Client Relationships: Why Some Succeed and Others Don’t

In virtually all professional service organizations, clients are the key to success. More and more service professionals understand that  strong, face-to-face-client communication is the antidote to escalating commoditization pressures and the intense competition of the New Economy.

Every conversation, whether with clients or not, involves two messages—a content message and a relationship message. Relationship talk, usually nonverbal, is just as important as the content message. Sometimes more so. Relationship talk provides subtexts, which can give the astute professional very important information about the client. Subtexts show up in the client’s communication competence, nonverbals, such as emotional intensity, message emphasis, facial, and bodily reactions.

Because of my background in communication studies, as well as the very pointed demands of such clients as 3M and my clients in law and architecture, we’ve focused narrowly on the elements of client relationships. Doing so is the best means for gaining commitment, developing new insights, and accessing project connections, as well as reducing mistakes and misunderstandings. Not only does this expertise go a long way toward developing one’s reputation as highly competent (He’s really a smart guy), but significantly it opens clients to long-term, dependency relations which can turn out to be very profitable.

In this article, I intend to focus on one process—developing client relationships. I’ve found that most professionals are largely unaware of this cutting-edge pattern of behaviors. I call it a pattern, but it could also be considered the format or logistics of client interaction. You’ll find, however, that it is exceedingly applicable to any client conversation, especially one where you ask the client to analyze the job now as well as what he wants it to become. More significantly, this pattern is key to building and retaining client relationships. So as you think through these five behaviors, be aware that the built-in redundancy is purposeful, and that each behavior may be recycled again and again in a single hour conversation with clients.

Initiate a collaborative relationship.

Initiating a collaborative relationship is rather straightforward, and should take place in the first meeting with the client right after the introductory small talk. Here is a potential script:

Jean, I’d like to get right down to your recruiting needs . . . but before we do that, can we talk about our relationship first? I’m quite convinced that a really good work relationship will result in a better recruit for you. (Take five or ten minutes at the most. You probably won’t finish the work relationship issues, but you can go back to them in the next meeting. What’s important is that you facilitate the social contract from the start, rather than wait for an inevitable problem to drive that conversation.)

In this conversation you may want to talk about such things as the best way for you to communicate, how to work out problems or conflicts, and the best ways to keep everyone updated and in the loop. But be aware that over time you’ll have to renegotiate and renegotiate that work relationship. Clients are quick to step out of those engagement relationships, and you’ll need to be quick on your feet and gutsy to remind them of the best ways to work together.

The research rather clearly shows that well-defined work relations, especially when codified as in the above example, strengthen the client’s commitment to you. Furthermore, such scripts disclosing how you prefer to work are also useful strategies for obtaining further information from the client. If you disclose something as simple as how you prefer to work with a client, the client is likely to disclose in return.

Verbalize the client’s input for definition and clarification.

Whether you’re talking about work relationships, the client’s business, or the recruiting needs of the client, it’s always important to verbalize what your client says. I make a point of doing this every three or four minutes when the material is either complex or strategically significant.

Joe, let’s talk about what you just said. (Wait for the client’s assent.) When you say . . . I’m not certain what you mean. Specifically, what do you mean when you say . . . ? Why is that important? (Listen intently and reflect, parrot or paraphrase.) So what you’re saying is . . . ? (Recycle until there is no possibility of misunderstanding.)

Most understand the importance of clarification, but few understand its degree of importance. Things can go wrong at any point in the communication process, and they usually do. It’s scary, but it’s a well-researched fact that misunderstanding in the organizational setting is more prevalent than actual understanding. If you factor in layers of hierarchy, opposing goals, struggles for power, uses of technology, and organizational politics, misunderstanding is inevitable. So make certain you understand what that client wants by quoting, paraphrasing, and clarifying his message, or sure as hell that will be your last project with him.

But much more comes out of the clarification experience. Inevitably, the client will correct your information and in so doing reveal a great deal more about himself and the organization (i.e., his degree of self-awareness, priorities, anxieties, organizational concerns, business opportunities, his own career). This is all free information which you can leverage  not only to understand him, but also the organization and culture, in order to work most effectively with him. Free information about your client will surface in all of the behaviors, so listen and question intentionally. Much of that information will be highly useful for adapting your messages, making recommendations, and building your long-term business with him–and his network.

Surface the client’s rationale for his/her decision.

All of us make decisions and set objectives on an intuitive basis. Intuition is nothing more than extremely fast pattern matching built upon past experience. However, when a decision has strategic implications, complexity, and is liable to impact business processes, gut feel and intuition should be suspect. The Nobel-winner Daniel Kahneman has shown that experts (read, “executives”) tend to be remarkably overconfident about their ability to quickly solve problems and make accurate predictions.

In spite of all the opportunities provided by the client’s rationale, I’ve found that consultants can be resistant to a lot of questioning. You can overdo it, but that’s rare especially with thoughtful, relevant questions. Studies show that we are impulse driven to respond to questions. Indeed, executives readily succumb to questioning from consultants of any stripe. Many clients, driven by their narcissistic leanings, really want to offer advice, especially when the questioner is a consultant who’s just received a contract.

As you work through the client’s rationale for a candidate, realize that once again the subtexts of your client’s responses can reveal a great deal. Specifically, don’t miss the information on the client’s strengths and weaknesses, his fears, and especially his needs for power and control. This is the best place to begin listening for the client’s anxieties. Client anxieties inevitably circle around personal power and control. Once you identify his peculiar set of anxieties, you can play to them in your presentation, resolve or manage them in your recruiting, and set yourself up for a long-term relationship.

It’s very important to understand that the consultant’s business is far more tied to the personal needs of the client than those of his or her organization. It’s a well-documented fact that execs will let their business die before they give up their power and control. Thus, it’s an imperative that you understand those personal concerns.

Your questions might sound like this:

Let’s talk about your decision for a minute. If you don’t mind, I’d like to know how you came to that conclusion. I’m sure that if I understand your thinking better, I’d be able to do a better job for you. (Whenever possible, appeal to the client’s self-interest. Furthermore, be aware that s/he may not be able to answer your question. As a general rule, the majority of opinions held by most have never been thought through. Their answer may be something like, “Well, it just made sense to me.”

When the client has no answers to your questions, follow through, if possible, with some alternative answers to your question.)

“Well, was it. . . “ or, . . . ?“ (Once you’ve put words in a person’s mouth, she’s liable to talk about the subject.)

Surface alternatives.

If you’ve been making it easy for your client to disclose information, make intelligent connections and add political informationthirty to forty minutes into the conversation, the conversation has been enriched by a great deal of new information that includes different perspectives or a different positioning. If you’ve been careful in your questioning and offering of feedback, you now understand a great deal more about the client’s original objectives. This is the time to add value and facilitate creative options between you and your client.

So what you’re thinking is . . . ? Right? How else could you look at these issues? (You may need to be ready to offer suggestions to get that conversation started.)

Research shows that expertise is the foundation for all creative thinking and work. By this point your client interaction has resulted in the surfacing and development of a great deal of expertise surrounding the recruiting issue at hand, the needs, the politics, and the personalities in play. In addition, both you and your client brought a great deal of recruiting expertise to the party when you walked in the door. That expertise will support at least a modicum of creative thinking. Creative thinking can provide significant value to the client—and profit to you.

Summarize and check to see what you’re missing or don’t understand.

Although it’s wise to do internal conversational summaries throughout the interview, it’s also necessary to do a final summary at the end of the meeting. This will provide one last opportunity to clarify potential misunderstandings or identify information that’s missing. I’ve found that more than half the time when I ask what I’m missing or what I don’t understand that the client is quick to comment or straighten me out. Often it’s information that keeps me out of trouble. But in this summary, you especially want to be certain that you and your client are in complete agreement regarding the goal or objective of your contract. The most serious breakdowns come from failure to get agreement in the recruiting consult, so you’ll want to be scrupulous in this conversational segment.

My summaries start off with language like this:

OK. Let me see if I can put all this together. What you’re saying is. . . ? Right? (Listen, get agreement and go on. Or, if not agreement, then recycle the entire process.) What am I missing? What else don’t I understand? (Keep digging until you have full agreement and a happy client.)

Summaries should normally end with this:

OK, I think we’re in full agreement on your objectives. Now, one question. How could I get in trouble here?

This is your last double-check on the political dimensions of the project. It’s often very revealing and it usually results in your being protected by the client throughout the project.

Once again, it’s not merely the content of the summary, but also its relational impact. Clients tend to read a good summary as a sign of competence, superb listening skills, and a compliment to their choice of you as advisor and recruiter. Significantly, those experiences motivate clients to provide more and better information, and motivate them to keep you in their loop.

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On numerous occasions when I’ve taught this material in depth, the trainees will ask whether I can really say this or ask that question. Actually, they should be questioning what would keep them from asking those questions. When you dissect your reasons for not asking, usually they make no sense.

In sum, pay close attention to the content messages, but realize that the relational message is as important and sometimes more so than the content.

You can never know with 100% certainty how your client relationship will play out. But if you become an artist with this pattern, you will know for sure that your hours and days of work will be more profitable, meaningful and fun—and that you’ll sleep a lot better at night.

Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in executive development and performance improvement. For over 30 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from Fortune 100 and 500 companies, as well as professionals in medicine, law, consulting, and architecture. Building upon contemporary neuroscience, organizational behavior, and 50 years of personal experience, Dan customizes development programs for client executives and their teams. He blogs regularly at www.danerwin.com.

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