Effective client relationships fundamentally determine the success or failure of any professional services firm or business-to-business company. Winning and retaining clients has never been easy but it has now become even harder. Competition has increased as firms are targeting the same attractive markets; corporate clients are consolidating their use of external service providers and advisors; senior executives are time-starved and less willing to meet new suppliers; procurement teams act as gatekeepers and seek greater value. All this creates a new challenge for HR: how can you help the client relationship managers in your organisation to succeed?
The answer is to persuade them to think very differently about their role. Most sales professionals and relationship managers are specialists in their own field. While expertise is important for credibility, it has a downside. An expert will often talk ‘at’ clients and push their methodology or the technical merits of their solution. That encourages clients to see your company as a vendor. When your product or service is seen as a ‘commodity’, price becomes the main consideration. In other words, you’ll be perceived as a cost that can be minimised or cut.
To avoid this, your client relationship managers must evolve their role from an ‘expert for hire’ to become a ‘client adviser’. This involves a very different mindset and it necessitates a deeper understanding of a client’s issues and their strategy. A relationship manager who understands their client’s business and offers a targeted solution – with added-value advice wrapped around that solution – is no longer a commodity. They’ll be perceived as an investment, not an expense.
Of course, a client may initially buy an expert but unless your relationship managers are able to quickly move themselves out of that category, they’ll remain a commodity. There are always other ‘experts’ that a client can hire.
New skills and behaviours
To create and sustain successful long-term relationships, your client relationship managers will need personal integrity, broad business skills and the ability to build trust, listen and ask powerful questions that can uncover an urgent problem or opportunity. This involves more than having feel-good personal rapport. It is something earned by continually adding value, delivering results, understanding your client’s agenda and connecting with them on a personal level. That means knowing about their family and their interests outside of work.
Great relationships are based on great conversations. Relationship managers must realise that success is not about showing the client how much they know or how clever they are. The conversations they have should advance the client’s thinking about his/her challenges and needs, both at a business and a personal level. Clients will want to talk about how they can achieve their business goals, not about your methodology or approach. If your relationship managers can find ways to enthusiastically bring ideas, add value, trigger thoughts, reframe problems, highlight new developments and offer fresh insights – not simply jump in with their solution – they’ll provide a differentiated client experience and, in time, they can become an indispensable trusted partner.
Remember, experts tell; trusted advisers ask great questions and listen. That’s the key that can unlock a client’s urgent needs. Other ‘quick tips’ for making a good first impression with senior executives include: be fully prepared; don’t over-rely on your PowerPoint presentation; don’t ‘sell’ yourself excessively; do your research and walk in as an equal (that means projecting positive body language and speaking with humble confidence).
Your organisation should aim to create a true business-to-business partnership with each client, by building many relationships with stakeholders at different levels. To cultivate a truly client-centric culture, you must have the organisational systems and account planning, development and support processes in place that will enable your relationship managers to meet each client’s needs.
HR should introduce appropriate measurement and reward systems that support short-term performance objectives and longer-term relationship development. You’ll also need effective processes in place to select client relationship managers and multi-level programmes that will develop their professional and technical skills as well as their relationship-building capability. Combining different learning interventions – such as face-to-face workshops, e-learning, mobile learning, virtual live events, coaching, internally-led accountability groups and action learning – can have a powerful impact.
Some people are naturally skilled at building relationships. But anyone can develop this. Even a product specialist who only has transactional contact with their clients can learn to ask better questions, to listen actively and to pick up hints about each client’s needs.
The best organisations will consistently support the above activities over the long-term. They’ll also obtain regular client feedback through a variety of channels. These include leader-to-leader visits to take stock of the overall relationship; formal relationship reviews by the account director; surveys to get feedback from a broad group of client executives and informal discussions about the client’s agenda.
If the success of your business depends on high-value client relationships, you have a duty to help your relationship managers to sharpen their skills. Then they can become trusted advisers who can add value to your business by helping their clients to achieve their goals.