The working relationships that keep clients coming back repeatedly are all built on small, shared rituals.
Whether you’re a solopreneur who’s self-employed or work for a big agency or consulting firm, relationships are your lifeblood. If you can’t build solid relationships based on mutual trust and transparency, kiss goodbye to any prospect of working with long-term business partners. No one wants a revolving door of one-off clients who don’t leave happy enough to come back for more. Here’s how I’ve learned to develop those crucial long-term ties by starting small and sticking with it.
CREATE A SHARED RITUAL
Typical business-to-business relationships, even those big between agencies and their clients, demand human interaction. But that doesn’t mean formal pitch meetings and endless conference calls. Those are important for hammering out deals but for relationship-building. Instead, I like to take my clients out for coffee.
In 2014, Harvard Business Review reported on a study that asked participants to tap in time to music alongside a partner they did not know. Those who tapped to the same song and rhythm were nearly three times as likely to rush to the aid of their tapping partner when that person was in trouble, versus those who tapped to a different rhythm. It makes sense intuitively: trust can only exist between people who are otherwise strangers when they build some form of common ground. It’s hardly the most original idea in the world, but sharing a warm cup of coffee is my version of the musical game. It creates a similarly shared experience that lets us get into the same rhythm.
So early on in our business dealings, I make sure to extend an invite for coffee. The worst thing that can happen is they turn me down. The best thing–which usually happens–is that we strike up a good, casual conversation about how we’ll work together, what drives us, and how we’ll ensure mutual success.
AGREE TO YOUR COMMITMENTS EARLY AND OFTEN
Everything that follows from this point forward can be boiled down to a really simple formula:
communication + performance = long-term trust
A good client service provider–in any industry–sets expectations, achieves alignment between their own team and the client’s, and then executes against those agreed-to specifications.
Of course, it sounds easy in theory but can be tricky in practice. I recently worked with a client who’d been dismissed by its previous partner. Agency rumor mills being what they are, I’d heard this was a bad client. An overbearing C-suite. Decision by committee. But what this client really lacked was a relationship-owner on the agency side who was willing to set expectations with each of four department heads and eight marketing managers.
It’s a perfect case study in how to put a seemingly simple formula into action when the relationship involves two organizations rather than just two people: You can’t just set expectations with a single contact and hope for the best–you need to make sure those expectations get communicated everywhere the two organizations touch. It might not be the agency’s job to disseminate all that information, but it’s definitely in the agency’s best interest to do so–repeatedly. So when I build relationships, I work with marketing, IT, product, brand, and any other stakeholders who are willing to meet with me directly– and, ultimately, agree to stay looped in on broad stakeholder reviews or updates for any project.
And yes, that often means a lot of coffee dates.
BE THERE WHEN IT’S HARDEST
In my early days of client service, I felt like every conversation was difficult. A missed deadline. A bug in the code. A creative concept that missed the mark. So I avoided calling my clients until I finally realized that the work would be won or lost depending on my willingness to handle an uncomfortable situation. Age and experience have taught me to pick up the phone (or text, if necessary) the minute there’s a whiff of something awry, and then to do whatever it takes to make the situation right.
The fact is that communication becomes even more crucial–and good communication more powerful–when mistakes are made. A real-time verbal apology, followed by a solution to remedy the problem, can go a long way. More than that, it can keep a client coming back for months and years to come despite inevitable hiccups along the way.
Trust is a fragile thing. It requires commitment and intention. That’s what makes the role of a good account director or client service director so intrinsic to the success of agencies and consultancies; we’re at the forefront of trust-building in good times and in bad. But any client-facing businessperson should put themselves on those front lines as well. When you get down to it, there’s no substitute for the quality of your relationships over the long haul. That’s what will keep the work coming through your door–again and again and again–for years to come.