Many of us get so busy building our client base that we forget to perform regular client relationship checkups. Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas suggest asking 10 power questions when analyzing the current state of your client relationships, in their book titled Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others. Here are the ten power questions:
Client health “screenings” are necessary when managing client relationships. Here are ten questions you should ask yourself when you are considering the health of your 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 advisor who has calmly and wisely guided hundreds of CEOs through bet-the-company transactions and deals. Last year Sobel 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?” asks Sobel. “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. 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,” notes Sobel. “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,” says Sobel. “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,” notes Sobel. “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 something in your area of expertise? “This is an essential litmus test of a healthy relationship: loyalty,” explains Sobel. “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 who I felt didn’t value me,” says Sobel. “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 on 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,” notes Sobel. “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,” says Sobel. “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,” notes Sobel. “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?”
10. Is your client referring you to friends, colleagues, and other organizations that could use your expertise? Active word-of-mouth referrals, arguably, are the ultimate sign of a good relationship. “Are you getting referrals?” asks Sobel. “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!”
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