There has arguably been no factor more critical to the rise of civilization than agriculture. Farming generally provides a more reliable food supply than hunting and gathering. It allows people to settle in more concentrated communities where resources can be aggregated and commerce more readily established. Hunters and gatherers, by contrast, are often consigned to a more nomadic and insecure existence.
Similarly, companies thrive when they cultivate the business equivalent of agriculture—enduring customer relationships that provide an ongoing supply of revenue. Imagine your firm without long-term clients. Could you even survive? At best, you would be facing a substantial downsizing of your business and much greater uncertainty about your firm's future viability.
Given the critical role that such client relationships play in enabling sustainable business success, I've long marveled how little concentrated effort the typical A/E firm invests in relationship building. Most firms still take a largely transactional approach to business development, where pursuit of new projects takes precedent over pursuit of new clients.
Those special client relationships more often arise as an afterthought to project work, a byproduct of a job well done rather than the result of focused relationship building. It's akin to the hunter who in pursuit of game scatters some seed along the way in hope that some will fall on favorable soil where it might take root. While this hunter may give special care to the isolated patches of crops that emerge, it's hardly an efficient model for creating a steady food supply!
So it is with firms that have no relationship building strategy. When I conduct business development assessments, I typically ask those I interview what their firm's greatest BD strengths are. Invariably, building client relationships is one of the first things they mention. Then I ask how they do that. Their answers usually reveal that they don't really know—"just take good care of the client" is a common response, without offering any specifics.
That's hardly reassuring. How can you do anything consistently when you can't describe how you do it? How do you replicate that capability across the organization? Doesn't something so critical to the success of your firm deserve more intentional, consistent effort? I think the answer is a resounding yes. If you agree, here are some suggestions:
Learn from your best client relationships. Can you retrace the steps that led to your most enduring relationships? How did they form? What did your firm do to cultivate those relationships? A closer look may yield some valuable insights. Better still, you might ask those clients how they came to favor your firm. What are the things you do that distinguish your firm and keep them coming back?
Identify the characteristics that define your long-term clients. Are there some common traits? Chances are you will find at least a few. For example, they probably tend to prefer deeper relationships with their service providers. Perhaps they are committed to making these relationships mutually beneficial. They are likely less price sensitive and pay more promptly. Whatever the case may be, there are certainly advantages to recognizing commonalities among your best clients. These can help you identify the potential new clients that most warrant your attention.
Screen prospective clients for relationship potential. Your sales approach should distinguish between transactional sales and relational sales. With the latter, you devote more attention to relationship building. A one-off client or one that gives priority to low price is probably not worth the additional investment of a relational sale. But when there appears to be good relationship potential, you want to go beyond the usual project pursuit and focus on nurturing the relationship. Early in the sales process, apply your list of desirable client traits to assess prospects for relationship potential, then proceed accordingly.
Make the working relationship a key part of your sales narrative. At some part in the procurement process, most clients will give strong consideration to how well they think working with your firm will go. If the relationship is important to them, they'll start making that assessment early in the sales process. There are two things you should do in that situation: (1) model the working relationship in how you interact with the client during the sales process (serve, don't sell!) and (2) talk about how you build strong relationships with clients. If you can describe the latter in some detail, you'll probably be the only competing firm to do so—a clear advantage in your favor.
Assess your current client relationships and plan how to strengthen them. It's a good idea to identify your firm's key client relationships. These might be characterized by past and potential revenue generation, demonstrated loyalty, strategic value, or some combination of these factors. The point is to determine which of your clients deserve special attention. For each of your key clients, develop a plan for nurturing and growing that relationship. Your plan might consist of the following elements:
Scale the content and details of the plan as appropriate for the size and value of the client. But have some kind of plan to guide the intentional, consistent effort mentioned earlier.
Appoint an client team for each key client. Your most important client accounts should never be entrusted to a single individual. Even the best client managers can make mistakes, or have blind spots, or leave your firm! They may be too close to the work or the client to have an objective perspective. The collective brain power of a client team increases your chances of having a sound relationship strategy and taking good care of the client. This team should have a leader (client manager) and meet roughly monthly. What should they be working on? Raising the level of service. Ensuring the success of current projects. Planning how to position your firm for new work with the client.
Be sure you're getting regular feedback. Only about one-fourth of A/E firms formally gather feedback from clients. Feedback is the bedrock of strong relationships and great service. You can't be sure you're serving your clients well if you don't ask. Certainly, you want to be certain that your top clients are fully satisfied with your performance and service. For more insight into how to do this, check out this earlier post.
One big difference between farmers and hunters is that farmers in effect produce their harvest, whereas hunters depend on finding theirs. There is much work that precedes the harvesting of crops—plowing, planting, watering, weeding, spraying, etc. Your best client relationships deserve similar diligence. Assemble a team, have a plan, and cultivate the relationship to maximize the mutual returns. And starting such relationships shouldn't be left to chance. Don't apply a transactional sales approach to every prospect.
Farmers or hunters: Where is your firm's focus? Is it where it should be?