a project abd a “touch-base” meeting every three months,” said Goldstein. “But before, things worked pretty much on automatk pilot, and clients would often can­cel those meetings.”

 

“Now, with us taking on more tasks directly, it’s even more im­portant to meet and review results, expectations and details,” she said.

 

NOT AN EASY ROAD

 

Still, pressures can build be­cause of today’s tough times, mak­ing clients more abrasive and nur­turing easier said than done.

 

At Plantation-based Latpro­.com, a job-search site for profes­sionals active in Latin America, an employer recently complained harshly about a job listing inaccu­rately posted on the Web site by the employer’s ad agency, not by staff at Latpro itself.

 

Eric Shannon, Latpro’s presi­dent, said he was tempted to “fire back a self-righteous response” blaming the ad agency, but held back-to try to keep good rela­tions with the client.

 

“We try not to blaine. We try to fix the problem. We frequently have to swallow our pride,” he said.

 

Such restraint can boost stress, especially when profits are slim.

 

Shannon often wonders when he’ll see strong returns from years investing time, energy and money in his Internet start-up. It takes work to build up “a higher toler­ance after not seeing results,” he said.

 

Indeed, rising levels of stress at companies sometimes backfire into poor service, with recent surveys in the United States documenting growing concerns over rudeness to clients, said Brandi, “The Customer Care Lady” of Jo­Anna Brandi & Co. Inc. in Boca Ra­ton.

 

“Too many companies are sur­vival-focused, fear-focused, and not customer-focused,” Brandi said. “But what’s important in tough times is to stay positive and to keep focused on what matters most to customers, what nourish­es customers, what nurtures them, what makes them feel good.”

 

In tough economic times, it makes more sense to keep customers than to go out and find new ones.