Helping Your Clients in Extreme Uncertainty
I woke up on the Friday morning, October 16, 1987 in my house in London, having been kept awake half the night by a brutal windstorm that resulted in the closing of all financial markets—and a throbbing headache on my part. I checked my voice mail (no email in those days!) and discovered that my meeting that day with a client, a leading British bank, had been cancelled. All week, the stock markets had been experiencing growing turmoil. The following Monday—now known as “Black Monday”—the Dow dropped 22.6%, the largest single-day decline in history. All in one day!
The economist Robert Shiller later surveyed 889 investors to determine why everyone sold stocks that day in historic numbers. Shiller wrote that the “The most common responses were related to a general mindset of investors at the time: a ‘gut feeling’ of an impending crash, perhaps brought on by ‘too much indebtedness.’” But there was no impending crash based on fundamentals.
Perceptions, in other words, can quickly become reality. If you are negative, your perceptions about your business can also become reality. Today’s crises are not just a “gut feeling” of course. They are very real. But you can make them much worse by your beliefs and attitude.
Since Black Monday in 1987, I’ve experienced the “Dot-Com” meltdown in 2001, the great recession in 2008, and now the current crisis (did I mention the 1982 recession also?). Through every recession and crisis, I have consistently grown my client base and my business—it’s never retreated.
Here are some practices, that have kept me in good stead, that will help you maintain your professional equilibrium and positive support your clients:
- Even when business development slows down, client relationship building should not. In any event, strong relationships are the foundation of effective sales, so this is a good time to prepare for future success and growth.
- In turbulent times, your client’s priorities will rapidly shift. “Agenda Setting” is no longer a once-a-year activity—during crises, you have to stay in touch with your clients, and their evolving priorities and goals, frequently.
- Maintain contact with clients, but don’t get in their way. If a client is focused on urgent operational matters like ascertaining the location of each employee or enacting time-critical decisions like the cancellation of meetings, there may be nothing you can help them with right now. You don’t want to come across as over-eager and insensitive.
- Some of your clients may be feeling dismayed, depressed, upset, adrift, and/or helpless because of external events. Don’t act like a naïve booster, but do project confidence and reassurance. Ask them how they are doing. Be empathetic. Make a personal connection with no other agenda.
- Remember that things usually do improve. I mentioned the various recessions I’ve been through—I invariably emerged wiser, more experienced, and more prepared for the next crisis. Despite the current situation, many CEOs and economists expect a very strong recovery either later this year or in 2021.
- Make yourself more valuable to clients by being at the “Crossroads of the Marketplace.” For example, you may know executives at many different companies in a given sector. You and your firm could be in a unique position to see what is happening across the whole market and share that intelligence. Even if clients aren’t using what you offer right now, you can still call them up or have coffee and ask about how they are handling different issues, with a commitment to get back to them in a week’s time with the best practices you are observing.
- In sales, there’s an expression: “ABC”—always be closing. I prefer “ABAV”—always be adding value to your clients. I believe, for example, that there will be slack employee time in the coming months as people stay put, work from home, and as demand goes down. Perhaps you could offer a valuable personal development opportunity for your clients through a webcast or videocast? Even if clients aren’t signing large contracts with you right now, I bet you think of ways, small and large, to be helpful.
- If you have down time, sharpen your saw, to quote author Stephen Covey. Invest in your thought leadership. Develop a white paper. Restart your blog. Conduct some interviews on an important challenge for your clients. I actually find I work even harder because I double-down on personal and practice development during those rare lulls in my client activity.
- Have a point of view about the crisis. This might simply mean carefully reading what the real experts are saying, and synthesizing that into several potential scenarios. That way you don’t pretend to be the authority, but you do act like a thoughtful, sophisticated observer who can help clients think through their own options. One of the key roles of a client advisor is that of “sounding board.” You don’t always have to have the answers.
- You may have suffered some disappointments in terms of postponed or lost client business, but remember that a difficult period like this is often the crucible through which deeper, richer relationships are often formed—with your clients, and also with your family and friends. Look forward to that.
My newest book, It Starts with Clients: Your 100-Day Plan to Build Lifelong Relationships and Revenue, is now out. Buy it here and also download my 46-page Client Growth Guide and join my 100-Day Client Relationship Growth Challenge.