Whilst thinking about writing this article, it struck me that it must be incredibly obvious to people what this five letter word might be, however a quick cursory ask around my work colleagues and friends threw up all sorts of different suggestions, with answers ranging from the rather blatant “money”, to the more subtle “value” right through to more esoteric suggestions like “brand”.
Whilst these are all great suggestions and of course, valid answers in their own ways, none of them quite fully summed up the fundamental “thing” that, at least in my experience, drives great client relationships.
…perhaps you’ve guessed it :) either way here’s some key ways to maintain the ‘health’ of good client relationships…
Start with the truth.
It seems deadly simple, but as a company, we’ve always encouraged clear, truthful and honest discussions, right from the outset. As a close-knit and focused team, we find it much easier to be direct, truthful and honest. Sure, we have internal and client-facing documentation but ultimately, apart from its focus, there’s hardly any difference in the narrative. Yes, we may curse a bit more internally but we find sticking to a simple understandable truth, reduces friction in our comms, creates less bureaucracy and pays attention to one of the single most valuable resources we all have in the service industry, time.
…time, of course, is the one business asset between us that can’t be created or renewed without a cost to both parties…
By being direct, truthful and setting clear honest expectations early, we can arrive quickly to the building blocks of a successful client relationship.
This essentially boils down to a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ for the following three key questions;
- Are your confident we can do the work?
- Are you happy with our costs?
- Do you get on with us?
On the surface, this may seem like an oversimplification, but actually, these three key questions are important not only at the outset of building great working relationships but also, importantly, are constantly being evaluated, tested and retested throughout your interactions.
…depending on how well you have managed these aspects, you can screw up one of these and recover, you can even screw up two of them and recover, but screw up all three for any length of time and you’ll begin to irrecoverably damage the greatest commodity you have to build great client relationships…
Ask tough questions.
Being truthful often means asking tough or probing questions, it can mean seeking out weaknesses in a client’s treasured ideas or preconceptions.
This is not an easy thing to do and can be bruising for egos on both sides of the client-agency divide.
How far this goes, of course, is a matter of gauging each client relationship, but failing to do so creates unnecessary blind spots and entire assumptions can go unchallenged until it’s too late, only then to bite everyone on the proverbial backside.
In my experience, tough questions lead to ideas that are questioned, challenged ideas that become stronger and perhaps most importantly encourage and invite key stakeholders into the conversation.
I’m not quite advocating decision by a committee here but it’s no bad thing to have the right people contributing or challenging a concept. This creates better outcomes and a clear and shared understanding of a project’s deliverables, vision and its goals.
Evaluate your end product, constantly.
With the understanding that confidence, cost and communication are constantly in play, always make sure you’re attending to the key priorities of the moment, importantly making sure your clients understand what page you’re on.
Thinking about your end product in the context of your clients’ challenges product will pay dividends.
Constantly evaluate how to best solve your clients business challenges. Focus on providing clear expectations, consistent delivery, and valuable, prescient advice that takes away the pain of your clients business challenges but also, has one eye on the future.
Celebrate success, but learn from failure.
Over time, your ability to have a perfect unblemished record of delivery diminishes to zero.
Of course, success should be celebrated across your networks, however, its a fact of life and especially with the delivery of complex project requirements that things will go wrong. People, clients and even entire teams can have bad days.
How you react will, of course, be a big part of what defines these moments, but most importantly how you have maintained the key parts of the relationship will set the tone. And, ultimately, be the difference between a way forward through the problem or irrevocably damaged business relationship.
Being attentive to business relationships is certainly a skill but it’s not hard, once you share and understand the goals and aspirations of your client. It’s not about being sycophantic either, that’s just as damaging if it’s detected, it’s about keeping professional respect in play at all times.
This way when the going is good, you can all share in the success. When things don’t go to plan you can both own the solutions and steer a course forward that maintains a great working relationship.
When you commit, follow through.
Nothing erodes good business relationships as much as not paying attention to this. In my experience, this comes down to being open, honest and on point with expectations management.
Commit only to the things you can absolutely, positively see through and apply this rigorously to deadlines, functionality requests, amends just as much as you place importance on calling back or replying by email when you say you will.
Not paying attention to this over time will be the death of your business relationships by a thousand cuts until, at some point in the future, something totally trivial will spark a complete breakdown.
At that moment, you may conclude your client is irrational or just being difficult but almost always when you reflect honestly you will notice a pattern of minor letdowns, disappointments and bad expectations management that likely contributed.
Yes, it’s all about trust.
Ultimately, this is what it all boils down to. Trust is the atom, the fundamental element, the key metric of any business relationship and its constantly in play to a greater or lesser degree across every interaction you have.
Paying attention to your value for your customers in the metric of trust will cultivate long-lasting and fruitful business relationships. Relationships that are professionally fulfilling in shared successes but also robust enough to weather the inevitable tough times.