Ten Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships

trusted partner

In the current environment where the customer has a lot of choices, it is important for consultants to nurture their relationship with the customers and move from the position of just another supplier (commodity mindset) to a trusted partner.  Andrew Sobel, in his book All for One introduces ten strategies for achieving this goal of being a “trusted client partner.”

To start with, he introduces the six levels of professional relationship that exist between the vendor and the customer: contact,  acquaintance, expert,  vendor,  steady supplier,  trusted adviser and trusted partner.  Sobel introduces ten strategies that help organization move higher up in the 6 relationship levels.   The first five strategies are the responsibility of the individual while the last five are organization’s responsibility and these must be supported by senior management.   He elaborates on each of the strategies:

Agenda Reacting to Agenda Setting: This chapter focuses on how can the role of a vendor change from reactive vendor to a proactive vendor (i.e. how to evolve in a role where you help the vendor identify key issues and priorities).

Developing Relationship Capital: Sobel recommends that focusing on quality of relationship rather than the number of people in your network. He quotes senior people in consulting business on how few critical relationships have helped them establish their businesses.  Further he recommends to classify these relationships in four categories (of potentials, loyalists, connectors and multipliers) and identifies the strategy for leveraging each of these categories.

Engaging new Clients: Focus of relationship building with the new customers should be on making a decisive impact on the executives during the first few meetings.  This can be done by building a rapport with the client, understanding their problems, establishing your credibility and determining the next steps.  Setting up four main goals for the first meetings. In the subsequent meeting the focus has to be on improving credibility and trust.

Institutionalizing Client Relationship: The relationship with clients should not be people dependent. In scenarios where a partner leaves and takes a lot of accounts with him is a reflection of poor relationship management. Organization’s Principles can take the relationship to the level of trusted advisor;  for the relationship to move to the next level the relationships should be established at all levels (many to many relationship) or capabilities should be expanded in terms of services being offered to the customer.

Account Planning and client relationship model should also be looked at to expand the relationship with the client.  Team mentoring and leadership can help put people in leadership position and thus establish relationship with the customer at different levels with the client.

Adding Multiple Layers of Value: Different customers perceive value differently; consultants need to understand the factors that influence client’s perception of value. These can be profit and loss impact, risk reduction, educating and resolving the difficult situation.  Once the factors are determined the consultant should reinforce value at each stage of engagement.

Sobel makes an interesting observation about value.  He says value starts from tangible benefit to the organization but as the relationship progresses it moves to intangible personal benefits.  Once the firm has reached the level of providing the contact intangible personal benefits it can say that the relationship is at level 6.

Targeting the Right Client: Not every lead will make a good client and not every client can develop to strong relationship.  So it is important for consultant/organizations to choose the right client who have strong leadership and good reputation for building long term relationship.

Building a Client Leadership Pipeline: Client relationship managers should be responsible for aspiration setting, relationship strategy, client leadership, team leadership and ambassadorship.  For them to be successful the organization should train them for necessary leadership skills, network development, people leadership, relationship management and personal leadership.

Promoting Collaboration: Organizations like IBM and Goldman Sachs have been successful because of their focus on collaboration.  An organization should look at encouraging collaboration through the following strategy:

  • Inculcation through leadership role modeling, communication and training
  • Institutionalization through measurement and reward mechanism, organization structure and recruiting
  • Infrastructure through knowledge management system, collaboration technologies and physical facilitators

Listening to Clients: Regular discussions with the client are important for building a relationship with the customer, these also give ideas for new service offerings, better understanding of the competition and insights into the strengths of the customer and weakness of your firm.  The client listening can be done through surveys, relationship manager reviews, independent reviews, senior management visits and client events and forums.

Creating a Unique Client Experience: The world is looking at new ways of creating value for the customer. The new focus is creating value at the point of interaction. This is being done through providing value to the customer through client forums, insights from leading customers. Joint business development simulations, customizing entire firm, giving price control to the customer and creating new business model for service delivery.  For an organization it is important that the client should be managed through some standard processes.

Sobel doesn’t stop after stating these strategies.  There are carefully chosen case studies from reputed companies like IBM, Cognizant,  Booz Allen Hamilton, Lloyds Banking Group, Bain and Citigroup that highlight the relevance of each of the ten strategies.  He also gives insight into the status of relationship and understanding what level the relationship is at.

Sobel understands that relationships are not a destination but a journey, so he emphasizes sustaining the relationship with the customers. The book ends with answering 17 frequently asked questions about being a trusted partner. These help revisit all the strategies that have been stated earlier in the book and their applicability.

Review by Anuj Ahuja, PMP

Originally published by the PMI Consulting Community of Practice
All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships by Andrew Sobel

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