Thursday, March 8, 2012

When Old Clients Become New Clients

It’s happened to all of us. A solid, ongoing client relationship suddenly gets turned on its head when your client tells you she is leaving the company you’ve been working with for years.  After cursing, you ponder what will happen. Who will be the new client? Will you keep the business? Still enjoy the relationship? How much effort will this take? What should you do?

While client departures occur regularly we always seem surprised. It’s change after all and it’s usually sudden. And the implications can be significant. Do you have a set process to deal with these situations? Probably not.  Maybe the list below can be the start of one for your firm, or you can use it to check against one that does exist. The goal: client retention and a new, healthy client relationship.
  • Know it’s coming. Most client departures come as a surprise, but should they? If you’ve done your homework on the relationship dynamics in your client’s organization, you should know your client’s influence, job satisfaction and whether she a rising star or on her way out.  Essentially, you are trying to assess the risk level of the client relationship. Based on this intelligence there should be a plan in place to address a client’s potential departure.  What other relationships need to be established? Who are the up and comers that might take over? How well is your firm and its work known?
  • Treat it as a new pursuit. Unfortunately, a new client means a new sales effort. Researching the new client’s background is essential, including, for example, knowing what competitors they’ve worked with in the past. Then, there should be a full court press trying to influence the client to keep you as their partner, educating them about your work, as well as developing a solid personal relationship. They need to know your vast knowledge of their company and their industry.
  • Assess the client’s power.  When a new player comes on the client scene it’s good to check whether they are simply taking over from the old client or if there has been a change in the position and organizational structure. Does the new client have more authority and responsibility?  Or less? Knowing this impacts how you develop the relationship and whether there are others in the company you need to start paying attention to.
  • Assess the client’s readiness.  A new client can come into their position with a boatload of comparable experience or they might be novices on their way up.  Or this might be a lateral move. The key is to understand their skill and will to perform the new job. Have they done this kind of work for years and are just buying time or are they eager beavers looking to make a mark? Understanding client readiness will dictate how you develop the relationship, maybe from a respectful distance or direct and close up.
  • Prove your value. All of the tactics above need to result in a new client liking you and understanding that the work you’ve performed has been successful for their company. Ultimately, the client should feel that your continued presence is critical for their success. 

Make the time. This may seem obvious, but the underpinning for a successful transition from old client to new client is dedicating necessary time and effort. Even though the whirlwind of business activity surrounds you, relationship building, slow and sure, requires a deliberate set of actions and follow through. There are no short cuts here, but the payoff for client retention speaks for itself.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Be the Culture

I had a wonderful visit with a potential client recently and spent some time reflecting on what made it so good. The client, the COO of a mid-sized agency,  has a great personality and we engaged easily.  And he showed genuine interest in my client evaluation services. Yet, there was something more.

As he gave me a tour around the office it dawned on me why I was feeling so good about the the client and his business: there was a complete alignment between his style and the culture of the organization. I could tell this was a creative place not only by the interior design and what adorned the walls, but also by the way the client thought and spoke. He was very open and expressive.

What makes alignment between individual style and culture so powerful? How does that work? There are two models out there, both founded on psychological and organizational research over the past 50 years that explain this. One model focuses on social styles and the other explains cultural dimensions. And guess what, they're essentially the same. Here they are together.
Obviously there is a lot more behind these quadrants but it suffices to say when organizational cultural and individual style align, are truly in sync,  it's a beautiful thing. Not only that, it means that  an organization's effectiveness skyrockets.  

Now, you might say,  of course the COO represents the culture, he had better. And you'd be right,  but this was at another level. When I left the client's building, I looked back and saw the client's personality and the organizational culture as one. This doesn't happen every day.

Do you know your own style  and your firm's culture? Do you know your client's culture?  How you fit with the client's culture? Important stuff to learn because they impact your ability to deliver the right solutions, build productive  relationships  and retain clients for the long-term.

Monday, February 6, 2012

5 Steps for Receiving Negative Feedback

The other day I was talking on the phone to a colleague with whom I was planning a presentation and seemingly out of nowhere he said, "Rusty, I don' think this is going to work. I just don't like working with you. So let's not continue."

Bam! What a hit! An ugly bruise on my fat ego surfaced immediately. Staggering for a moment, I recovered and asked, "Can you tell me more about your decision? Honestly, I didn't see it coming." (Of course we never see it coming).

Turns out my colleague had interpreted the language in my recent emails as too abrupt and demanding. And, given a hectic schedule and other priorities, he didn't want to pursue working with me, thinking I would be too demanding. He may have been right.

This was not the first time I've received feedback about terse emails. And, upon reflection, I see how someone with a busy schedule might have thought, "what do I need this for?"

So, I learned something from this situation, in addition to a lesson in email etiquette. First, I  should always assess the readiness of my partner, client, whomever, to do the job set in front of them. In this case, I would have known to move more slowly and be more thoughtful about the language I use. Second, I discovered a model for receiving negative feedback that makes it it easier to absorb and more valuable. Here are the steps:

  1. Shock. It's okay to be shocked as long as you recover soon thereafter.
  2. Hurt. No way to avoid this so acknowledge it, "wow, that hurts."
  3. Separate. Remove your ego from the event. See the situation objectively. Do a flyover of the interaction. 
  4. Learn. Once your ego is out of the way, you'll see the light, something to be learned. 
  5. Apply. Find some relevance for the learning. Figure out how a past or upcoming interaction could have been or might be improved from what you just learned.
I know, easier said than done.

Yet, think how much happier you'll be in client and other  relationships knowing that when you hear negative feedback, it will be something you can work with to improve. Might not even hurt as much.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why We Hate Feedback

It's hard listening to what we do wrong. Whether it's from a client, a consultant, friend or spouse. It  hurts our ego and makes us think less of what we think we are. We rationalize that the feedback is biased or just perceptions, and not reality.

We're wrong of course. Most the time the feedback we get is right on. It's reality. We just can't process it. We can't accept that we're not the pretty picture we create of ourselves.

I read a book a while ago, Willful Blindness, that suggested humans are hard-wired to ignore negative feedback. It's a survival thing. Think of all those in desperate situations, like a concentration camp. Nazis all around with machine guns pointing at you.  Yet, you manage to hope for... life.

Less drastic by a million light years is hearing that your client thinks your creative is not edgy enough and that you're late returning phone calls. Of course they're wrong. They didn't understand the strategy. And, they only remember the one time you didn't return a call, on the weekend after all.

If they were right you'd go nuts because you'd have to change. And you don't want to.

If we had smaller egos, feedback wouldn't hurt as much. We would be smaller targets with fewer nerve endings. If we had no ego, feedback wouldn't  hurt at all and we'd actually do something positive to change.

The Zen Master Dogen was right: to study the self (improve) is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things...

Want great client relationships and increased client retention? Deflate the balloon.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Partnering With Clients, Ugh.

I know it's trite, business speak, consultant jargon. Partnering. Give me a break. Ruin the start of the New Year.

But give me a moment to explore.  This all started when I read a blog post, Building Partnerships Inside and Outside the Organization, by the leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith. What does partnering really mean? Is there something beyond the hype? I think so and here's why.

Partnering is an ideal client relationship that has the following characteristics:

Vision.  There is something created that focuses an ideal future - a partner. Working together, common purpose. 

Mutuality. It must be two-way. No way around that. Share everything.

Sacrifice.  You're likely to give up something in a partnership. Take a short-term hit for something bigger.

Knowledge. To be a partner requires deep knowledge of the other. Know their business really well.

Long-term. It's too hard, takes too much investment to be otherwise. Think in decades not years.

Benefit. Bottom line stuff. More revenue. More profit. Retention. Growth.  But on the softer side too -  more fun.

Feedback. OK, call it communication but there must be a flow of information on how the partners are doing to evaluate and improve the relationship.

So, partnering is good stuff. Maybe we just need a better word.