People often ask me “what’s the most common issue that clients mention when talking about their key strategic relationships”. That’s easy – it’s ensuring that their key partners and suppliers understand their business.
It sounds simple but I’m finding that an increasing number of providers of B2B suppliers or consultants are not investing enough time in keeping up to date with changes, both in the outside market and within their client’s organisation.
Understanding and empathy with a client’s commercial issues are always a key reason you get appointed in the first place. As part of the pitch or tender process companies invest a considerable amount of time in getting to grips with what the key drivers, threats and opportunities of a potential client are. This enables them to put into context their recommendations as part of the pitch or tender process.
Yet many firms once appointed, go into “executional mode” and fail to continuously invest enough time into keeping in touch with the client’s issues that they originally examined which contributed to them winning the business. They don’t do enough to keep up to date.
So why is this so important?
Simple, the pace of change in modern business is getting faster all the time. Many clients are reviewing their annual plans on a quarterly or even monthly basis. By the time the original project or assignment has been completed the client’s business could have changed profoundly because the pace of change is now so rapid.
If you are not up to date with what’s happening then how can you sell your services or adapt them to delight the client, let alone develop initiatives to add value to the current relationship?
Sadly, too many service providers don’t seem to invest enough time in keeping up on the learning curve. Indeed, we have evidence to suggest that over a third of key suppliers don’t regularly ask just the simple question “how’s business”?
For some clients this is a “must have”. A director at a blue-chip soft drinks company told me recently that he wanted to feel that he was getting some of his suppliers ‘shower time’. In other words, even in the shower, they were still thinking about his business.
One company I recently met in South Africa has an interesting way of ensuring they were seen to understand some of the key issues.
They would invite the client in on a Thursday at 5pm. All staff, about 80 people, had to be there. The Chief Executive would introduce the client, say thanks for coming, and then ask them to speak for 10-15 minutes about why they had been selected, what the clients company hoped to get out of the relationship and the broader picture of the key issues the business was facing. Then, the client relationship manager would stand up and talk about what they would be doing for the client, followed by questions.
But here’s the real point of the story. To sum up the Chief Executive would thank the client for coming, publically thank his team on the business, and would then say to his staff: “I want each and every one of you to come to me with any ideas you have for our new client’s business and we’ll not only take them to the client, but we’ll also pay you a bonus if those ideas are implemented”.
Needless to say, all their clients loved this. They were deeply impressed that they had not just 8 but 80 people who understood their business. Consequently all their clients are keen to repeat such a meeting on an annual basis.
Here’s a checklist of what some organisations do to ensure their client services teams keep up to date with the clients business.
- Show an interest and regularly ask how business is going and also importantly any management or organisation changes that could impact you
- Read their annual report – particularly the Chairman’s statement – to get a good picture of where the business is headed. You can usually bet that the issues raised will filter down to every part of the organisation and impact their suppliers and partners
- Reading the clients web site
- Regularly check out the competitors’ websites
- Ensuring you are registered for news releases sent out by client and competitors
- Furthermore, sign up for Google news alerts on your client, competitors and trade associations. Sometimes you will be the first to hear of competitor news which is always a good way to demonstrate to your client that you are on the ball.
- Keeping up to date on client blogs, Facebook page or Twitter entries
- Reading the client’s trade press
- If possible, using or experiencing the clients products or services
- Competitive reviews
A lot of this is not rocket science. Indeed, the internet makes much of it a lot easier than it used to be but it is absolutely key to establishing an enduring and productive relationship.
I’d be really interested to hear what others do to understand their clients business.