Cultivating long-term client relationships
by Jim Blaschke
Appreciating your clients’ worth can ensure and enhance long-lasting business relationships.
MANY PEOPLE WOULD AGREE with the statement, “Doing a good job is the best marketing.” Today, however, doing a good job only fulfills the minimum of client expectations and is really only the beginning when you consider the potential gain for your firm from a business relationship. Alternatively, the goal of any organization should be to exceed the client's expectation and build real value in each key relationship—worth that is created in the relationship via the continuous value deposits that the project manager has provided for the client.
Why this ongoing investment? What is imperative for both the project manager and the firm's management to understand is that the nature of the relationship struck between project manager and client is central to the creation of future value for the firm. Executives who take a narrow view of the role of the project manager in the building of long-term business relationships will limit their own success as well as that of their firms, perhaps even forfeiting many potential opportunities to build sustaining future business. Most firms consider their highest recognition to be not the number of awards won or the firm's growth over time, but rather the generation of repeat work as the true indicator of success. It is this repeat work that is largely dependent upon the skills and actions of the project manager.
Specifically, the project manager should no longer be viewed simply as taskmaster of a specific project; the project manager's role is far too important to your business to be pigeonholed as such. The longest, ongoing relationship that any firm has with a client is sustained through the actions, skills, and talents of the project manager. While a sales presentation by account executives to the client may last an hour, or a design team may take six to 12 weeks to roll out plans for a job, implementation of the project manager's plans may well last a year or more.
This long-term client involvement can be viewed as a job, or as an adventure in building something much larger than an acceptable project conclusion. In business, relationships (R) are based on trust (T), value (V), and dialogue (D). (See sidebar, “The Relationship Equation.”) The project manager provides the sustaining influence in the maintenance of these three relationship elements, thereby influencing the long-term viability of the business relationship. It is in the implementation of the nitty-gritty that the relationship is tested and strengthened. That the devil lurks within the details is a truism, and it is the project manager who handles these details. Therefore, it is crucial that project managers have the necessary relationship management skills and acumen to foster long-term business relations.
Jim Blaschke is CEO and managing partner of Archer Consulting in Gloucester, Mass., a leadership, organization, and business development firm.
How Well Do You Manage Relationships?
The following questions will assess your proficiency in five essential categories of relationship management skills. For each, think about how often the statement is true—from almost never to very frequently. The more often you take these actions, of course, the better. Each question begins with “Do you …”
Effectively introduce yourself and your firm in a clear and powerful way?
Establish credibility quickly in relationships?
Project your desired professional image?
Make sure that the right people know your business goals?
Use the power of suggestion to move ideas rapidly through an organization?
Develop a strong professional network outside your company?
Continuously expand your comfort zone to deal with high-profile contacts?
Prioritize your key relationships and focus your efforts accordingly?
Utilize your network to gather business intelligence?
Increase your opportunities and contacts through trade groups and associations?
Seize opportunities to ask for referrals?
Have a reputation as a helper and coach?
Listen to other people's viewpoints, even when they differ from your own?
Go out of your way to help others, even when it is inconvenient?
Listen to others without interrupting?
Mentor and create opportunity for others?
Contract clearly with others to achieve mutual goals?
Effectively share your ideas with top decision-makers and industry contacts?
Provide informal leadership to your peers?
Hold others accountable for their commitments?
Seek critical feedback from others about your ideas and performance?
Maintain a strong internal client network at all levels?
Introduce new ways to create value in your relationships?
Use a contact database to enhance your communications and productivity?
Remember to say, “Thank you”?
Maintain a dialogue with your network in a variety of forms of communication?
This means that project managers need to take a hard look at where they stand vis-à-vis the various indicators covered below. (Your management will increasingly take note, so you may as well become proactive.) Ask yourself, and answer honestly, whether you regard clients, business partners, and co-workers (and even vendors) as assets to be nurtured and developed, or whether you see the people you encounter at work as raw materials to mine, consume, and/or throw away.
Some project managers cynically assume that only a certain amount of business can be done with any given customer. Once a project has been completed, they push away their previous contacts and begin on a new project or new account. Some project managers take their best customers for granted, never imagining a broader relationship with them or surveying their levels of satisfaction. Such exploitative mindsets don't work for firms that seek to sustain a competitive advantage. To keep and nurture customers in today's environment, project managers must cultivate continuous relationships, transforming clients into people known intimately by firms.
Of course, project managers can't simply be ordered to start caring about their business relationships—especially if they haven't been asked to do so in the past. Systematic relationship management skills are required to enable the project manager to effectively maintain relationships in a consistent manner, both at the individual level and companywide. A relationship management system that incorporates five key sets of skills—positioning, hunting, coaching, leading, and farming—with a repeatable process will achieve that goal by getting project managers to focus on the actions needed to build great business relationships.
Positioning. How clearly do you convey the value that you, your team, and your company bring to the table? Can you articulate a clear and lasting impression to different audiences, and do so in 30 seconds or less? Positioning is about knowing your values, credibility, and message, and being able to communicate all of this so that people understand where you're heading and what you hope to contribute. In other words, do your counterparts view you as you want them to see you?
Hunting. How well (and how often) do you create and identify new business opportunities? How comfortable are you with seeking out new relationships with your clients? People with good hunting skills take the initiative to look for exactly what they want and then make plans to go after it. These skills determine the breadth and diversity of your relationships and the quality of the information you gather and use to make decisions. They have a direct impact on your ability to generate new opportunities for yourself and your firm.
Coaching. When you coach, you listen, nurture, advise, and help others achieve their goals. You do whatever you can to bring out the best in people—the best performance, highest commitment, and greatest results. Thus, coaching allows others to gain value from you.
Leading. If you've worked hard at the previous three items, you've earned the right to contract with others to help you achieve your objectives. Leading means motivating others to work with you to achieve your goals. It's about getting things done through others and stimulating the most effective actions for groups.
Farming. This suggests maintaining and harvesting all that value you've been creating and demonstrating. It means knowing when to tap people for the “five I's”—introductions (to desired contacts and prospects), information (to help with your positioning and hunting), ideas (to help solve problems or improve a situation), influence (to impact business outcomes), and inspiration (to get that essential boost that comes from someone with a fresh perspective). “Farmers” keep relationships current, tilling the soil for present and future value. They sow, nurture—and reap!
Focus on the Creating Value
Businesses that keep their focus on creating value beyond the single sale or project are the businesses that survive and succeed. Without exception, these firms are managed by executives who make an ongoing effort to review the process of communication between the project manager and client. They ensure that there is a buildup of mutual trust and value to enable a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship between firm and client.
American Express Financial Services (AMEX), for one, regularly surveys customers about the performance of its financial planners. Rather than providing such feedback only once—following an initial meeting or transaction with a planner—clients complete confidential surveys throughout the life of the relationship. What is more, AMEX planners are expected to communicate with their clients regularly during the course of the year—four times by mail, at least once by phone, and at least once in person. This continuous dialogue makes clients value their relationships with planners and inspires them to investigate new investment opportunities with AMEX. The system breeds trusting relationships between planners and clients, who become certain of their planner's sincere interest in their financial well-being.
Plan for Future Success
Planning for a firm's future success largely depends on the groundwork established to create long-term, sustaining relationships. Much of this groundwork is created by the interplay of the project manager and the client. Gone are the days when business relationships evolved automatically. Today, many firms are realizing the plain truth that effective client relationship management depends on building mutual need, benefit, and value.
Yet, perhaps there are those project managers who do not see themselves as having this magnitude of influence on the long-term strategic interest of the firm. Some project managers may simply see that they have a job to do and that they must complete the job in a manner that minimizes difficulties and ensures profitability to the firm. What is needed in these instances, therefore, is for the firm's management to instill in these project managers a sense of importance as to the nature and type of relationship the firm seeks with the client. Project managers should understand that, if they are being asked to cultivate such a relationship with the client, such an effort will be rewarded and acknowledged by the firm.
The Project Manager's Role
A few questions are worth considering when defining the role of project manager and the impact that this role will have on the development of a sustainable relationship with the client:
■ Do your clients see the project manager and your firm in the light you prefer?
■ How well connected is the project manager to the client's key contacts? Is he nurturing relationships at multiple levels?
■ How well does the project manager understand the client's true interests and objectives—beyond the scope of the project specification?
■ How clearly is the project manager conveying to clients the value that the firm brings to the project—and more importantly, the value that he personally can bring via a thorough knowledge of the above interests and objectives?
■ Can the project manager articulate this value in a clear and convincing message—in 30 seconds or less?
The Relationship Equation
R = T + V + D
Relationships can be viewed as assets in which to invest, or merely resources to be consumed. The “relationships as assets” approach takes courage, discipline, and planning, but the fact is that today's business relationships can be systematically defined, nurtured, and developed.
Building long-term, enduring business relationships requires three essential elements: trust, value, and dialogue. If any one of these is missing, the relationship is not sustainable. A company must communicate with customers constantly, trust them (and become trusted by them), and provide ongoing value in ways that are meaningful from the client's perspective.
How will you and your company benefit from every project manager adopting this perspective? A good relationship management system makes customers active participants in the process of planning for a firm's future success. Clients who have strong relationships with you will help generate new product/service ideas.
An ongoing process of communicating with clients and building mutual trust can also ward off a lot of business “evils” by keeping communications flowing. Clients will tell you what they like and dislike about your competitors, allowing you to incorporate the good and avoid the bad.
Clients become willingly and enthusiastically engaged in an informal partnership with you. Because they value their relationship with you, they want to help you stay successful and become (or remain) the leader in your market.
Truly client-focused firms produce such relationships. They move clients from narrow, deliverables-focused encounters to longer-term bonds with far greater potential.
Clearly, there are obvious personal and professional qualities that must be present in any effective project manager. Some of these are attention to detail and ability to coordinate resources, articulate the plan objectives, handle multiple tasks, envision the final outcome, take charge and lead others, mediate disputes, and negotiate terms and conditions.
Yet, of all the qualities sought in a good project manager, being able to deliver the value of your firm to the client is essential to building the relationship being created. And this value is more than the capabilities of your firm—it is the degree to which the project manager can understand what is important to the client and seek to bring multiple dimensions of value to the relationship. Without establishing this additional value, neither you nor your firm has any distinguishing quality from your competitors. This is personalized “branding”—the articulation of client-specific value that separates your firm from the rest—cultivating a lasting impression in the minds of your clients.
A firm's executives must also consider that, due to regular contact with clients, project managers may serve as critical sources for cultivating further business opportunities for the firm. Project managers are often best positioned to develop relationships and influence decision-making in the field (or at the project site) to the benefit of the firm. To maximize this potential, the firm's management should consider the potential interplay between the project manager and the client in light of the following criteria:
■ Does the project manager understand the client and its business?
■ Does the project manager understand the client's objectives not only in terms of the project at hand, but where the client intends to be 18 months to five years from now?
■ Does the project manager reach beyond the technical tasks at hand?
■ Is important nontechnical expertise being brought to the project manager's key relationships?
■ Does the project manager maintain ongoing contact with the client? How often, and in what form?
■ Does the project manager solicit feedback? Is this feedback being adequately relayed to management?
■ Is the project manager managing the project effectively and efficiently, utilizing the proper resources, and so forth?
PROJECT MANAGERS MAY ALSO have the expertise and skills that are best suited for coaching and training of client personnel, thereby creating familiarity with your firm's methods, procedures, and systems. This will serve to generate additional long-term value and connectivity between your firm and your client. In addition, helping your clients meet or exceed their goals allows your clients to realize real and future value in your firm. ■
Reader Service Number 059
November 2000 PM Network