Back at my desk after the break, I chuckled over this spoof list of resolutions:
And then I thought, maybe it’s not so far from the truth.
Each year we start back, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with the best of intentions to improve our client relationships. We draw up a list of what we want to achieve – but how many items on that list will actually be new? Sadly, many of them will be retreads.
So, here’s a thought: instead of drawing up a long list, why not keep it simple? Maybe the way to go is to determine just a few most effective ways we can make a measurable difference to our business. Then discuss it with the rest of the team, make it a measurable and achievable objective, and go for it. Here are a few for starters:
- Instead of asking ‘if’, ask ‘how’. In terms of building relationships with clients, this could mean finding out what they really want for their business and supporting them in achieving it.
- Commit to collaboration. Involving other people is a great way to build energy and broadens the options for any task or situation.
- Maintain focus. It’s so easy to juggle various balls and find yourself dropping one or two. Don’t take your eyes of that all-important ball: the one marked ‘clients’..
Finally, make this the year you really take on the principles of simple, clear communication. In the words of a client of ours:
- Be bold
- Be brief
- Be gone!
This is the month when some forward-looking service providers I know are busy putting the final touches to next year’s client retention and development plans.
Why do I call them forward-looking? Well, the fact that they are drawing up these plans says that they are not taking the relationship for granted. They realise that it’s never static, but needs care, management and thought.
A proper development plan helps focus attention in a number of ways:
- It helps determine which activities earn money – and which don’t.
- It highlights the bigger issues which might get lost in the pressures of day-to-day business.
- It flags up potential business opportunities that might otherwise drift by unnoticed (accepted wisdom says it’s 14 times easier to win more business from existing satisfied clients than to chase new clients).
- It provides a road map for the coming year, so you can see if you are heading in the right direction and make adjustments if you aren’t.
I think there are a number of key elements that go into a good plan:
- Information about the client company and its market.
- A SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats).
- Key people (and don’t forget the procurement manager if there is one).
- The competitive environment you are working in.
- The client development strategy for the coming year, including milestones and review dates.
I know there will probably be a number of suppliers who have either never considered drawing up such a plan or see it as a waste of time. But to me anything that makes the foundations of your client relationships as solid as possible is worth doing.
After all, we don’t own our clients. We just rent them.
I’d be really interested to hear who’s doing a client development plan for next year and what it includes.
When I started my career, my first job was in a fashionable London advertising agency. I was amazed that from the end of November up until a couple of days before Christmas there seemed to be parties for clients and indeed departments almost every night of the week.
Especially over the last few years with; the global financial crisis, time pressures, the “procurement microscope” and indeed in some countries even legislation over what can be considered bribery, things have changed dramatically.
I’m seeing that many of the service providers that we work with have decided not to hold a Christmas party for their staff or clients and not take clients for what for some had become, their traditional lunch to celebrate the festive season.
Indeed, a lot now don’t send Christmas cards (for many the only time of the year they update their database) and instead send Christmas viral’s or e mails telling their clients and key suppliers that they have donated money to charity.
Whilst I’d be the first to agree that each business and client relationship has its own culture and idiosyncrasies it did make me think – in 2011 and in the years ahead, what is considered appropriate entertainment for clients and indeed staff at this time of year?
Do such events still have a part to play in securing and building client relationships?
Should you hold a staff party?
Do clients and staff expect it?
How lavish should you be and do you run the risk of sending the wrong signals?
Are Christmas cards a thing of the past or is there still merit in receiving a nice handwritten card?
I’d be really interested in your views.
1993. New York City. I was supporting Midas Muffler’s 60-plus markets in the Southeastern United States. Correction, I was supporting its 60-plus franchisees in the Southeastern United States. There is a difference.
Midas is a household name in the US, an under-car-care chain which fixes brakes, exhaust and suspension systems. It was not the most glamorous account, and I’ve since had the pleasure of working with P&G, Gillette, American Express and many other blue-chip marketing organisations. Yet Midas Muffler, and my association with the company, has remained one of the most rewarding positions in my 20-plus years in the communications industry.
One of my smaller franchisees was based in Knoxville, Tennessee. No real claim to fame can Knoxville boast; simply a quaint and sleepy little place in the Appalachian Mountain region. The franchisee in question operated two Midas Muffler shops there. He wasn’t a happy fellow when he rang one morning.
“The advertising isn’t working! The media plan is idiotic. You guys in New York know nothing about Tennessee. My sales are down, my competitor’s sales are up! What the hell are you going to do about it?”
I was well within my rights to listen to his grievances and politely refer him to Midas Muffler’s corporate office in Chicago. After all, that’s where the decisions were made on all franchisee creative support. And importantly, my boss preferred I spent more time fighting fires in larger franchisee markets such as Miami.
But, I reasoned, “It’s freezing in Manhattan right now, it’s warmer in Knoxville, and I can probably finagle a side-trip to the Jack Daniel’s distillery in nearby Lynchburg when I’m finished. A bottle of bourbon might put a smile back on my boss’s face. Simple.”
My flight landed in Knoxville a few days later. No pick-up waiting as I was the stooge coming to deliver the usual assortment of unwanted messages from the agency and Midas’ corporate office. I rented a car and drove to my franchisee’s first shop. We know the expression about ‘first impressions.’
First. The promotion advertised on the forecourt sign had three letters missing, and the sign was only partially illuminated due to a few, exhausted, one-dollar light bulbs. Two, the forecourt itself was essentially a weed garden, with the odd section of pavement appearing in random intervals. Third, his waiting room coffee machine had a little sign lying next to it, requesting that customers pay 50 cents for a cup while waiting for their cars to be serviced. Fourth. There were left-over pizza boxes and empty Cola bottles strewn all over the garage-servicing area. Fifth, the mechanics were swearing and filthy, even by grease-monkey standards. It went on.
My franchisee decided to keep me waiting. When he finally made an appearance, I surprised myself entirely as we hastened into our discussion. I scolded him for running such a ramshackle outfit, for charging his customers for refreshments while they spent a few hundred dollars having brakes replaced and for permitting his unpresentable and uncouth staff not to behave properly in his shop. In other words, “Quit whining about the advertising, and clean this (Expletive) place up.”
A few (from many) lessons learned.
- Really. No, really. Understand your client’s business. It would have been easy to immerse myself in the usual litany of client materials, background information, and so on. And I did. Yet none of it was as valuable as spending a day with an actual franchisee and his operation. There was nothing a slick commercial or a price-promotional offer was going to do to change his business’s performance.
- Understand the difference between what your client communicates and what your client delivers. Reject (or at least, insist on discussing) tasks where a disconnect may lie. In my Midas case, our commercials featured friendly counter-staff, clean and well lit forecourts and garage bays. Completely at odds with what this guy was providing.
- Challenge client myopia. Midas believed at the time that the value proposition was entirely driven by quick and low-cost service. While this was indeed what emerged from countless focus groups, it didn’t take into account several critical realities. While in Knoxville, my franchisee pointed out just one: that a competitor was offering to pick up cars and return them to the owner’s home, free of charge, at any hour. It didn’t take long for us agree that it would be worth him offering a similar or better service.
- Say what needs to be said. I had one simple question for the franchisee: “How would you feel if you drove into this dump to have your car repaired?” Not being afraid to point this out earned me an important measure of respect. The franchisee cleaned up his shop and operation, and I followed up promises I made to make adjustments to his creative and media rotation.
I relayed what I’d discovered to my boss and wider group of colleagues covering differing regions. It wasn’t particularly news that many markets ‘lacked’ model franchisees. I requested to lead a working group with the aim of encouraging innovation in on-the-ground customer servicing. It was approved. I was encouraged to travel, and I met a diverse group of both friendly and hostile franchisees.
For lack of a more suitable, methodological explanation, we basically ‘tried stuff.’ We implemented pilot-test programmes, and rolled out those that were considered successful. I loved seeing the transformations and the results that accompanied a bit of common sense trial and error. It may sound hokey, but in time, I came to love these guys. And I loved my job.
I was 25 years old when I visited Knoxville. What I believed might be no more than a passing stop on a journey as a maturing Client Services practitioner turned out to be a seminal professional experience.
In case you’re wondering, my franchisee’s name is Evan. He’s retired now, likely fishing in the rivers, near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Brian Lee is the former managing director of Grey Interactive in London and managing director of OgilvyOne, OgilvyInteractive in Moscow.
What makes a perfect agency? Everyone has a different opinion about the answer. In our view the most important opinion is the client’s. We evaluate dozens of agencies worldwide every year and we hear many differing opinions.
Recently, we interviewed the clients of an agency where the nature of the relationship was bordering on religious zeal. Clients were not just satisfied, not just committed but truly devoted. Who is the agency?
Sadly, we can’t tell you, as the work we do is confidential. What I can tell you is that they are a specialist firm in a high science category. They are fairly small but they have an outsized reputation.
As we interviewed their clients, what emerged were five competencies that the agency exudes.
- Deep Expertise: The market that their client’s operate requires a high degree of scientific knowledge and the agency people are extremely well-qualified.
- Forensic Knowledge of the Client’s Business: People on the agency team know the industry, the client’s business and organization inside and out. Often better than the clients themselves. One client said that “they fill in gaps in [their] organization”
- Outstanding Talent; The agency’s people are recognized as being as good or better than the clients’ own people. Specifically they were singled out for being extremely smart and strategic.
- Enormous Longevity: People at the agency don’t leave. In many cases, the senior people work with the same client for 10-15 years. This is a point of pride to the people at the agency. This is especially striking as, these days, it’s hard to get someone to want to stay on the same client for a year.
- High Quality Control: The agency is acknowledged as having extremely high standards in all that they do.
The thing the stood out was what clients didn’t say. The work that the agency does is very good but this was not a key theme. How the agency delivered the work was more important than the work itself.
This agency has built client devotion by the way it serves them not by the work it does.
In these pressured times I am finding that more and more service providers are using unpaid interns to provide the extra quality and service that clients demand while maintaining margins.
It’s understandable: companies want to provide that bit extra to achieve stand-out (or sometimes, faced with rising staff costs, they just want to stay afloat). Young people, meanwhile, are often willing to work long hours for no pay if there might be a job at the end.
One more factor at play here is that employment legislation can make companies wary of taking on staff permanently before trying them out.
I know of many businesses which now couldn’t function without their interns. But this does raise a number of questions for service providers:
- For example, who should actually manage them?
- Do you train them?
- Should they have exposure to clients?
- If they do, how do you ensure they meet the standards of service you expect from all your client relationship managers?
- You might get the work done, but could it be at the cost of your longer-term reputation for client service?
A recent article in the UK press examined the working days of interns in the financial and legal sectors. It discovered that 18-hour shifts were the norm, with internships viewed by some as a springboard to a better job. Others couldn’t handle the pressure.
Our experience was very positive: our former intern is now a key staff member. I’d like to hear from our network, particularly from those in other countries, to what extent you have used interns and the impact it has had on client relationships.
There is so much buzz surrounding brands’ use of social media to connect with consumers that you’d be forgiven for wondering just what it has to do with building business-to-business relationships.
But because social media is so very personal and all about building relationships, there’s an incredibly good fit with B2B. It enables you to have more of an open dialogue with both customers and prospects. It’s not just a broadcast channel, where information is given out to people. The essence of social media is that it’s as much about listening and learning as it is about talking.
I appreciate that the concept of open dialogue can seem scary. Sometimes those who work in the tightly controlled environment of B2B see social media as an uncontrollable and very public conversation that could easily turn into a runaway train.
Yet if you, as a service provider, are trying to build more enduring relationships, then the very act of opening up to these people, bringing them into an inner circle and asking for their opinions – and more importantly demonstrating that you have listened – will help them feel valued and more a part of what you are doing and the community you and they work within. (This is not to mention the fact that there are numerous ways of moderating social media content to avoid renegade unwanted contributions).
Like any channel, it always comes back to defining your objectives and strategy. You need to be very clear about what you want to achieve. It’s essential to identify what triggers dialogue while ensuring that comments are clearly huddled around info that is valuable to you and other people within that community. The skill lies in the ability to monitor the conversation in real time, and to steer it in the direction you want, while simultaneously learning from what you’re hearing.
A good place to start is to forget about social media and think instead about what value you could deliver to a community that was more constantly involved with you, and what value you could glean from having them so involved. Look at it like very live, very rich research in progress. What are you actually trying to do? Then examine the different social media platforms out there that might help you do it. It’s not all about Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. There are hundreds of social media tools that could be far more suited to your needs and thousands of specialists ready to help.
Experiment with different channels to learn which ones work best for you, and how, and you might even want to create your own sort of forum. There’s plenty of software out there that enables you to create your own private community where you are still engaging with people in a more social way, but in a ‘walled garden’.
It all depends what you are trying to achieve. When I spoke at a recent conference I wanted to make people aware I would be there and increase the impact of my presentation. I put my presentation up on SlideShare – a public presentation-sharing platform – ahead of the event and said to people via Twitter (I knew attendees were on Twitter because the conference had an account with followers): ‘my presentation is available to view. Have a look at it and you may want to come prepared with questions’.
In another scenario I wanted to increase the awareness of what we were doing across the various departments of our business. We created a blog and every 3 days a different department leader wrote 200 words on the most important finding of their week. This quickly grew blog content, blog traffic and got our profile up, with little demand on the business.
If you want to take the next step — and I strongly encourage you to do so — here are a few tips:
- Set realistic objectives (not social media objectives, business objectives)
- Ask what level of privacy you need: your own bespoke community with its own password or a more open one, like LinkedIn Groups (where you can still manage membership)?
- Know what social media your target use and work with this.
- Be sure you choose a platform that easily delivers the kind of content you want to share: LinkedIn, for example, is great for group chat but not very impactful visually. Conversely, YouTube, where you can host your own channel, is great for video content but not as hot on group conversation.
- Prepare to invest in someone who knows social media, who can host the conversation, monitor activity and adapt your tactics.
- Use analytics. You can look behind the scenes and learn a lot about where the interest for your content lies, who shares what, who engages often etc.
One thing is for sure. If you start off in the right way, with clear objectives, you will find the immediate learning inspiring, empowering and irresistible to act upon.
Josh Robinson is director of creative and integrated solutions at Sports Revolution, an integrated sports media agency. To get in touch with Josh, please call him on +44 (0)7771 903889 or email him at email@example.com
A few weeks back one of the members of our LinkedIn group asked a question which got me thinking about a universal concern: how to ensure a skilled supply of client relationship managers.
As Linda Metzger noted, there are lots of resources out there for those who want to be a better sales person. But where, she asked, should they go to learn best practice and become a student of the craft of client relationship management?
I believe this goes right to the heart of how we educate and train client relationship professionals of the future.
Last week I attended a conference where there was a lot of discussion about the “X and Y” generations and how their attitude and values can be very different to very often the “baby boomer” management that employ them.
One human resources director – from a company ranked high in lists of the best places to work – told me that many graduates coming through can be a challenge. She commented that they were having to train new recruits in areas that, at the very least, should have been taught at college and probably at school or at home.
This isn’t about academic skills, which are generally of a good standard. These youngsters were lacking what we usually describe those softer skills so essential in budding client relationship managers.
Another delegate pointed out that we might be missing something more fundamental –“shouldn’t we also be looking at the teachers?”
That reminded me of the daughter of a friend of mine. She has just completed her first year studying journalism. She’s worked hard in the holidays to gain experience at a number of leading TV and radio stations, and she remarked in passing that she now probably knows more about how a modern-day newsroom works than many of those teaching her.
She wasn’t saying this to be smug. It’s just that she was referring to an industry moving at such a rapid pace, with technology creating fundamental changes in the way people work, that those teaching it can easily become out-of-date unless they actually work at the cutting edge themselves.
The global financial crisis has created large scale unemployment and I believe we should create more college leavers who know how a modern business really works and can fit seamlessly into business life.
So here’s my big idea: as part of our corporate social responsibility shouldn’t more organisations be “adopting” teachers and lecturers?
This is about forming constructive links between education and commerce. We can do this by making sure teachers and lecturers have access to the latest techniques while also helping them to equip their students in the more rounded skills we need in business.
This also does not have to be a lot of work; it could involve briefing meetings, maybe open days or even a little bit of mentoring.
Think of the benefits: to the colleges, the schools, the teachers, the students and of course us, their future employers.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this. Could it work and is anybody doing this already?
What drives client satisfaction in professional services? Most people in advertising, law, accounting etc would say, it’s the quality of the end product and the results you deliver.
This stands to reason, right? Clients carefully take the time to select a firm based on their experience and the strength of a proposed solution. Sure, the people and chemistry are important, but it’s the quality of what you do and the end results that drive client satisfaction.
In a survey across RAM’s clients, we found that 70% of client defections among marketing services firms were primarily as a result of service related issues. Even more shocking is data from BTI Consulting based on 2,800 interviews with corporate counsels showed that 70% do not recommend their law firm to others. Moreover 87% would replace a current firm if given a good reason.
Why would nearly nine in ten corporate counsels fire their law firms? Quality of legal advice? End results? No. Most cited poor communication as the key determinant.
There are a number of factors in good communication.
First and foremost, are you clear about the client’s expectations and are you meeting these? Expectations must be managed. No one likes nasty surprises and how you communicate changes against client expectations can build trust or destroy a relationship.
Next is empathy. Put yourself in your client’s shoes. How will they take what you say? What will the personal and professional consequence of what you are telling them be? How can you make them feel that you are on their side not just giving them information?
Then clarity. Will they understand what you are saying? It doesn’t matter how good the idea or the advice you are giving is, it isn’t worth anything, if your client doesn’t understand and buy into it. Coming back to the office and telling your colleagues “They just don’t get it?” is not acceptable.
Visual and audio cues are incredibly important. Psychology studies show that people often pay more attention to the sound of your voice and your facial expressions than the content of what you say.
Last but not least, is active listening. The most important part of your body when you are communicating is not your mouth, it’s your ears. Are you actively listening to what your clients are saying, how they are reacting? Are you picking up cues about what may have changed since you last met? Clients won’t listen to you if they don’t feel you are listening to them and REALLY understanding their needs.
Have you ever suggested a great idea that just didn’t ‘land’, only to have it suggested by someone else a little while later? And that’s just the beginning. More frustrating, is witnessing it ‘land’, being actively received and enthusiastically taken up by the very same group or person you were engaging with earlier…
So what’s really taking place when that happens?
Here are some ideas, based on Michael Grinder’s Professional Development Model, to overcome these obstacles to communication.
Timing and permission are key micro skills of communication which are often missing in organisations and individuals. They are valid in many aspects of communication e.g. feedback for development or offering ideas in meetings.
This crucial feature of communication comprises three key aspects and includes skills, as well as aspects of emotional and social intelligence, to know when the right time to deliver your idea is.
Verbal – This involves the preparation and mental practice beforehand of content delivery. Noting ideas and phrases allows you to focus on other things during the meeting.
Content – Knowing your content well increases your confidence and frees you up to be more aware of non-verbal cues.
- Prepare two or three ideas.
- Have evidence and facts to support your opinions and recommendations.
- Be prepared to answer questions.
- Plan ahead, and store those nuggets for later possible use.
- Present your idea to others beforehand and gather support if need be, so it’s familiar during the meeting.
- Follow up your meeting with strategic emails confirming your suggestions or ideas.
Non-verbal – Albert Mehrabian conducted a study of the inconsistencies of feelings and attitudes between the verbals and non-verbals of a message. The results showed that people pay attention (simply put) as follows:
- 7% – words
- 38% – paralinguistics – way words are delivered or said
- 55% – facial expression
Where the verbal message was inconsistent with the facial expression, people tended to believe the expression rather than the words. Therefore, it’s vitally important to get your non-verbals compatible with the message you’re communicating.
- Eye contact
- Facial expression
All the above give messages of your interest and engagement, and show if you are truly interested, listening and paying attention.
Process – Set yourself up for success.
- Arrive early, speak to other delegates- this shows interest, and you may pick up possible agendas. Match your behaviour to target audience.
- Sit where you can see and be seen. Strong eye contact with the chairperson and delegates will alert them to when you want to speak. Contribute early in the meeting, and ‘position’ yourself from the start. Offering ideas after everyone has had their say allows you to identify gaps and offer a comprehensive solution.
- Assertiveness is the ability to communicate your opinions, thoughts, needs, and feelings in a direct, honest, and appropriate manner without having to offend others, and by offering the same courtesy to others. Very often the feelings you engender in others will be reciprocated back to you, i.e. if you listen with respect, chances are you’ll also be listened to in the same way.
- Don’t criticise, but build on others’ statements. Avoid using ‘but’ which can be a dismissive word. Use inclusive statements such as ‘That’s an interesting point. It’s also worth considering …’ or ‘What might also be useful is…’ ‘That’s a good point. I suggest that we also…’ Offer alternatives and explain benefits.
Timing – Often we are so determined to have our say, we ignore the subtleties of timing and jump in at wrong time – possibly when people are distracted by something else, so they don’t hear us. Or we burst in clumsily and our message is lost in the delivery. Listen closely and watch for the gaps to step into. Often, flagging that you’re about to say something emphasizes it. ‘I have something that I think is significant here…’ I’d like to add something at this point…’
Perception – Sensing when the time is right to contribute your idea and when the audience is ready to hear it is a subtle but instinctive communication skill. We all have it but don’t often pay attention to it.
Receptivity – If people feel they’ve been heard and understood, then they will be more open to receiving information or even challenge at a higher level. You will have the psychological and social receptivity to broach your idea. If you’ve prepared your strategy well and built up rapport earlier via the other steps, then your message will be delivered and received successfully.
Andre Coetzee is one of the founding Partners at Transitions Consulting, a professional Coaching & Training company, which specialises in Leadership, Performance and Communication. If you would like to get in touch with him directly, please call him on +44 (0)7764 471766 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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