You never know who might become your firm’s most important client, or how a client relationship may assist in your career development. Client relationships (and all sorts of relationships for that matter) can be fickle, but it is safe to say that building strong relationships is jugular to the success of any company or individual. The true challenge is how these relationships are built and determining what needs to be invested. We all want to build strong relationships with clients, but achieving this is an art with an entire spectrum of variables to consider.
First and foremost, building a successful and lasting relationship takes an investment of time and effort. Consultants who don’t invest the necessary time and effort into client relationships will not only have challenges fostering a relationship, but they will also be unsuccessful in driving successful outcomes for their client. Investing time and energy can be achieved in a variety of ways; weekly check-ins, delivering meaningful work, spending time with them outside the office, etc. Regardless of the tactic used, it should be personalized to their needs and should prove to them that you are cognizant and committed to finding a solution to their challenges. If done effectively, you will find this to be mutually beneficial because the relationship is foundational to driving client outcomes and further enables your own professional development. With that being said, it is impossible to invest the same amount of time and effort into ALL client relationships. The true art in building client relationships is determining who receives your greatest investment of time and effort.
Determining Which Relationships to Invest In
Allocating the investment of your time and effort is an inherently difficult decision given that you never know where a client relationship may lead. So how do you, as a consultant, make the best decision on who gets your limited time? Defining key indicators or qualities that establish a profile for an ideal client is a great starting point. For example, an indicator of an ideal client might be someone willing and able to effectively challenge your thinking and opinions. These are the clients who are focused on finding the right solution and trust you enough to provide their unique perspective. When your perspective is challenged it gives you the greatest opportunity for growth, while simultaneously driving the client’s agenda. As mentioned, this establishes a mutually beneficial relationship, which you should invest in. Now, this is one example of how to determine your investment of time and energy, but feel free to create your own. The key to defining your own client indicators is identifying 1) a client you can help and 2) a client that will proliferate your professional development.
As you make the decision on what clients get your investment of time and energy, you can designate your various clients further by categorizing them. When you build this structure, you develop a methodology for deciding when various clients will receive your attention. For example, maybe you create a client category for “Not Right Now”. In this instance, you may not see an immediate opportunity associated with investing a lot of your time and energy into the relationship, however you want to retain the relationship if an opportunity arises in the future. That said, to retain the relationship you may check in periodically, which requires a low level of effort, or even refer them to someone in your network that can immediately add value. This client may not be a good fit right now, but adding value in either of these two ways could lead to future opportunities.
A second category could be the “Developmental Client”. This client category designates an opportunity that may not be certain but is worth pursuing and investing a large amount of time and effort into. This is where you go above and beyond. You take 4-hour drives to meet them for lunch or you hop on a plane to see them in their office and take them out to dinner. It’s during this time that you give them your all, because the client does not currently have a reason to meet you halfway. Once you have fostered the initial grounds of this relationship, you must make a point to add value to that client in every interaction to cultivate a lasting client relationship. We have provided two examples of how to categorize your clients, but we recommend you develop your own client categories that work best for you and your firm. Using a similar structure will help you determine when to invest your time and how much effort you should exert.
Finally, you have probably noticed we have alluded to the concept of adding value as often as possible. Investing your time and effort into a client relationship is all about adding value. To add value, when you have determined where your attention and effort goes, you should use every method at your disposal; phone call, text, email, lunch, etc., to show them you care. Ultimately, you need to consider, before any client interaction that you have invested in, how you can provide value. There are many ways to achieve this, but listening is paramount. An important element of sustaining strong client relationships, and developing as a consultant, is learning how to become a friend to your client. There is no better way to do this than by adding value through listening. Once this has been achieved, and the client sees your investment of time and energy, you can begin to ask them for help. This takes time, however, and you must continue to add value even after the dynamics of the relationship have made it to this point.
In summary, developing lasting client relationships requires your investment of time and energy, in a structured manner. By developing a system, you enable yourself to determine how and with whom you invest your time and effort. The art of adding value to every client interaction is how a consultant can drive and sustain meaningful client relationships.
Written by: Dean McMann
About the Author: Dean McMann is a Founding Partner at McMann & Ransford with 35+ years of experience in consulting and professional services. He is a sought-after expert and speaker on topics of: B2B differentiation, professional services best practices, and overcoming commoditization. In addition to his extensive experience in the Professional Services space, Dean also serves on the board of various non-profit organizations.