Some companies call them "office of the chairman" accounts, while others simply refer to them as key clients. These are the flagship clients that propel your growth in good times and provide essential ballast in a downturn. They are broad and deep, transcending any one individual or service offering. Usually, they endure for years. These trusted partnerships account for a disproportionate share of most firms' revenues, profits, and intellectual capital. An archetypical example is Booz Allen Hamilton's 70-year relationship with the U.S. Navy. During the research for my new book, All for One, I identified a series of powerful, core strategies that can help you consistently develop these trusted client partnerships. Think of them as a series of shifts in your thinking about how to build long-term client relationships. Here are four to consider:
1. From understanding your client's business to Agenda Setting.
Small, expert-for-hire relationships can be built on agenda reacting, where you take orders. Trusted client partnerships, however, are based on being able to understand and influence your clients' agenda--their three to five most critical priorities, needs, and goals.
As one CEO put it, "There are plenty of consultants, lawyers and other professionals out there who have good technical skills. But that doesn't distinguish them. It's the ones who are able to really understand me and my business--who can connect what they are doing to my most important priorities and goals--who become part of my inner circle."
Agenda Setting requires a new level of investment in client understanding, and a broad-based knowledge of the key forces affecting your client's business.
2. From selling to Executive Engagement.
Selling is based on a linear process with clearly defined steps (e.g., closing). It emphasizes features and product attributes. By nature it is transactional, short-term focused, and self-oriented ("I would like you to buy this").
However, most executives have no interest in being sold to. Executive engagement is the process of exploring a client's most important agenda while indirectly building credibility for you and the services or products you provide. It is based on asking thoughtful, provocative questions; building your own credibility by giving examples and sharing best practices; and helping the other person clarify their thinking about what the problem really is. If you do this well, your prospect will naturally become a buyer if the fit is right.
3. From a solo act to organization-wide Collaboration.
In most organizations it's no longer possible to succeed as a lone-ranger rainmaker or salesman. Whether we're talking about an IBM, Ernst & Young, or Citigroup, one's internal relationships are just as important as the external ones. A trusted client partnership is very much founded on your ability to mobilize the right people and resources into the relationship in order to help it grow. The key is building your Relationship Capital, however--those 20 to 25 core relationships with clients and colleagues--as opposed to frenetically networking with hundreds.
There are three things that promote a collaborative culture. First, management has to role model and communicate the collaborative behaviors and values at every opportunity. Second, teamwork has to be reinforced through such organizational processes as measurement and reward. Third--and especially in far-flung organizations--knowledge management and collaboration technologies have to be harnessed to enable real-time collaboration across geography and organizational boundaries.
4. From quality delivery to a differentiated Client Experience.
In consumer markets the concept of adding value through the customer experience--above and beyond the value inherent in the product or service--is well established. The Apple Store or Lufthansa's first class airport lounges are good examples of this. In many business markets, however, most companies offer an undifferentiated client experience. This is why, for example, corporate clients have a hard time seeing real differences between law firms or accounting firms. Some examples of practices that can create a value-added client experience include:
- Client forums, where you take a group of client executives (from different companies) offsite to work together on common issues
- Joint expectations setting, where you sit down with the client at the start of the relationship to capture their expectations and jointly define how the relationship will work
- Innovation collaboration, such as IBM's "innovation jams" which connect IBM employees, clients, and business partners using collaboration software.
- Joint account planning, where instead of developing a client account plan internally with your colleagues, you do it jointly with the client.
- Creating new or even virtual experience environments. Taking clients offsite, meeting with them in new surroundings, and even creating virtual interactions (through Second Life, for example) all have the potential to add value and differentiate the relationship experience.
You can identify ways to improve the client experience by asking questions such as:
- Can we involve new players in the relationship (from your organization and the client's organization)?
- Can we increase transparency, and expose the client to our internal processes?
- Can we increase information flows, in both directions?
- Can we add more value for time in our client interactions?
The rewards for building trusted client partnerships are immense. Developing them, however, requires a new approach to relationship building.
+ + + + + + + + + +
Andrew Sobel, head of Andrew Sobel Advisors, is an authority on client relationships and author of the newly-published All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships, as well as the business bestsellers Clients for Life and Making Rain.