Pain Points

Expert Advice On Diagnosing Client-Relationship Problem Areas

Customer ServiceAre your client relationships healthy? Here, a business expert and book author provides ways to diagnose problem areas.

Most doctors firmly believe that certain types of regular screening tests and checkups are essential and help save lives. And most of us, no matter how much we despise devoting an hour or more to getting poked and prodded, dutifully go for a checkup each year. After all, our health is vital to our overall well-being and happiness.

Well, annual checkups can play a vital role in your company's professional health as well – especially with regard to client and customer relationships, which are the lifeblood of every business.

In fact, you should absolutely review the health of your client relationships on a regular basis. Here's why: Most clients vote with their feet. They don't tell you they are unhappy – they simply start to give their business to your competitors. Client relationship checkups can help you gauge the health of these relationships, prescribe changes when necessary, and identify ways to further grow them.

The key is to inject a set of powerful questions into your client relationship checkups. There are dozens of questions that light fires under people, challenge their assumptions, help them see problems in productive new ways, and inspire them to bare their souls (which, of course, strengthen the bonds in the relationship).

All business interactions are human interactions. And part of being human is acknowledging that you don't know everything about everything – and that you certainly don't know everything about the other person's needs. Questions help you understand these things more deeply, and 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. Indeed, even well-managed firms can dramatically misread the health of a key client relationship. The most successful firms today all have some type of process in place to determine the health and strength of their most 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).

These types of client health "screenings" are necessary when managing client relationships. Here are 10 questions all company executives should ask themselves when considering the health of their client relationships.

1. Do you have access? If there were such a figure as a "client relationship doctor," Lloyds Banking Group Chairman Sir Winfried Bischoff would be the archetype. The former Schroders CEO and Citigroup chairman is a renowned trusted adviser who has calmly and wisely guided hundreds of CEOs through bet-the-company transactions and deals. When asked last year, "How do you know when a relationship is not going well?" Bischoff's first response was, "If it's taking a very long time to set up a meeting, that's usually a bad sign."

Can you or your salespeople actually get in to see important executives in your client's organization? Some leaders are notoriously busy, and it does take time to get on their schedule. But 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.

2. Do you and your client trust each other to do things without extensive documentation? 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 that they will meet your expectations. It's the confidence that they will demonstrate integrity, deliver competently, and focus on your agenda, not theirs.

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 they may not trust you, and you need to find out why.

3. Does your client openly share information with you? In a healthy, trusting relationship, there is transparency. Does your client give you access to their plans and proposals? Do they 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, restricted basis. When you're a trusted adviser, your client treats you as part of the inner circle.

4. Does your client 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 do they make important decisions and then call you afterwards?

It's not reasonable to expect them to discuss everything with you. However, if they have an issue in your domain, and the relationship is a strong one, they will most likely draw you in before reaching their final conclusions.

5. Are you the first person the client calls when they need promotional products? 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.

6. Are you treated with respect? This is hard to quantify, but you usually will know in your gut if this is the case. Trusted advisers and valued partners tend not to easily cancel appointments and disregard advice. If you feel like this is the way your customer approaches their relationship with your company, then the partnership that you may have thought was very healthy is probably ailing.

7. Is working with this client a 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 contact who is too low in the organization to really appreciate the impact you have. This is not a healthy relationship. Your company's time is too valuable to waste it on a partnership like this. If you can't fix a situation like this quickly, you should get out and double-down on more promising clients.

8. Is the relationship economically rewarding? This is one of the most important questions a good client relationship checkup should have. You could have a great personal relationship with a client, but for a variety of reasons could actually 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. A thorough analysis into the profitability, pricing history and expense allocations of your relationship with every client is necessary. If you find that you're putting more into the partnership financially than you're willing to give, then something in the relationship needs to change.

9. 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 their business. If, for whatever reason, this is not happening, then it's a major 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? These are important questions to face in every client relationship at least once a year. If the service that your company provides to a specific client isn't actually impacting their business in a positive way, then you're becoming the kind of commodity provider that you want to avoid being.

10. Is your client referring you to friends, colleagues and other organizations? Active word-of-mouth referrals, arguably, are 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, but it's passive. An active referral is a sign of a very different level of satisfaction and delight with the services that your company provides. Aim to get referrals from every client. The ones that readily provide them most likely represent your best customer relationships.

Just as you shouldn't make assumptions about or neglect your own health, you shouldn't do so when it comes to the health of your client relationships. Each year, go through this checklist and rate each of your relationships. Is your company weak, average or strong on each of these 10 points? Through quality communication and thoughtful questioning, you can strengthen your client relationships and add value to them at the same time. – Andrew Sobel is author of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others. E-Mail: Andrew@andrewsobel.com.