The groundwork for client relationships is started in the business development process. Most work in our industry is pursued through a transactional approach--chasing projects, touting credentials, writing proposals. Unfortunately, lasting relationships with clients gained by this approach usually don't develop. A relational approach to sales, by contrast, lays a foundation for an effective, enduring client relationship (see this post for more on relational vs. transactional selling).
So where to start in building stronger relationships? I offer five basic steps that apply both before and after the sale:
Lead with a service mindset. The most important threshold to cross in cultivating a relationship is to earn the other party's trust. Building trust can take considerable time, but demonstrating that you have genuine concern for the client shortens the process. However, one study found that only 35% of professional service sellers had convinced the client that they really cared.
Why might technical professionals struggle to demonstrate their concern? Part of it is a tendency to focus more on the work than the client. Some are hampered by a traditional sales approach that stresses self promotion. Others perhaps lack effective interpersonal skills, such as the ability to show empathy or to listen attentively.
The bottom line is your motives. Are you drawn to clients to serve them or yourself? In a sales environment, clients are naturally skeptical of your real intent. So you have to dispel their expectations and show that you really do care, and are there to serve. That is the best first step you can take in building a strong client relationship.
Establish mutuality. A good relationship has a balance of give and take. Usually when relationships turn sour, an imbalance is evident. One party perceives that he or she is giving more than receiving. That may be okay for a time, but over the long term a solid relationship must be characterized by mutuality--shared benefits, common commitment, genuine concern for each other.
The need for mutuality, once again, starts during the sales process. In traditional selling, the seller usually takes the client's time and gives little in return. A better way is to bring something of value (information, insights, problem solving, etc.) to every meeting with the client. Mutuality, of course, must be preserved through contract negotiations (it often isn't) and the course of the project.
The best way to achieve mutuality is to explicitly pursue it. While you should lead with a service mindset, you should also expect reciprocation. Make clear to the client what your needs are by negotiating not only the terms of the contract but the terms of the relationship. This is a step I call "service benchmarking," where at the start of the project both parties clarify expectations and spell out how they will work together.
Keep your commitments. A necessary condition of trust, of course, is trustworthiness. The need to keep your commitments might seem too obvious to merit mention here, but I've witnessed too many cases of neglect in this regard. Missed deadlines, failure to heed client requests, poor quality--all indicative of things promised that weren't delivered.
One solution is readily apparent: Don't promise what you can't or won't deliver. Yet project managers often do just that. They feel pressured to tell the client what he or she wants to hear instead of the truth. We'll have that to you by next Friday," the PM says without checking with staff to confirm that it's reasonable, or even when the PM knows it's not.
A good client service principle to keep in mind is "better to disappoint the client early rather than late." Honesty is always the best policy, even when it's not always the most popular one. The truth eventually comes out, and if you're unable to keep your promises, the relationship will suffer.
Collaborate. One of the best indications of a strong relationship with your client is the degree to which the two of you collaborate. By collaborate, I'm not referring to simple coordination and communication. Real collaboration involves joint effort to plan, design, and execute the project.
There's something about collaboration that fortifies the relationship. The two parties work more closely together, the client-consultant hierarchy is flattened, both benefit from the synergistic interaction with the other. I recognize that some clients are content to stay hands-off, and many PMs seem to prefer that arrangement. But such clients usually will not be among your best because they don't view the relationship as one of the chief benefits of working with you.
To promote greater collaboration with your clients, engage them early. Get them actively involved in planning the project and outline how the two parties can best work together. Schedule collaborative events like design charrettes and workshops. At a minimum, keep the client involved through regular communication and discussion about options and opportunities.
Think long term. Transactions center on the work at hand, a contractual obligation to deliver a specific scope of services. But relationships look beyond the now. In your first project with a client, there is likely no commitment on the client's part to a long-term relationship. You have to prove yourself worthy of such consideration.
The simplest way to position your firm for the long term is to give as much attention to the relationship as you do to the project. Hopefully, you've benchmarked expectations about the working relationship and you're delivering the level of service that you promised--at a minimum. It's best to have someone in addition to the PM tending the relationship, because the PM's interests tend to be divided between the work and the relationship.
Another way to build long-term relationships is to maintain them beyond the project. Many firms neglect clients when the work runs out. Then when the next project is on the horizon, they want to re-engage. Clients readily perceive where their interests lie. Remember, the relationship itself is one of the primary benefits of winning new work.
You may knock it out of the park in terms of the project's technical merits, but you may not get another chance at bat with that client if you've not invested adequately in the relationship. That's an unfortunate case of misplaced priorities. Because you don't build business as much by the work you do as by the relationships you forge along the way.