ONE of the great myths of business is that you have to go all-out every day to keep your customers and clients happy. While always giving your best is admirable, advisable, and preferable, it is not necessarily true. The real picture is that customers and clients are forgiving. Once they commit themselves to being your customer or client, you have to mess up in a major way and mess up often before they will admit they were wrong. Yet a lot of people still manage to fall short of this bare minimum and watch their prized customers and clients walk out the door. Customers and clients use three criteria to measure you: communication; service; and added value. How well you handle these three items is a reliable indicator of how long you will keep your clients. Here is a checklist to see how you are doing: Communication. We all have enough sense to communicate well before the sale, but it is even more important to communicate after it. Are you accessible? Do you hear as well as listen? Do you accept that the client's priorities are different and more important than yours? Most important, do you work overtime at explaining why? Clients expect you to explain the who, what, when, where, and how much of any transaction. And most of us are pretty good at that. But whenever there is a communication breakdown, it is almost always because someone forgot to explain why. That is the missing ingredient that customers really want. A rudimentary example: Let us say I take my car in for an $800 tune-up. I pick it up later that day, when I am handed a $4,000 repair bill. The mechanic goes through the bill with me. ''That's $160 for an oil change, $240 for new spark plugs, $400 for labour . . . and $3,200 for new brakes.'' In other words, he is communicating the what and how much. But the mechanic better have a brilliant explanation for that surprise $3,200 charge for new brakes. He is going to have to do better than saying: ''They were worn out''. If he tells me why - by showing me the old brakes, pointing out the damage, citing that they tend to wear out after so many kilometres, and so on - I might not find the bill so hard to swallow. And if he volunteers that why before I have to ask for it, Iwill be even more impressed. I will drive out of the shop grateful to him. He has a customer for life. Service. If the customer is faced with two equivalent products, the reason he usually chooses one over the other is service. The promise of excellent service is how you win new customers and clients. What many of us forget, however, is that the continued delivery of that service is how you keep clients. It is good business. In the long run, it costs a lot less to hold on to existing clients than to find new ones. Mr Ben Bidwell, the former chairman of Chrysler Motors, cities the example of how the US car industry forgot this simple concept. ''My industry chased new business every day of the year,'' he said. ''It was where we invested all of our money - in advertising, rebates, product development. While we were doing that, we were telling the customers we already had: 'Sorry, your warranty doesn't cover that'; or 'Sorry, we don't have a fix for that.' ''We got what we deserved. We once calculated that it cost Chrysler nearly US$10,000 (HK$78,000) per person to bring a new customer into the showroom and sell him a car. And we were doing this while we were losing old customers who would have stayed withus with a US$100 bill here and there. It was crazy.'' Added value This is the toughest criterion to measure and deliver - because what is added value in your mind (for example, extraordinary service that is way beyond the call of duty) may be standard procedure in one client's mind and totally unnecessary in another's. We face this in our client business all the time. Some clients come to us simply to increase their income. Measuring added value is a numbers game with them; how much did they earn before they came to us and how much are they earning with us. They do not care about all the extraordinary service we provide. It has no value to them. Other clients come to us precisely for that service. The thing to remember about added value is that it varies with every client. Before you can add value to a client relationship, you have to know what the client values. Two out of three is not bad When I mentioned these three categories to a friend not long ago, he reminded me that you do not have to do all three to hold on to client. ''If you're good at two out of three,'' he said, ''your clients will stay with you and most of them will be happy. You can probably get away with being good at one of the three.'' When asked which of the three categories he valued most, he answered ''communication''. Then he told me about his financial adviser. ''In terms of added value,'' he said, ''my adviser has given me virtually nothing. In some instances, his advice has cost me money. ''But he's terrific when it comes to service and communication. I get all my statements on time. They're accurate. If I have an investment question, he gets back to me with a well-researched answer. It's hard to fault him on service. That's why I stay. ''But what really clinches it is that he has a well-reasoned explanation for every investment decision. His moves don't always pan out. But, hey, nobody's perfect. As long as he's telling me why he does what he does, I can live with his results. Maybe that's foolish. But that's the big reason he still has me as a client.'' As I say, it does not take much to keep clients happy. Sometimes the bare minimum will do.