Dancing to Kylie & Lunch in Italy... Key Ingredients in Strengthening Client Relationships
As a Client Partner, probably the most fundamental aspect of my job is building strong, long-lasting relationships with my clients. Recently, I’ve been asked by a couple of less experienced members of the team what advice I can give them so that they can start building similar relationships with their client contacts. As it’s not something that I consciously think about doing, I was slightly perplexed by the question and had to force myself to deconstruct what a good “business relationship” is and how you go about achieving it. To that end, I’ve written this post to try and share a few pearls of wisdom based on the numerous strong relationships that I am lucky enough to have built with existing and former clients over my years in the industry.
So, before we go on to the “how” part, it probably makes sense to quickly remind ourselves why strong business relationships are so critical. The answer to this may seem obvious and for most people it probably is, however there is no harm in refreshing ourselves or enlightening those in blissful ignorance. If we break it down, there are probably five key benefits:
- Better collaboration – enabling you to work more effectively with one another
- Mutual trust and respect – enabling you to give and take on board advice and feedback without second-guessing motives
- Better results – both of the above should lead to better outcomes on your shared goals
- Honesty – enabling you to be frank with one another and have those difficult conversations if and when they are needed
- Enhancing your (working) life – working with people you have good relationships with makes spending time with them enjoyable both inside and outside of work
Now that we’ve covered the “why”, we move on to the “how” and what works for me personally. For me, there are two things. Firstly it’s about Authenticity and secondly, it's about getting the right balance between “Formal” and “Informal” relationships.
Authenticity, firstly, has to underpin everything that you do in a strong relationship - be that your interest in your client’s business, your desire to deliver the best results for them or just to wish them the best in their personal life. If you don’t care or aren’t genuinely interested, you won’t commit as fully and as a result, the relationship will not achieve the potential that it could. In a boutique agency like TMP Magnet, the significance of this is amplified even further as relationships are with a range of stakeholders from MDs to Marketing Directors, and from procurement folk through to execs or interns. Each and every person, irrespective of their position, must feel genuinely cared about.
Secondly, as referenced above, it’s about getting the balance right between the formal and informal relationship you have with the client.
Formal relationships are all about getting the fundamentals right. It’s about listening, understanding, being proactive and offering the right solutions to help solve the client’s problems. These more transactional basics are the building blocks of every successful business relationship, because if the client has no confidence in you, you have nothing on which to build on. They may like you as an individual, but if you’re crap at your job, it's not going to help you in the long run!
Once you've got the fundamentals sorted, how do you take a good business relationship and make it into a great business relationship? For me, it's very much about the informal side of things. Why is this so important? Well according to research, as much as 90% of the information that the most senior executives of a company receive and take action on comes through their informal networks”. A recent example of this for me was when I met an old client of mine for breakfast who is now a Brand Director. As my client many years ago, we had a fantastic relationship however, we’ve not worked together for a number of years but over the course of our Eggs Florentine, and in between discussing kids and dogs, she was able to ask my advice on a major strategic challenge that she was grappling with at work, which I gave her my honest thoughts on.
(By Ewan Munro from London, UK (Yellow House, Surrey Quays, London Uploaded by tm) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Having spent some time thinking about what helps me forge strong informal relationships, I’ve narrowed it down to four key elements:
- Interest in the individual
- Shared experiences
- Little acts of kindness
- A sense of humour
Having a genuine interest in the individual really does help, especially if you’re going to be working with this person a lot or going to have an “important” relationship with them. By asking and finding out a bit about their family or their interests outside of work helps uncover commonalities which then act as a bridge or a mutually interesting topic of conversation. People love talking about their kids, and so for me, with my two boys, comparing notes on parenting fails, frustrations and successes happens quite often. Or another recent example is when a client gave me loads of travel tips on my forthcoming trip to Umbria and Tuscany, as he has a place out there.
(By Martin Falbisoner (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Allowing informal relationships to develop outside of the workplace through shared experiences is a great way to strengthen them, taking them beyond the day-to-day conversations about briefs budgets and results. It could be breakfast, lunch, dinner or an event – for example, dancing to Kylie or singing along to Adele both bring back fond memories for me and the clients that I shared these experiences with. Or tweeting a client at 4am during an Italian earthquake and then meeting them a few days later for lunch with both of our respective families in a little Italian town to recount the horror of it all is another recent example.
For my clients, whenever possible, I try and deliver little acts of kindness. These don’t have to be big things – it could be just remembering to ask them about their holiday or how the work is going on their house renovation. Or a little email to wish them a happy birthday – who doesn’t like a message like that, especially when it’s from someone who you wouldn’t have necessarily expected it from? It just shows that you care and have taken an interest in that person as an individual and not just as someone you do business with. And for bigger occasions such as the birth of a child or a wedding, I always try and send a thoughtful little gift – these are always very much appreciated.
The final ingredient for me is a good sense of humour - this goes a very, very long way. Work can clearly be stressful and so sharing pictures of naked mole rats or shoe-horning over 25 Lionel Richie song titles into a single email are just two examples of when a) I’ve clearly had far too much time on my hands, but more importantly b) clients have appreciated these silly things that have brought a smile to their faces and brightened up their day a touch.
So there you have it – my perspective on what it takes to be a good Client Partner and how to build strong business relationships. It's clearly not rocket science but perhaps just remembering the importance of both the formal and informal aspects underpinned by authenticity will help at least some of you build and strengthen your business relationships in the future. Thanks for reading!
 Professor Rob Cross, University of Virginia and Jon Katzenbach, Booz & Company
Header Image By Paul Robinson (Flickr: Shiny Kylie) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons