We live in the era of the vendor. Any given company is probably working with a number of vendors, from outsourced tech support to marketing agencies, who in turn may have their own subcontractors. The competition for business is intense.
That doesn’t mean vendors are a dime a dozen, but it does mean that some companies view their vendors as easily replaceable. If you’re in the business of managing customer relationships, you'll enjoy a strategic advantage (and a more mutually rewarding relationship) if you elevate your status to that of a valued partner.
Consider the differences. Vendors often focus on selling their services instead of satisfying their clients, which leads to customer churn, which leads to increased focus on selling. On the other hand, partners are invested in their clients’ success. By delivering customer-centric service, they cultivate long-term relationships where both parties thrive. Instead of doing what’s convenient or cutting corners for them, they put their clients first, staying responsive, insightful, strategic and forward-thinking at all times.
True, this is partly about account retention. Sales works hard to bring on new customers and if those customers feel unimportant, or even neglected, they will leave. But becoming a true partner will also elevate your industry reputation, help you attract new, like-minded businesses and empower you to perform at a higher level.
To ensure your clients see your business as an asset, not a vendor, put these four practices into play.
Outline clear expectations from the start.
Every productive relationship starts with defining the customer's goals and charting a clear roadmap. Let the client know what to expect every step of the way, from proposal through implementation and project completion, including the people they’ll work with, action items, timeframes, and results.
Another priority: setting realistic expectations, understand what expectations were set during the sales process, then set and reset expectations as needed throughout the entire engagement. Be sure all relevant staff understand the expectations and are trained to communicate appropriately so the customer hears a consistent message from everyone.
Stay in constant communication.
Establish a cadence of regular progress reviews with a clear agenda, where you review what’s been accomplished, what’s next and any potential barriers to success. Always ask how you can improve and actively solicit feedback. You want to be responsive and approachable so that you can quickly identify and any concerns or issues, before they become dissatisfactions. If you really want to build a positive relationship, create touchpoints outside of status calls. Let your client know they’re top of mind by sending them thoughtful articles, relevant newsletters, or even an invite them to dinner a round of golf. This builds the personal connection that makes you harder to replace – and your work relationship will be that much more fulfilling.
Know when and how to tell a client no – and when to say yes.
Most service businesses have had this experience: the relationship gets comfortable and the clients begin making requests that just don’t fit within the scope of the agreement. In most cases, you’ll need to set limits, especially when saying yes could put you on a path to future problems. The trick to saying no diplomatically? Offer an alternative. Try to find a workable compromise that satisfies both of you.
However, if the request is something just mildly out of scope, you might decide that saying yes will actually improve your relationship. That’s definitely your prerogative; just be aware that if you begin accommodating all of their demands, some clients will take advantage of it.
Plan effective account reviews on a regular basis.
Account reviews can be nerve-wracking, but they’re a great opportunity to showcase your achievements. When you launched the relationship, you promised your customer to help them reach their goals and fulfill their vision. Frame your account reviews in terms of how you’ve accomplished those goals, and use each review as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship.
A few tips: ask key stakeholders what they want to get out of the review and build that into the structure. Collect input on what’s working, what’s not and identify opportunities for improvement and tighter alignment. Don’t shy away from criticism or problems. Instead, use this feedback as an opportunity for continuous improvement. And, be clear on what you’ve accomplished. You could open the dialogue utilizing a scorecard system that shows performance in key areas, or you could take the client through a presentation that focuses on successes, challenges and your plan for the future. If you’ve managed the relationship well to this point, you should walk away with clear action items and a sense of productivity.
Of course, you may find some clients prefer to deal with you as simply a vendor, perhaps because of their personality or their company culture. One solution here is to build relationships with more than one stakeholder in the organization. That other leader may be more open to more of a partnership or personal relationship approach. And if you're connected to several key players in the company, the account won't be threatened when one of them leaves for another position.
Every vendor knows good clients can be hard to find. Become an integral part of their success and your clients will want you to be part of their future.
Michelle Cirocco is vice president of client success at Televerde, a global demand generation company dedicated to acquiring new business & accelerating revenue for clients.