Client relations vs. client expectations

How many times have you heard someone describe his business like this: Ultimately, we are a people business?

While a true statement, it is also as redundant as redundant can be. All businesses — and business relationships — really boil down to people: who we are, what we want and how we can help one another. In our personal lives, the relationships we create and keep, the way we treat others and communicate, guide the perceptions of others and play a huge part in how we define who we are as people.

In business this same mantra holds true. The power of positive relationships can salvage unfortunate situations and soften the blow of unforeseen circumstance. Strained relationships can cause both parties — client and service provider — to have an uphill climb.

In short, you’re only as good as your worst relationship.

While it certainly doesn’t hurt to make a client contact that you instantly “click” with, that doesn’t happen that often. Relationship building takes work, but can be very rewarding both personally and professionally. Here are a few points to keep in mind to help you build strong and lasting relationships.

n Know your stuff.

The backbone of great business relationships, especially when directing clients, starts with an education: yours. Long before you ever sit down with a client, take time to understand your company’s philosophies, products and services. Know the pros and cons of your offerings. Know the best and worst possible outcomes and things that lead to each.

Then take time to educate your clients before you ever try to effect real change or shove a sales proposal under somebody’s nose. Simply knowing the right words to say is a dime a dozen. True mastery of your subject matter is invaluable.

n Before you build external relationships, forge internal ones.

At some point along the road you’re going to need some help. Making a point to build internal relationships will, in turn, help you create lasting client partnerships. Go out of your way to help out co-workers and colleagues, and they’ll most likely pay you back in kind. You never know when having an additional hand on deck will help you make your client partnerships stronger.

n Be honest.

While it seems like the most obvious tip imaginable, the value of honesty cannot be understated. Remember that honesty can often be difficult; it can sometimes be the exact opposite of what your client wants to hear. However, being able to support your views based upon facts, data and your experiences is key.

When your clients recognize that you can provide an expert, unbiased view of delicate and complex situations is when you are truly providing value. Building a reputation as a trusted adviser opens a lot of doors.

n Set expectations.

Clients pay money for advice and direction, so don’t be afraid to advise and direct. If a project will take six weeks, then set that expectation right up front. If a client has an expectation that a product, project or service will do A, B and C, but in reality it will only do A, then we have a responsibility to manage that expectation accordingly up front. Setting expectations — often through a detailed project plan — is an important step in keeping everybody on the same page and making people happy.

n Focus on the long-term.

I truly believe that nothing is more valuable in business than a long-term relationship. Much in the way that “all businesses are people businesses,” I believe that every conversation is a long-term relationship checkup.

Be sure to think critically about balancing short-term gains (economic or political) with long-term vision. Sure, you’ll have ups and downs, but the main goal with any client is to still be working with that client in 20 years.

n Don’t just have relationships, build partnerships.

Be willing to step out of your actual role to assume whatever role your client needs you to play. If that means working together with your client contacts to present to their leadership, to educate their peers or simply to sit in on an internal meeting, then take that as an opportunity to meet new people and create a more robust partnership. You never know where your willingness to help will take you.

n Be the person, not the logo.

Relationships can take big positive leaps forward when you “break through the logo.” This is that point at which you stop being client and service provider — you stop being merely extensions of your respective companies — and start being Dave and Megan.

At the end of the day we are all just people — people with families and lives and bills to pay and 50 other things on our minds. Keep in perspective the fact that, as people, there can be personal and professional factors which make our days and lives tough.

So as long as you stay true to yourself and to your company’s philosophies, then recognizing these things, acknowledging them and working together like two real people and not just two business entities is an amazing way to bind a client relationship together. And it is usually a lot more fun, too.

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