Don’t Drift Apart

There are ways to avoid the relationship rut with long-term clients.

Mention the phrase long-term relationship and a picture pops into our head. A couple, dressed in matching beige polyester, stare wordlessly at each other having run out of conversation approximately five years ago. Harsh, and probably completely unfair given that many people we know immature relationships are vibrant and dynamic, have plenty to say to each other and embrace the full colour palette when it comes to their sartorial choices.

However, when it comes to long-term client relationships, our attitude can often be ‘beige’ to say the least. Despite the fact that business developed from an existing client will be between six and nine times more profitable than winning a brand new one, client development is often sporadic, commitment to growth can be low and action can be vague and imprecise. Success depends on a broader and deeper relationship with the client, thereby improving the ‘stickiness’ of the relationship. Too often, we’re seduced by the drama of pitching for new business rather committing to the necessary but less heart-racing organic growth from existing clients over the long term.

Because business is personal. Those that develop successful, long-term relationships with their clients are able to move from ‘service supplier’ to ‘trusted advisor’ - the Holy Grail where clients bring you in on strategic issues, act on your recommendations, respect you and pay their bills on time. But, as with personal relationships, it takes effort to make client relationships work year after year. Mature relationships either grow stronger with each passing year of they weaken. We can go from strength to strength or we can get stuck in a rut. And, when we’re in a rut, it’s easy to go into denial. We ignore the symptoms of declining relationships. We ignore the many clues that things are just not what they used to be. Clues such as spending less time with each other that you used to. Or, the time you do spend together is spent in disagreement. Or, the other party’s ways of behaving start to irate, their habits get on your nerves and the little things (everything they say, everything they do) start to frustrate you. These are not so much clues as massive signals that you’re now on a fast track to anger and resentment. Be it business of personal, by this point neither of you feels you are getting much out to the relationship.

So how can you insure yourself against slipping into a client relationship rut? Here’s how. Ask yourself this simple questions every morning: how am I going to make a difference to my client today?

We have no divine right to work with any of our clients - we cannot rely on favours or goodwill, so if we no longer make a difference to them or their company’s performance we are of no use. Client’s every increasing expectations of delivery from their advisors are an opportunity for the competition. It’s comparatively easy to to make an existing advisor look slow and pedestrian when it comes to energy and new ideas if you are a circling predator targeting a particular client. The predatory team if often made up of big brains and dynamic operators compelling and buyable. Contrast this with your tired old team, which is worn out after years of working with this client - a team that no longer visibly relishes every contact with the client.

Only by earning our stripes every day can we guard against the natural lethargy that creeps into a long-term client relationship. To do this we need to be prodded into being more attentive, more dynamic, more - dread word - proactive. But better to prod ourselves every day than to open our inbox and find the client equivalent of an ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ email waiting for us. Be less beige and you’ll avoid being chucked.

Matthew Watt