The Client Relationship Checkup
Ten Questions the Doctor would ask you
A client of mine, a Fortune-100 company, had a longstanding relationship with IBM for the provision of a variety of technology services. They told me that IBM’s then-CEO Sam Palmisano decided to visit my client's CEO.
A week ahead of the visit, my client’s relationship manager for IBM called his counterpart to discuss the upcoming CEO summit between their companies. Apparently he did not get a return phone call during that week! The story goes that when Palmisano met with their CEO, he opened by saying "My people tell me we have an 'A' relationship with your organization." My client's CEO responded, “Well, my team tells me your relationship with us is a 'C.'”
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the ensuing conversation!
The story ends well—they don’t always—and apparently this was a wakeup call for the IBM team to dramatically improve the relationship. Within a year, my client tells me, the relationship was indeed an “A,” and today they view IBM as a key trusted partner in operating their 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!
In the medical profession, there is continual debate about the value of the annual health “checkup.” Most doctors, however, firmly believe that certain types of regular screening tests are essential and help save lives. As the IBM anecdote illustrates, similar “screenings” are necessary when managing client relationships.
In fact, you should absolutely review the "health" of your cient relationships on a regular basis. Here’s why. Most clients simply vote with their feet. They don’t tell you they are unhappy—they simply start to give their business to your competitors. The successful firms I work with all have some type of process in place to determine the health and strength of their most important client relationships. Often, they have multiple layers of feedback that they seek. These sometimes include periodic but structured conversations held by the relationship manager, senior executive visits, independent surveys, and client forums (virtual and in-person).
Here are ten questions the Relationship Doctor would ask about each of your clients:
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 Schroder’s CEO and Citigroup Chairman is a renowned trusted advisor who has calmly and wisely guided hundreds of CEOs through bet-the-company transactions and deals. Last year I asked Sir Win, “How do you know when a relationship is not going well?” His first response was, “If it’s taking a very long time to set up a meeting, that’s usually a bad sign!”
Can you 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! PS: 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, checks, and controls?
Trust is the essential foundation of every long-term relationship. Trust is 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.
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 on a “need to know,”restricted basis. When you’re a trusted advisor, your client treats you as part of the inner circle.
4. 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 do they make important decisions and then call you afterwards? It’s not reasonable to expect them to discuss everything with you, but if it’s something 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 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.
6. 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 like this. 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.
7. 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 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.
8. 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.
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—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 and you feel like you are “throwing pearls before swine?”
10. Is your client referring you to friends, colleagues, and other organizations that could use your expertise?
You could argue that active word-of-mouth referrals are the ultimate sign of a good relationship. (Indeed, Fred Reicheld of Bain & Company wrote a book called The Ultimate Question, about exactly this idea). 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!
ABOUT ANDREW SOBEL
Andrew Sobel helps companies and individuals build clients for life. He is the most widely published author in the world on the topic of business relationships, and his bestselling books include Power Questions, All for One, Making Rain, and Clients for Life. His clients include many of the world's leading companies such as Citigroup, Hess, Ernst & Young, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cognizant, Deloitte, Experian, Lloyds Banking Group, Bain & Company, and many others. Andrew's articles and work have appeared in publications such as the New York Times, USA Today, strategy+business, and the Harvard Business Review. He spent 15 years at Gemini Consulting where he was a Senior Vice President and Country Chief Executive Officer, and for the last 15 years he has led his own consulting firm, Andrew Sobel Advisors.
He can be reached at andrewsobel.com