When was the last time you really listened to a customer? I don’t mean a report or a survey or through some type of filer – I mean sitting face-to-face? Also, I don’t mean meeting to deal with an issue, or resolve a problem, or ask for a renewal or more work. I mean to sit there, in some place that is neutral and share a cup of coffee and connect, look the person in the eyes and really care.
Over the past twenty years of selling, client development, and account management, I have watched and learned a great deal about human nature and business. It is amazing how companies, and more importantly teams of people, disconnect from their clients and in time, the contact drifts away.
There are no silver bullet tricks, but three steps to building a long-term business relationship could include (and I have my development teams do):
1. Listen, not defend or push: To build a relationship with a client that lasts a career, it starts with something as simple as a cup of coffee. Reach out to a key customer contact and offer to meet early in the morning and grab a cup of coffee to catch up. Go with the intent to listen. Go with no other motive in mind than just to be present and there with the client. Ask how they are doing and really listen. If they share about work, or about a project, or something that is bugging them, don’t get defensive, don’t try and take action on the spot – instead say “thank you for sharing…” and listen. At a point take the conversation in a different direction – ask about something they are working on they are excited about? Are they doing anything fun? Don’t overwear your welcome, no more than a 45-minute coffee chat – close out with “let me see what I can do on XYZ… and I will get back to you later in the week” and do follow up.
So many times when we meet with clients it is to fix an issue, or debate a person, project or point. We only talk when there is an issue, a pain or the relationship has gone sour. It is preventive relationship building to have small touch points along the way to see how the person is doing.
Years ago I had a business friend, Phil, who had just won a big city contract. The head of the program and contract owner, Jack, was a hard-hitting guy who was all about construction, all about work. The contact was recently won and the start up of the site, the team and the projects were rocky. Jack was testy in group meetings, he was pushing back on the scopes, the estimates, everything just seemed off. Phil called me a bunch of times, all worried that Jack was angry and wanted to kill the contact. I kept asking “have you talked with him???” and Phil said he was fearful of what the push back was or worse yet, that Jack would cancel the contract. I said to my pal Phil, “go have a cup of coffee with him, get him alone and just ask ‘Jack, how are you doing?’ – don’t mention the contract, the concerns – just connect and say you are thinking about him. Well, as most engineer and technical types are, Phil was challenged to do this, but he did (I also told Phil I would not take his worried calls any more until he did). Sure enough, four hours later, Phil called and said “wow, what a great conversation with Jack. He is going through issues at home, he is also retiring in six months and four people on his team have left”… and so on. They connected as people and Phil and Jack started working in a way that was more about respect and results. After that, once a week until Jack retired, they had one cup of coffee a week and it made all the difference. Neither felt alone.
2. Look them in the eye every three months: Over the years I have learned that if you want a real, growing and connected relationship with a client, with an industry partner – even your competitors, you need to sit with them at least once in person for a minimum of one hour at least once every three months. Yes, this is a commitment, but all strong relationships require this. If not, in time the bonds begin to break, life gets busy and new things fill the void.
A few years back, I was working on a contract with a team in the southwest. The client relationships were all great and things were humming along. So off I went to work on other teams and other accounts. Realizing it was six months later, I planned on spending a week in the southwest, just stopping by and saying hey to the clients. Sure enough, while I was in one university’s construction office, the client contact owner said “I forgot about you guys on this new pool project, darn, you would have been great…” Yes, his managers were working great on the projects in the hopper with our teams and he knew of the local manager and saw them at a recent industry event – but his brain didn’t engage on us for new work because no one stopped by in the past six months to just catch up. While we got other work that day, we did lose a perfect project because we were not top of mind and just stopping by.
3. Relief valve: It is always good to have someone in the mix on a contract or an ongoing business relationship that is able to step in and meet with the client but is not part of the everyday service or support team. Being able to meet, touch base and check in and ask “how is it going with the support?” – again face to face the first time, maybe via the phone the next three times is key. Yes, many times the regional, local management hates this, but it is not about them it is about how the client is feeling. More accounts are lost and never heard from again than the client reaching out and saying “hey, I hate you guys and I’m leaving” instead they drift away and the local teams are more about the next new thing.
While I was never part of the actual support or construction projects, I always was around in the start-up of a new contract to just keep an ear and an eye open to see how things were unfolding. While I might have been “from corporate,” the fact was the company, the whole company – not one team or one region, owned a contract. I found that in the first six projects if there were issues, the contract was in jeopardy long term.
After working with a whole team of people (field, corporate, industry) to win a hard won federal contract I wanted to make sure we succeeded from the start. This $70 million a year potential for 5-year contact was a key growth effort. As a “marketing guy” or as the field construction teams like to call me “the soft and squishy guy,” I went to the first client brief and project sessions. Twenty engineers, construction, contracting types and me.
Quickly it became obvious there was a disconnect with the client contracting officer and his people and ours. So on my own, I stopped by their regional offices to just say “hi” and listen. It was clear there were issues with the local team, one or two of the players on our side just didn’t get it. I was able to bring that feedback to the leaders. Sadly, they didn’t listen and three months later this $400 million potential was gone. It hurt me on my heart and spirit. Clients want relief valves, they want a way to be hurt and not have to deal with the local teams and hurt feelings – at the same time they want what they want.
Business relationships need to be about trust, about having a personal relationship with the client. This takes time, personal commitment and a desire to build a relationship based on care of the client as a person. Sometimes it is as simple as “how are you doing?” and step back to listen.