Four Strategies for Developing Healthy Client Relationships

Note: The following article is derived in part from the thinking of Randall Murphy and the Acclivus Corporation and their curriculum entitled R3 Negotiations customized specifically for the search and staffing industry. This program is offered in a partnership with Next Level Exchange.

This diagram is from a presentation at the Fordyce Forum by Karen Schmidt and Jeff Kaye. Their workshop, “Client Focused Search,” included a discussion of these four strategies. In the diagram, SINALOA means ‘strength in numbers and law of averages,’ which is a reference to the way pure contingent placement operates. For more detail, see the entire presentation at http://bit.ly/KGn8Zt

As an industry, we have done a great job of teaching our clients how to treat us poorly. We have come to accept client demands and tactics as “business as usual” and the end result is that our industry becomes commoditized.

How prospects or clients see your relationship with them will determine how they treat you in the search process. How they see you will determine how they will negotiate around your fees and your search process.

Use the right strategies and you’ll negotiate from strength and maintain your value proposition. Here are four key strategies that will better influence your prospects and your clients, ensure that you differentiate with your approach and not your price, and make you more successful in your negotiations.

1. Share Insight with Clients (information beyond the obvious)

What’s my favorite subject? My favorite subject is me! And that is true for our prospects and clients as well. Too many tenured recruiters open a conversation on the phone, by voicemail, or in person with a deep recitation of their professional experience and their organization’s capabilities. Very rarely will they ever mention anything of interest about the client, the client’s role or position, or even the organization or industry.

The opening conversation should not be about you. Every call should open with some kind of great insight that you share about the client, the client’s organization, or their industry. This is a great way to demonstrate market mastery early in the conversation. Be better prepared. Gain insight by asking better qualifying questions. If you take the time to be more interested in your clients, you will be much more interesting to them.

Insight is the foundation upon which the successful business relationship is built. It is much more than just information; it is the ability to see beyond the obvious. If you share insight early, it begins the process of developing legitimacy and trust, and there is nothing more powerful against a tactical and demanding client than legitimacy and trust. Sharing insight will drive more trust into the conversation and reduce the client’s anxiety about working with you.

2. Develop 3×3 Insight (Secure multiple relationships within the organization)

This second strategy is called 3×3 Insight, which refers to your ideally having three different relationships at each of the three levels of the organization. Imagine a pyramid divided into three levels: the top is the executive level, the middle is the management level, and the bottom is the individual project level. Developing real relationships at each of these levels is key to keeping a firm footing inside an organization. Insight allows you to make good decisions and be more strategic with your time.

While there is tremendous power and legitimacy in having relationships at both the human resources and executive levels, don’t count out other individual relationships that can provide you with the organizational insight. No one in an organization has perfect information, but some have better information than others. Once you have information, you can process its implications into insight. Remember from the first strategy, the more interested you are in your clients — the more you know about them and can convey that insight — the more interesting you are to them. You may be thinking, “I’m too busy to do this.” Actually, gaining insight is an important time saver.

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3. Recognize Client Tactics (Neutralize the tactic, not your client)

Prospects and clients can get very tactical, especially in challenging economic times. Tactics are often used to influence your perception of your negotiating position. Because we are sensitive to client acceptance, we tend to take at face value statements that might indicate a lack of acceptance. So when the client says, “Your fees are too high,” we may immediately interpret that to mean that we need to lower our fees. But “Your fees are too high” may simply be a tactic from Negotiating 101. It’s simple to use, and usually gets good results.

When you recognize a tactic as a tactic, its effectiveness is greatly reduced. It’s a bit like when you were a kid and thought there was a monster in the closet, until your mom got your flashlight, shined it into the closet, and you saw for yourself that there was nothing to be afraid of. When you see tactics for what they are — tactics — they are not so scary.

It is important to understand that your clients may not regard their behavior as tactical. Not all tactics are well planned or elements of some sort of larger strategy. Your clients may not regard their behavior as tactical. They may not even recognize that they are using tactics. They may simply be making an effort to protect their own interests or meet their own needs by acting out of instinct or intuition. Recognizing it for what it is — a tactic — diminishes its effect.

4. Meet a client demand or request with counter demand or request

A relationship built on concessions will never be a true partnership. Clients may call on price, but they buy on value or perceived value. If all you do is give things away, what’s your value? Easily won concessions on your part are rarely valued and almost always result in additional demands. A client demand or request should always be balanced with an equal and appropriate counter demand or request.

Conceding at the wrong time in a relationship for the wrong reason can actually do more harm than good. If you fail to differentiate yourself in your process, you will end up have to differentiate in your price. The client must perceive value in your search process. Clients who perceive great value will be more willing to pay a great price for the service. Clients who perceive little value will leave you the victim of a tough negotiation.

If you finish a client conversation with all of the action items on your end, ask yourself why. Everything we do as recruiters should drive some type of investment or commitment from the client. If not, what is the relevancy of what we’re doing?

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