ASSE Plaque
Developing Impenetrable Business Relationships
By Michael Rega

Publication: The Advisor
Date: March, 2012

One thing that separates top consultants from the ordinary is their client management skills, which include the ability to penetrate and forge a genuine bond with key players within the client organization. Whether it is their planning, their sheer determination, the strength of their personalities, their hard work or an infinite number of other possible combinations, the result is that the client feels the consultant is a vital and important element of their organization. Let us call this type of consultant the key client manager.

The two attitude requirements for a key client manager are:

  1. Commitment.The client must feel the key client manager truly understands his or her unique situation and problems. This could range from a major technical problem or organizational problem to a political problem within the company. The key is responsiveness. It is an attitude of concern and commitment—jumping in and being totally committed to helping the client without hesitating or making the client feel obligated.
  2. Expertise. Key client managers must understand the client’s business as well as their own. For consultants to develop the sort of relationship that results in repeat business, rather than just one-off projects, they must possess an attitude of expertise. This requires you to stay current with a certain amount of technology, market trends and client issues along with SH&E expertise.

If you are willing to accept these prerequisites for truly bonding with your clients, following these next five critical steps will open up all sorts of opportunities and will afford entry into the client’s inner circle of influence.

  1. Counselor Approach. Your client’s perception ofyou is in direct proportion to your own approach. If you view the client totally as a source of revenue, then your job is to negotiate orders. In turn, the client will perceive you and classify you as a supplier. The measure of your worth will be in the price/performance ratio of your bid or services as compared to your competitor’s. On the other hand, if you view your mission as a problem-finder, problem-solver and profit-improver for the client, you will in turn be viewed as a welcomed member of their team. They will feel in need of your expertise, and your worth will be in direct relation to your value and profit improvement to their organization, not in relation to the lowest bidder in the market.
  2. Exposure.Very seldom do Key Client Managers get to the inner circle without some help along the way. Most often, in the early stages of their research, they perform an excellent organizational analysis. During this process, they seek to identify certain people of significance in the organization who would stand to benefit from their recommendations. These people are potential champions for your cause and must be sold on the ideas you are recommending and on the need to help you get the proper exposure at all levels of their organization. The development and nurturing of the proper champions may be vital to your success. It is much easier to get an appointment when the subordinates are positioning you as someone with whom the executive must meet.
  3. Collective Problem Solving and Implementation. Most successful Key Client Managers position themselves early in the relationship as consultants. They work with the client to develop the financial analysis and proper solutions, as well as implementation plans to meet their needs. They then assist the client through the implementation phase of the sale or service contract after the order or commitment for professional services has been received. In doing this, a bonding takes place at all levels of the organization. In effect, the Key Client Manager stays very close with the customer through all phases of the relationship including the implementation phase. By doing this they are capitalizing on the opportunity to bond at all levels of the client organization.
  4. Confidentiality. Being welcomed into the inner circle conveys a special level of trust. For someone outside the company to be elevated to this position indicates they must have demonstrated that they can be trusted. Many times they will be given confidential data, marketing plans, business strategies or other pieces of important information. The client must feel that this information will be held in strict confidence. Much like the doctor/patient relationship, if the trust is not there, no relationship exists.
  5. Advisory. The last rung on the ladder is when the client comes to you for advice. The best problem to solve for the key client manager is the one s/he has identified, brought to management’s attention and proceeded to solve. This is achieved through introducing a new service, product or idea for the organization or by suggesting a change in their processes.

These five steps will take you inside the client’s inner circle, but sustaining that relationship is your new goal. We live in a business environment where individuals move in their careers frequently, so having a relationship with only one person at the client organization can leave you vulnerable. The key to sustaining your relationship is ongoing contact at all points in the organization. You must stay in touch with all levels and continue to look for problems to solve. The more you solve, the stronger the bond. As a result, the more valuable you become to the organization, the longer you will keep the key account.