The majority of us have clients or customers. It’s how we do business. It’s pretty much why we do business. Yes, we have a product, an expertise or a service, but without a client that needs whatever we have to offer, we’re just hobbyists.
Building a strong client relationship doesn’t require a Ph.D. in Human Behavior, but it does take humility and patience. It requires awareness of why a client would want to enter into a relationship with us. Our customers not only need what we have to offer, they value what we have to offer if we do our job well. And they’ll pay a premium for it. Thank god, because again, we don’t have a business, without our customers.
I’m always amazed by articles like this one that go out of the way to make customers look stupid. The writers and their peers pat themselves on the back and say, “Look how dumb these people are,” comforted by a sense of superiority that, I suppose, helps them deal with the more tedious aspects of client relationship management.
Sure. Servicing customers sometimes means dealing with pain points. We have different views on how to manage a product, what success looks like, personality conflicts, different values, etc. Things arise along the project timeline that require adjustments on both the client’s and the consultant’s sides. Maybe the delivery date gets moved up; maybe new stakeholders are brought onto the project and want to add new features. Maybe one of your developers had a personal emergency and isn’t able to work on the project. There are a lot of moving pieces when promises have been made and money changed hands. When issues arise, so can tension between the parties.
The product or project is not at the root of this tension. That’s right, the product or project isn’t really the source of frustration. It’s trust, or maybe a lack of trust. And you either have the trust of your client or you don’t. This trust is the key to everything for a consultancy. When you’ve established trust as the foundation for your client relationships, everything else falls into place. How do you build that trust?
Cultivate a relationship that reciprocates respect
“In many ways, effective communication begins with mutual respect, communication that inspires, and encourages others to do their best.” – Zig Ziglar
Like any other relationship, client relationships require mutual respect. If, like the restaurant workers in the above link, we think of clients as “dumb” and lack respect for them, we’ve forfeited our right to our client’s trust and respect. If we violate our client’s trust, no matter how much of an expert we may be in our field, we soon risk gaining a reputation for being difficult to work with. Or worse, as someone who does not listen to or respect a client’s concerns.
Albert Einstein said: “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.” Everyone – from the junior member of your client’s team all the way up to the CEO – has a point of view that you can learn from. In turn, you have something unique to teach every person on your client’s team. Instead of mocking their lack of knowledge, appreciate that they were smart enough to trust you to lead them in the right direction.
How much more will your client value you if they see that you take time to help each team member, no matter how junior, feel like they have something to contribute? As William James wrote, “the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” Someone who feels valued and accomplished makes for a much better client.
Surprise and delight (aka Add Value. Add Value. Add Value.)
“If you want to be outstanding, stop meeting expectations, start exceeding them.” ― Saji Ijiyemi
Think about your client promise in more than just the terms of your scope of work. Continuously look for additional ways to strengthen the value offered to your clients. At my previous agency, we invited clients to topical thought-leadership events. We introduced them to experts in their fields and taught them something new about a niche point-of-view or an emerging media. If we saw an article, or read a case study that a client might enjoy, we passed it on. We looked for speaking opportunities that would elevate our client and their expertise. These events cost money which was never passed along to our clients. We invested that expense in providing our clients with added value.
Maybe you know someone in your network who could be a good contact for your client. Perhaps there is another offering you could provide to your client? Maybe they see you as having only one offer and have no idea you could help them in another aspect of their business. Cross-selling could mutually benefit your client and your consultancy.
A great client relationship often extends further than a business relationship, though it doesn’t have to. We often discover we share a personal connection or interest with our client over the course of an engagement. Whether playing golf or tennis to having kids who play soccer. A shared love of red wine or foreign films, maybe even an appreciate for Ethiopian food – if you regularly meet your client out for tacos, don’t you think the next time your contract comes up for review your client will go to bat for you?
I’m definitely not suggesting schmooze for schmoozing sake – everything about a relationship must be rooted in sincerity – just like each of our “real life” friendships. The desire to deepen the bond between you and your client should be genuine.
Become an expert listener
“Thank your customer for complaining and mean it. Most will never bother to complain. They’ll just walk away.” ― Marilyn Suttle
This lesson should be applied to all relationships, definitely not just client relationships. But when it comes to listening to our clients – are we making sure we glean what they are truly saying vs. hearing what we want to hear?
Recently, Joe and I met with a prospective client at a Fortune 100 company. I’d worked for several months to set up the meeting, researched the company and knew where they had dipped their toes in the mobile water. About fifteen minutes into the meeting, it was clear they didn’t really have a business case to develop an app…yet. They wanted to build an app – they knew it would further cement their market position as a leader within their industry. But the only reason they currently had for building an app was something that could be accomplished via search.
Spending the money to build an app that mimics Google would not serve the client well. We could certainly charge a lot of money to build that app, but ultimately, if we provided no value to that client, that short-term retainer would cost us far more in spent integrity. We hope to work with that company in the future and we intend to work with them to find a way to smartly address a business concern with a beautiful software solution…when the time is right. By listening to the client, I hope we demonstrated that we care more about learning what would truly add value to their business than about booking a sale.
Appoint a client advocate
“It is so much easier to be nice, to be respectful, to put yourself in your customers’ shoes and try to understand how you might help them before they ask for help, than it is to try to mend a broken customer relationship.” – Mark Cuban
While it should be second nature to each member of your team, let’s face it: not everyone thinks about the client first. That doesn’t mean the client isn’t a priority, but some team members are more focused on the work. They may not yet have developed the ability to be client-facing, and communications may not come instinctually to them. stable|kernel has been very intentional about each hire we’ve made and we’ve prioritized putting the client at the center of what we do. But for larger consultancies that might have a large technical team, it’s easy for that message to get lost.
On most software projects, a consultancy will have a project manager. The project manager is often the default day-to-day client contact. While it seems like this makes the most sense, putting the project manager in place as the client’s go-to contact is sometimes at odds with a project manager’s job to champion the project at all times.
Why the project manager is on the ground and closest to the action, a client relationship advocate who is somewhat removed from the nitty-gritty details of the project might be more equipped to mitigate client concerns. This also helps prevent placing the project manager in an awkward position that could pit developers or designers against the client. Making sure that everyone communicates their role up front and has their expectations outlined ensures a much smoother client/consultant journey.
Communicate often and ask for feedback
“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” – Tony Robbins
We believe in continuously involving our clients in our progress. Whether a weekly face-to-face meeting, a Skype call, quarterly or annual review, our clients count on us to keep them updated throughout each sprint and alert them if roadblocks appear.
So many conflicts can be avoided by communicating clearly and early. And while it’s easy to pop off an email, some situations require picking up the phone and having a live conversation. Someone once suggested never allowing an email chain to go back and forth more than three times. I think that’s a great rule. We can lose a lot as far as context, tone and voice go within email communications.
We also use Slack for easy in-project communications. It helps the developers, project manager and client for on-the-fly communications.
Often times at the end of the project, a consultancy will conduct a postmortem. This evaluation looks at whether or not all of the requirements of the project were met. Did we have a smooth transition from sales to design and development? Did we feel like the client was happy during the process? What could we have done to make things run more smoothly?
Asking the client for feedback is critical to this process for a couple of reasons. The first is you need to have an accurate assessment from the client’s point of view of how the project went. It only helps your team do a better job the next time. The second reason is that ultimately if you want to continue the relationship with this client, they need to know that their opinions are valid, appreciated and respected. If the client feels like you were just racing to get to the end of the project so you can collect the rest of your retainer, they are less likely to want to continue the relationship. Asking for feedback ensures they know that you want them to be happy with the final result.
5 tips for building a strong client relationship
- Cultivate a relationship that reciprocates respect.
- Surprise and delight. (aka Add value. Add value. Add value.)
- Become an expert listener.
- Appoint a client advocate.
- Communicate often and ask for feedback.
I’m not a relationship expert, but I have worked with clients for more than fifteen years. While in high school and college, I waited tables and bartended – two positions that force you to develop strong relationship skills early. People are the same, whether they are eating at one of your tables or spearheading products for a global brand. We want respect, we want to be valued for our contributions, we want someone to listen to us and we want smart people helping us meet our goals. Every day, our consultancy has a chance to deliver on each of those desires, and hopefully by doing so, develop a strong bond that will serve our client and our team well.