We all have clients that we enjoy working with and with whom we have quite naturally developed a close working relationship that may extend beyond purely the delivery of our work. But not many of us take a strategic view and consider the detail of how to actively develop our client relationships.
In their book The Trusted Advisor Maister, Galford and Green identified 4 typical stages of client relationship, and it shows that there are very clear benefits to taking a strategic approach.
Why should we deepen our client relationships?
As the table illustrates, if we can move as many of our clients as possible into relationship-based and trust-based relationships then it can have a big impact on our income through more repeat business and more creative pricing. And having good client relationships builds loyalty too that protects our business from competitors.
Ideally in our businesses if we can take actions to move clients through these four stages we will have a stronger, more stable business with a better return on our time invested and maximised opportunities from existing clients.
So as you can see there is a strong commercial reason to actively work on developing our client relationships!
Have a plan
Having invested time and energy into developing a relationships that allows a client to buy from you, managing the relationship is just as important. As we are likely to get more of what we focus on, we should consider what we want before we think about how to go about getting it. Here are some things to consider when thinking about how to develop the relationship:
- Avoid making assumptions – that the client knows what else you do, that you have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate enough ‘value add’ for them to keep using you and not considering competitors, that their situation will stay the same over time (client relationships are likely to change for a number of reasons)
- Be proactive – continue to put effort in by forwarding interesting articles, making introductions, checking-in, seeking ways to develop additional contacts within the same organisation or meeting up less formally
- Set relationship goals – these will vary between clients as no two relationships are the same
- Consider how you move the depth and value of the relationship forward – identify where you think you are in Maister’s 4 stages and then create an action plan to move the most appropriate clients forward to the next level.
- Consider how you manage difficulties as they occur – what may seem like a small difficulty may have an impact on trust so always consider the wider impact. For example a wrong invoice may raise concerns about accuracy or integrity.
As well as what you do, building client relationships is also about how you are perceived to be. Rapport, trust, honesty and adding value are all important in business, as of course is your reputation.
Moving to trusted advisor status
Becoming a trusted advisor takes time and effort, and this special status can be lost in an instant. As the names implies, it is built on trust.
Trust is a sustainable competitive advantage in business and true customer loyalty is one thing that a competitor can’t copy. It can:
- acts as a barrier and as the relationship deepens they are less likely to go elsewhere
- creates client loyalty and repeat business which is good for your cash flow and a healthy pipeline
- Creates an advocate who will endorse you and refer you and help you grow your client base
- It turns the client-supplier relationship into a meaningful partnership where there is a desire to reciprocate value, respect and relationships
- It makes your work more meaningful and enjoyable, you feel more valued boosting your confidence
“Trust is a sustainable competitive advantage in business and true customer loyalty is one thing that a competitor can’t copy.” Tweet this
What does a trusted advisor relationship look like?
It is more than having a client who is a supporter of yours and who refers you both inside and outside the company. As a trusted advisor you will share strategic plans, ideas and suggestions and you will be sought out for advice that goes beyond your particular expertise. You will have been brought into the inner circle and know all the decision-makers and influencers within the organisation. And both the organisation and outsiders may seek you out for special projects, for speaking engagements, to write articles, etc.
How can we build trusted advisor relationships?
David Maister has created a formula for trust:
Trust – Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy
They key here is to maintain your integrity in the relationship at all times. It can be tempting to perhaps compromise for a short-term win, for instance agreeing to deliver some training when actually the best solution might be a different approach such as shadowing or coaching. The trusted advisor will always view the relationship in the longer-term and always put the client’s interest before self-interest.
How to build credibility
Credibility must be demonstrated not just through knowledge and advice but also through appropriate dress, consistency, high integrity and being associated with credible people. Our research has shown that is also needs to be demonstrated through body language, voice tone and speech:
- Speak with a more monotone voice ending in a downward inflection
- Use palms down hand gestures
- When standing, have your weight evenly distributed
- Listen with your head still and keep silent
- Adopt an upright posture when sitting
- Be comfortable with meaningful pauses
- Seek respect
- Discuss issues before relationships
- Hold people accountable
- Be confident (perhaps more than competency warrants)
Intimacy in David’s formula refers to a deep knowledge of the client’s business or needs. This can be depth of knowledge about what the other person values and the extent that you can use this understanding to build a deeper connection with them. Connection is one of the foundations of effective influence that we identified in our research.
We believe that to truly move to a trusted advisor relationship it is essential that your client perceives you as a key person of influence, someone who other people listen to, who has a reputation in their area of expertise and who is confident and clear about the value they add and is able to charge accordingly. By focusing on confidence, credibility and connection our Influence Model will allow you to exhibit the right behaviour to ensure you form a firm foundation from which to develop your client relationships and grow your business.