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Great Client Relationships … Really?

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The desire to improve is the first prerequisite for building better, deeper, and broader relationships with your clients.

If you don’t think there is a gap waiting to be filled, why would you go through the pain and cost of changing how you act? The problem is that many successful professionals are complacent about the quality and strength of their client relationships.

There are two reasons for this.

First, in good relationships, people often overstate their role and attribute too much to their own actions. If you’re a partner in a large professional firm, and you take over a relationship that your firm has had with client for over 20 years, how much credit do you personally deserve for retaining the client for another year or two?

Second, people can easily overstate how good their client relationships really are. For example, here are some potential “false positives” that may not necessarily indicate a great relationship:

  • Your client is highly responsive and always answers your phone calls
  • You are good friends with your client
  • The client has given you more business this year
  • The client does business with you year after year
     

While these are potentially good signs, I can think of cases where these factors were present but the relationship was actually pretty mediocre. The responsive client, for example, may simply be very polite and have idle time on their hands; and just because you retain a client’s business from year to year doesn’t mean you have a built a trusted advisor relationship with them and are part of their inner circle.

Only by understanding the signposts of a great relationship, and honestly judging how your client relationship stack ups against each one, can you develop that all-important desire to improve.

At an individual level, here are six critical signposts you should look out for in your client relationships:
 

  1. Trust: How strong is the client’s trust in your professional competence, your integrity, and your willingness to always focus on your client’s agenda? Can you work informally, without constant checks, controls, and updates? Does your client require extensive documentation and analysis to support everything you say, or are they willing to consider your judgment and insight without challenging it?
  2. Thought leadership: Are you perceived as a trusted business advisor who brings both subject matter depth and broad business knowledge and judgment to the table? Are you shaping and leading the client’s agenda, or simply reacting to it? Would your client say that you bring them new ideas on a regular basis? Do you have strong “share of mind” in terms of the group of individuals who are shaping how your client thinks?
  3. Inner circle: Do you have a “seat at the table” for significant strategic and operational conversations and decisions? Does your client call you and say, “We’re just thinking about this idea and I wanted to bounce it off you at an early stage…”
  4. Transparency: Does the client openly share information with you about their plans, programs, priorities, and upcoming initiatives? Or are you kept in the dark, at arms-length? The willingness to be transparent is a manifestation of trust.
  5. Loyalty: Will the client always use you and the firm in areas of acknowledged competence? If they frequently shop around, or would be willing to drop you in favor of a slightly cheaper alternative, you may not have the high quality relationship that you thought you enjoyed.
  6. Reference-ability: Would this client simply provide a passive reference if asked, or are they actively promoting you and your organization to colleagues and friends and creating referrals for you?
     

There are four other signposts that pertain somewhat more to the institutional, rather than individual, aspects of the relationship.

These are especially important if you work with a larger organization:

  1. Breadth of relationships: Have you built many-to-many relationships with this client, at multiple levels, including with senior economic buyers?
  2. Breadth of services: Do you provide multiple services to this client, and have you leveraged your company’s geographic footprint in serving them?
  3. Overall relevance: Do you have a high “share of wallet” for your services? How strongly relevant are you to this client? That is, are you one of many vendors or an essential partner in achieving their business goals?
  4. Financial performance: Are the financial dimensions of the relationship characterized by steady or increasing revenues, low volatility and risk, and low sales costs?*
     

So take a long, hard look at your top 4-5 client relationships. How would they stack up against these 10 criteria?

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