Client relationships can take a long time to develop.
This is especially true in large corporate environments where you have multiple stakeholders that have to be won over and executives who are cautious about opening up to an external advisor.
It’s very frustrating when the relationship-building process seems stalled. In some cases, my clients report that they’ve struggled in vain for months or even several years to establish a trusted relationship with a key executive.
Sometimes you just have to be patient—as Diana Ross and the Supremes sang in their 1966 number one hit, “You Can’t Hurry Love.”
My grandfather, Aaron Sobel, was a physician. Early on in his urology practice, back in the 1920s and 1930s, there were actually few medicines you could give patients—no antibiotics, for example. My father told me one of his frequent prescriptions, which he would write on his pad and hand to his patients, was “RX—Tincture of Time.”
That said, there are strategies that can help you accelerate a relationship.
The Core Elements to Focus on
First, we have to clarify the outcomes or enablers that help us build strong relationships. What are the most elemental ingredients that need to be “accelerated?” Here are four fundamental ones:
Trust. This is the client’s belief that you are: competent to deliver what they need; focused on their agenda not yours (i.e., will put their interests first); reliable and consistent; and have integrity.
Value. When you add lots of value early in the relationship, it helps build that feeling of trust and it creates an eager desire to have more from you. It pulls the client into the relationship.
Emotional Connection. I like to call this “Emotional Resonance.” The other person needs to feel a personal connection to you—they must feel like they know who you are and are comfortable sharing their concerns and needs with you. To create this you need face time, but you also need to be skilled at asking the right questions and willing to show a quality of openness yourself.
Relevance to their Current Goals. You may offer trust, value, and emotional connection but the client must perceive you as offering something very specifically relevant to their current and most urgent priorities.
So ask yourself: Am I doing the right things to build trust? Am I adding real value in our discussions? Have I connected personally and built rapport? And, am I focusing on issues of immediate and urgent concern to this person—their concerns, not what I want to sell?
Nine Acceleration Strategies
1. Offer an issue-specific working session.
First, identify an issue of real importance to your client. Second, establish your credibility in that area by illustrating what you’re doing to successfully address it with other clients, and/or providing insight through a point of view or framework that helps your client see the issue more clearly. Then, offer to run a working session—a few hours or even half a day—to explore it more deeply. One CFO told me, when referring to one of his trusted advisors, “This was their ticket to building a deeper relationship with me: Taking a ‘deep dive’ every year into a topic of interest.”
Is there a working session—a “deep dive”—you could propose to a client?
2. Get your client out of the office.
One of the fastest ways to accelerate the development of a relationship is to change the relationship environment. Take your client out to lunch or dinner. Go to a conference with them. Create an offsite event that includes lots of time for informal discussions and personal bonding.
Are you creating opportunities interact with your client outside the office?
3. Use speed.
Speed is an underutilized and undervalued quality that can have a huge impact on a relationship. My belief is this: The longer it takes you to diagnose the problem and the longer your delivery for any given project or solution gets dragged out beyond your initial estimate, the less profitable it becomes and the less impact it has. Speed things up with your client! For example:
• After meeting with your client, get back to them quickly (within 24 hours) with a summary of what you discussed and the next steps.
• Diagnose rapidly. Don’t take weeks or months to “assess” the problem. It’s impressive when you can quickly identify what’s wrong and how to fix it.
• Finish your first engagement on time and on budget. Don’t stretch it out—except under certain circumstances (for example, it the problem is far worse than anyone thought), it will lose impact.
Are you using speed to create impact and short-term value for your client? Or is your work getting dragged out?
4. Use questions, early on, to connect personally.
The best way to start creating the “emotional resonance” that I mentioned at the beginning is through thoughtful questions that engage the other person on an emotional rather than purely rational level. These include questions about their background, their past experiences, where they grew up, how they like to spend time outside of work; and, questions that appeal to the right brain, versus the analytical left brain, such as “I’m curious, what are working on right now that your are most passionate about?”
Are you asking thoughtful questions that engage and draw out your client on a more personal level?
5. Transfer trust from someone else.
An introduction or recommendation from someone your prospect or client already trusts is a powerful way to accelerate trust with you. Many CEOs have told me, point-blank: “It’s very unlikely I will meet with someone I don’t already know unless they have been recommended to me by a colleague or friend I trust.” A good word on your behalf from another senior executive will catalyze your relationship.
Do you know someone who can provide a reference or testimonial that will “warm up” a stalled relationship?
6. Do an assessment.
A brief assessment that is low-cost or even free can be a terrific way of gaining early face time and engagement, either with a new prospect or with an existing client. An assessment of an important problem or opportunity provides valuable information quickly to the client, it is low risk, it creates a showcase for your problem-solving skills and insights, and it usually provides opportunities for the face time that builds trust.
Is there an issue around which you could offer to do a rapid assessment for your client?
7. Help them through a crucible.
A crucible has several different meanings. One is “an occasion of severe test or trial.” Another is “a place or situation in which different elements interact to produce something new.” Crucible experiences are super-catalysts for relationship acceleration. You can’t “create” a crisis that you then help your client confront. But you can be alert to one, and be prepared to jump in and help.
Has there been a re-organization? A new CEO? Is new technology and digitization threatening your client’s traditional business model? Is your client struggling to set priorities and lead incisively? Is there a performance gap? These can all present opportunities to help your client through a crucible. And after you do, the relationship will be on a different, higher plane.
The second type of crucible is also quite interesting. Could you help your client assess how different elements (trends, technologies, competitive actions, etc.) are coming together to change industry dynamics? Could you help them innovate by enabling the intersection of disparate ideas/information (e.g., about the interaction of customer behavior and digital technology)?
Is there a crucible you can help your client understand and/or overcome?
8. Invest to figure out their real agenda.
Remember, most busy executives won’t make a lot of time for a relationship with you unless they perceive that you are highly relevant to their agenda of critical priorities and goals. But it’s not always so easy to find out their real agenda. I’m willing to invest a lot to understand what’s really important to my client—without that information I’m not as relevant as I could be, and getting the face time that builds trust and likeability becomes problematic.
This is a big topic, but think about simple things like talking to more junior staff members who are knowledgeable about their boss’s priorities, developing points of view about key issues in their business that will stimulate a discussion about what’s really bothering them, sharing examples about what your other clients are doing (to achieve the same effect), doing secondary research to uncover issues, and so on.
Do you really understand your client’s business and personal agendas?
9. Finally, be generous.
Generosity is a key enabler of the relationship-building process. If you think the relationship is worth developing, be generous with your time, your ideas, your knowledge of the industry or function you’re working in, and so on. Sure, a small percentage of clients may take advantage of this and not reciprocate or appreciate your efforts, but most will. A little generosity—authentic generosity, not one that is purely aimed at creating reciprocal behavior—goes a long way towards building trust.
What acts of generosity have you performed lately?