Client Relationships Are Multifaceted
Paul Cowan is a psychotherapist and relationship specialist who led advertising agencies. He co-founded the Client Relationship Consultancy and the Customer Relationship Consultancy. In his new book, Connecting with Clients for Stronger, More Rewarding, and Longer-Lasting Client Relationships, he says businesses can better tend to their relationships with clients by focusing on not just immediate problems, but underlying ones. CRM’s editor, Leonard Klie, interviewed him recently to find out more.
CRM: You say client relationships are like marriages. Can you explain?
Cowan: I suspect that those in advertising refer to client relationships like marriages because there is a chase involved in persuading the client to select their agency and then, once the contract is secured, they talk about partnerships with clients.
Client relationships being like a marriage is a simple metaphor that slips off the tongue easily, but that does not make it a correct or even useful comparison. There are way more differences than similarities.
Both types of relationships are affected and shaped by emotions—how we feel about each other. Both depend on key aspects, like common beliefs, expressions of care, and reserves of goodwill. Both involve power dynamics that are complex and difficult to resolve elegantly and economically when things go wrong.
Business relationships do not involve the initial stage of euphoria involving strong hormonal responses. They don’t progress through fairly predictable developmental stages that test and stretch each partner. Individuals in a marriage bring their own expertise and interests to the relationship. They mutually cooperate to enjoy a more balanced, rewarding marriage. Clients simply pay for services from suppliers to meet objectives.
The power balance in a client relationship is absolute. Clients control what takes place. In most marriages, power is expressed in small daily discussions and compromises. There is a huge amount at stake in a marriage, so both parties will generally work through pain to resolve difficulties way beyond the tolerance of a client organization.
You say there are two basic types of problems: task-oriented and underlying. What is the difference, and is one worse than the other?
I call the two types of problems in all relationships Problem A and Problem B.
Problem A includes all the transactional issues upon which suppliers focus 99 percent of their time and energy. These include budgeting, forecasting, staffing, scheduling meetings, presentations, strategy development, campaign development, analysis, and reviews.
Problem B is about how the client and supplier get along. Problem B is influenced by and encompasses the client’s feelings, beliefs, concerns, and levels of confidence in the supplier and the supplier’s feelings about the client. With Problem B, clients’ experience and perception of the way you manage Problem A is always mediated by how Problem B operates in your relationships. If clients feel positively about you and your company, they will generally respond positively to your recommendations and work. And when things go wrong, they will be more understanding and supportive.
Problem A issues can often be fixed tactically, quickly, and relatively easily. Problem B issues can take longer to resolve.
Neither Problem A nor Problem B is worse than the other.
What are the blind spots that erode customer trust and loyalty?
The biggest blind spot in all relationships is caused by our strong grip on our own perspective and the inability to step into the shoes of the client. Our inability to experience the service we provide or the relationship through the lens of the other person means that we miss the importance of Problem A and Problem B issues.
In terms of Problem A, the failure to ensure that clients experience “Brilliant Basics” is a major blind spot. Brilliant Basics are on-time delivery, accurate work, expectations managed at every stage, anything extra highlighted in advance, everything as promised, communication that’s clear and open.
For Problem B issues, the biggest blind spot is that Problem B exists.
You say client relationships are more often derailed by underlying issues. Can you elaborate?
There is an old adage in advertising that agencies are hired for the work and fired for the relationship. When things go wrong in a service arrangement (Problem A issue) they impact how clients feel about the supplier (Problem B issue). These client feelings form the underlying issues that often derail relationships.
Because we forget about the underlying issues (Problem B) and focus on resolving Problem A challenges, the underlying issues tend to undermine the relationship.
How can companies identify the underlying issues?
Using a good system to track clients’ feelings is the best approach.
Imagine you have just 12 minutes to establish your client relationship. Make your line of inquiry your entire focus. Avoid rationalizations of what happened in the past and explanations of what you can change. Just stick to effective exploration.
Open the conversation with something like: “We want to make sure you get the best from us, so I am keen to hear your input. I would like to know about your experience of us.”
It’s worth noting what is said and what is not said. This will be useful a few minutes later as you listen.
If you believe the client is concerned or feels negatively, invite him to explore the negatives first: “Tell me how we disappoint you and fail to live up to your expectations.”
Probe for each issue and the consequences. “So, we missed the deadline for the presentation. What impact did that have? What were the consequences for the global sales team?”
At this point you’re likely to find the deeper, more powerful emotional consequences and other issues.
Before leaving the complaints part of the inquiry, check again.
“Is there anything else you can tell me about how we disappoint you or fail to live up to your expectations?”
Once the negatives have been listed, you can start re-programming the client’s feelings.
“Tell me what is good or what you value about us and our service.”
It is important that the last thing your client hears is the good.
Next ask: “What can we do better? How can we do more for you?”
You should be able to walk away from a diagnostic inquiry within about 12 minutes with a priority checklist of what to keep doing, what to stop doing, and what to start doing.
Once you identify these issues, what should you do to resolve them?
Pause and reflect; make a plan; tell your client and involve them; deliver the plan; keep checking with the client.