Check the Vital Signs of Client Relationships

by Andrew Sobel

focusAnnual checkups play as vital a role in a businessperson’s professional health as physicals do for individuals — especially with regard to client and customer relationships, which are the lifeblood of every business. Most clients vote with their feet. They don’t tell a business they are unhappy — they simply start to give their business to its competitors. Client relationship checkups can help gauge the health of these relationships, prescribe changes when necessary and identify ways to further grow them.

Infusing client health checkups with the right questions, what I call “Power Questions,” lights fires under people, challenges their assumptions, helps them see problems in productive new ways and inspires them to bare their souls (which, of course, strengthens the bonds in the relationship). All business interactions are human interactions, and part of being human is acknowledging that one doesn’t know everything about everything — certainly not about another person’s needs. Questions help one understand these things more deeply; they’re an essential tool when assessing the health of client relationships.

When client relationship checkups aren’t performed regularly, the relationships can take unexpected turns, as happened between a Fortune 100 client of mine, which I’ll call Company Y, and his client, IBM. IBM’s then-CEO Sam Palmisano decided to visit Company Y’s CEO. A week ahead of the visit, Company Y’s relationship manager for IBM called his counterpart to discuss the upcoming CEO summit between their companies, and apparently did not get a return phone call during that week. The story goes that when Palmisano met with Company Y’s CEO, he opened by saying, “My people tell me we have an ‘A’ relationship with your organization.” Company Y’s CEO responded, “Well, my team tells me your relationship with us is a ‘C.’”

Fortunately, this was a wakeup call for the IBM team to dramatically improve the relationship with Company Y. Within a year, the relationship was indeed an “A,” and today Company Y views IBM as a key trusted partner in operating its business. IBM is a great company that has been quite innovative in the way it builds long-term client relationships. But as this story illustrates, even well-managed firms can dramatically misread the health of a key client relationship!

The successful firms I work with maintain some type of process to determine the health and strength of important client relationships. They seek feedback at multiple levels. They access the client’s views using a variety of channels — through the relationship manager, during senior executive visits, using independent surveys and in client forums (virtual and in-person).

Here are some questions you should ask yourself when you are considering the health of your client relationships:

Do you have access? While some leaders are notoriously busy and it does take time to get on their schedule, the fact is, if you don’t have access, you may not be considered relevant! Also, if you think you have a good relationship but the client says, “There’s nothing going on. It doesn’t make sense to meet,” that’s still a bad sign. It means they don’t really value your ongoing insight and perspective.

Do you and your client trust each other to do things without extensive documentation, checks and controls? Trust is the essential foundation of every long-term relationship. It’s the feeling that the other person will come through for you. It’s the belief he or she will meet your expectations. It’s the confidence he or she will demonstrate integrity, deliver competently and focus on your agenda. When trust is present, you don’t need to constantly check up on the other person. You don’t need to put in place endless controls and systems to monitor results. If your client is constantly micromanaging you, then he or she may not trust you, and you need to find out why.

Does your client openly share information with you? In a healthy, trusting relationship, there is transparency. Does your client give you access to his or her plans and proposals? Does he or she freely share information with you, within the constraints of confidentiality? When you’re a vendor, you get very limited access to information — it’s on a “need to know”; when you’re a trusted advisor, your client treats you as part of the inner circle.

Does your client confide in you and bounce ideas and decisions off you? Does your client ever call you up to run a new idea or potential proposal by you and get your opinion? Or does the client make important decisions and then call you afterward? It’s not reasonable to expect a client to discuss everything with you, but if there’s an issue in your domain, and the relationship is a strong one, the client will most likely draw you in before reaching any final conclusions.

Are you the first person the client calls when in need something in your area of expertise? This is an essential litmus test of a healthy relationship — loyalty. If the client views you as interchangeable with other suppliers, then you’re a vendor, and you’ll be subjected to constant price pressure as the client continually shops around.

Are you treated with respect — like an important advisor? This is hard to quantify, but you usually will know in your gut if this is the case. I had a client who I felt didn’t value me. He asked me to help teach his senior partners how to be better trusted advisors to their clients but, ironically, he didn’t want a trusted advisor himself — he wanted an arms-length “expert” who would be at his beck and call. I finished the project and moved on.

Is working with this client a satisfying, rewarding experience for you and your team? Some clients just drain you. They are overly demanding, they check up on your every move and they basically drive you crazy. Sometimes, you’re also stuck with a client who is too low in the organization to really appreciate the impact you have. This is not a healthy relationship! Life is too short — if you can’t fix a situation like this quickly, you should get out and double-down on more promising clients.

Is the relationship economically rewarding for you? You could have a great personal relationship with a client but for a variety of reasons be losing money on the work! Sometimes, weak profitability is your fault — you have underestimated the scope of the work or underpriced it. But sometimes it’s a sign of a client who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Are you having an impact and helping to improve your client’s business? In the best relationships, you have a clear and positive impact on the client’s organization. You help the client improve his or her business. If, for whatever reason, this is not happening, it’s a warning sign: Are you working on peripheral issues that are not really important to the client? Are you stuck too far down in the organization? Is the client ignoring your recommendations? Is your good advice simply falling on deaf ears?

Is your client referring you to friends, colleagues and other organizations that could use your expertise? Active word-of-mouth referrals are, arguably, the ultimate sign of a good relationship. Are you getting referrals? Would your client give them to you if asked? How enthusiastically would your client recommend you? A testimonial is one thing — it’s passive — but an active referral is a sign of a very different level of satisfaction and delight with your services!

Each year, go through this checklist and rate each of your relationships. Are you weak, average or strong on each of these ten points? Better yet, rate yourself and then ask these same questions to your client. Then compare the answers. Through quality communication and thoughtful Power Questions, you can strengthen your client relationships and add value to them at the same time.

Andrew Sobel, co-author with Jerold Panas of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others, is an executive educator, coach and top-level management consultant who has worked with leading corporations such as Citigroup and professional service firms such as Ernst & Young. In addition to numerous books, he has authored articles that have been featured in a variety of publications such as The New York Times, Business Week and Harvard Business Review

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