Building Client Relationships
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Here is the scenario. You receive a phone call from a client. He asks to
negotiate your current fee structure as he is looking for a discount of 15%. In
addition he is wanting to change your project leader who has been working with
him for more than 2 years.
You have two ways of responding - co-operative discussion or competitive
Unfortunately you choose the latter. You feel confident about the work you
have performed to date and the quality of the project manager and don't see why
they should want to change or indeed why they should get a 15% discount despite
spending more than £100,000 per annum annually.
After an hour and a half of mud slinging, the client advises you that not
only are they going to cancel the existing project they will cease working with
you for the foreseeable future. What has gone wrong?
This hypothetical scenario demonstrates what can happen when we assume we
know where the other party is coming from.
What you haven't learnt is that you client is about to embark on a
restructure which will result in a scaling down of its business in its
traditional area but expansion in another areas through acquisition of a new
business. The client wanted a new project manager who had a better understanding
of the new industry segment and the discount in fees were to reflect the reduced
The harsh reality is that sustaining a healthy client relationship is an
ongoing exercise that requires hard work. How often have we celebrated winning a
large tender thinking that the relationship is 'in the bag', believing that as
long as we deliver the technical content the client will be happy and we'll get
more work. Consultants should not rely on subject matter (technical) expertise
alone to manage the ups and downs of a relationship.
Consultants who take time to build a client relationship are more likely to
survive through the difficult times.
So how can consultants build and maintain these effective client
1. Focus on process - avoid getting bogged down in the technical detail, your
subject matter expert can handle that. Focus on the bigger picture by asking
"What is really happening here?" "What are these clients really saying?""What
are their real, underlying needs?"
2. Influence behind the scenes - research suggests that up to 80% of the
outcome in any formal negotiation is determined prior to the actual face-to-face
meeting, so use the time leading up to any meeting or planned interaction
wisely. Get the facts, safely test the likely positions with client
representatives (maybe colleague or direct report of your major client contact)
and work through the optional scenarios of each other's desired outcomes.
3. Find common ground - no matter how difficult relationships become, there
is always some common ground on which to build a solid foundation. Look for
common ground at every client interaction. The more common ground you can
establish, personally and professionally, the more resilient the relationship
will be. Keep questioning "What do we both want?"
4. Uncover the real needs of the other party - expert negotiators distinguish
themselves by exposing the true or underlying needs of the other party early in
any relationship, allowing a more open discussion of the issues and, ultimately,
a better outcome. Ask open-ended questions to elicit deeper responses from the
client. Constantly asking questions and listening will mean you will learn the
hidden agendas of happy and disgruntled clients.
5. Manage your style - in our example we had two choices of style to respond
to the client's issues - co-operative or competitive. The problem was we chose
our default or emotional reactionary style - to get angry and defensive. A
skilfull negotiator recognises the power of adapting your style to meet the
situation. Some situations require you to "act" in a contrary style to your
personality - for instance, naturally co-operative consultants may have to
become more competitive to assert their authority, for better results. So be
aware of your style of negotiating and be prepared to flex your style muscles to
suit the climate of the relationship.
6. Have a plan - how often do professionals plan and write down their
approach to managing interactions with clients? Our evidence suggests rarely.
Every negotiation of any timeframe, from three minutes to three years, goes
through systematic phases of introduction, differentiation, integration and
settlement. Once you understand the timeline of any negotiation you will become
a skilful negotiator in defining the action and asserting your position more
Expert client relationship managers know and understand that managing
expectations is a daily ongoing skill and that every interaction with clients is
an opportunity to positively influence clients' perceptions about your value as
a trusted adviser.
Copyright (c) 2007 Chiswick Consulting Limited
About the Author
Pam Kennett and Crispin White are Directors of Chiswick Consulting Limited, a
management consultancy which provides advice and direction to clients in
marketing and human resources. They have particular expertise working with
professional service companies. Contact them at
firstname.lastname@example.org or visit
http://www.chiswickconsulting.com for more information.
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2007-12-10 22:03:07 in Business Articles