Want to add more value? Don’t ask your client

It’s dangerous to generalize about what clients want, because clients are like snowflakes: Each client is unique and must be approached that way. However, it’s safe to say that the biggest trend in client relationships is the drive for more value. Clients want to see more value in their relationships with a broad array of external advisors and service providers. They are being pushed to offer more value—to do more for less—by their investors and their customers. And that translates into wanting more from you.

This topic is so important I want to give you a quick summary of the key value concepts and value-adding strategies you need to have in your arsenal. But first: Why not just ask your clients, “How can we add more value in our relationship with you?”

The problem with this question is that clients cannot actually give you a meaningful answer to it. They usually respond in one of three ways: One: “Uh, things are going OK. Just keep up the good work”; Two: “Please don’t mess this up, it’s a very important project for me”; or Three: You get a blank stare. To understand why, think about how you talk to teenagers and how you understand what’s really going on with them. If you’ve raised a teenager you’ll immediately see my point. If you say to an unhappy-looking teenager, “So, how’s it going? How are you?” They will get tight-lipped and say something like, “Just fine.” If you push harder, they will push back—“Stop bugging me! I’m just fine! Why are you always asking me how I am?”—or they will go silent on you and walk away, sullenly mumbling something incoherent under their breath. (Full disclosure: My wife and I raised three teenagers).

The way you get under the skin of a teenager is to hang out with them. You go to a soccer game with them and sit in the bleachers for two hours. You drive them across town to an appointment. You take them to breakfast (but not before 11 am) at their favorite restaurant. Slowly but surely, they will open up a little bit and start to talk to you about what’s really going on in their lives and how they are really feeling. But if you try to force them open, like a clam they will shut tight.

Clients are like teenagers in this respect. Clients cannot articulate how you can add more value because they cannot draw a straight line between their issues, frustrations, fears, and needs and your service offerings. YOU have to do that, once you have understood those issues and frustrations. And you understand them by hanging out with them. By getting them out of the office. By walking in their shoes. Then and only then can you really understand how to add more value

The really great rainmakers are visionaries. They don’t ask their clients what they can do for them—they listen hard to understand their client’s goals, and then they offer a bold vision that exceeds anything the client has conceived. They are masters of the art of the possible, not order-takers. Steve Jobs scorned market research—he knew that consumers could not possibly imagine the iPod or iPhone. Neither can your clients imagine their iPod or iPhone, whatever it is for their particular situation.

Here is a brief reprise of my key value concepts and strategies:

1. Define value uniquely for each client. Yes, all clients want to grow revenue and increase profits. But the specifics are different for different clients. Each will value slightly different things in your proposal.

2. Emphasize elements of your proposal and approach that will increase the perception of value. Emphasize degree of difficulty. Link the proposal clearly to your client’s most important objectives. Quantify the value to be delivered. Link results to revenue and profit growth. Show how hiring you reduces risk.

3. Add core, surprise and personal value. Core value is what the client contracts for. Surprise value is represented by the unexpected ways in which you add value—recommendations for solutions to fix other problems, etc. Personal value is when you provide career advice, make a valuable introduction to the client, recommend the best doctor, etc.

4. Add tangible and intangible value. Clients usually hire you because they seek institutional, tangible value: Cost reduction, resolution of litigation, completion of a merger, etc. But often, the most enduring value they perceive AFTER the fact is intangible. One CEO told me, “My consultants did a great job on the cost reduction work. But they also helped my direct reports become better leaders. That was really valuable to me.” Intangible value could be better decision making, improved morale, better relationships, etc.

5. Spent more informal time with clients to better understand how you can add more value. Have a cup of coffee. Get them out of the office. Walk the halls. Ask them lots of thought-provoking questions (“What are most excited about in the business right now? Most concerned about?”). Create an offsite event.

6. Communicate and reinforce value added. TELL them how much value you’ve added. Remind them, a few times a year, about all the ways you’ve helped their organization. If you don’t do this, who will? Your competitors?

7. Finally: Be bold and stretch your client. Propose ways of achieving their goals that they have not considered or are too conservative to embrace naturally. You won’t win over everyone, but every so often you’ll hit a home run with the bases loaded.

Note: These other articles on client value may be of interest to you:

Creating a Unique Client Experience

Adding More Value for Time with Top Executives


Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on client relationships and the skills and strategies required to earn enduring client loyalty. The most widely published author in the world on business relationships, he is a consultant, educator, and coach to major services firms worldwide. Andrew is the author of the recently released All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships—which was voted one of the top 10 professional services sales and marketing books of the decade—as well as the business bestsellers Clients for Life and Making Rain . He has contributed chapters to four books on leadership, marketing, and human resources management; and his articles and work have appeared in publications such as the New York Times, US Today, Strategy+Business, and the Harvard Business Review. He was a Senior Vice President and Country Managing Director for Gemini Consulting, where he served on the European Executive Committee, and for the last 15 years he has led his own consulting firm, Andrew Sobel Advisors, Inc. He can be reached at andrewsobel.com (Tel: 505.982.0211).

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