In this December issue of The Friedman File, I’m thrilled to have guest columnist Shari Harley share her insights on a topic that’s near and dear to my heart — creating candid relationships with your clients.
Shari is the author of How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide for Building Business Relationships that Really Work and is founder and president of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace.
We’ve all had clients we thought were satisfied, and yet the next month, they’re off our books and we don’t know why. Your clients are under no obligation to tell you why they replaced you. In fact, they have no incentive to give you feedback at all. It’s easier for clients to disappear than to tell you what they don’t like about your services.
It’s fine to get fired by a client. You might even make more money, with fewer headaches, if certain clients would take their business elsewhere. But it’s not fine, nor is it necessary, to be surprised by defections. Almost every defection is predictable and preventable when you have candid relationships with all of your clients.
How can you develop client relationships so that clients will tell you the truth when they’re dissatisfied and give you a chance to retain their business? Here are a few suggestions from my new book, How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work.
When kicking off new client relationships, tell your clients what to expect. Say, “We’re excited to be working with you. If we work together long enough, we’re going to make mistakes. We’d like the kind of relationship where you can tell us what is and isn’t working. Please know that we appreciate your feedback, and we’ll say ‘thank you.'”
When is the last time one of your vendors admitted they’re human, told you up front that they know they’ll make mistakes, genuinely wanted your feedback, and promised not to get defensive when they got it? This kind of open dialogue will make your firm stand out and differentiate you from other equally technically qualified firms.
The next step in the relationship-building process is to ask your clients questions that your competitors aren’t asking. The conversation might sound something like, “I want to be sure we’re meeting your needs and don’t want to have to guess what’s important to you. Can I ask you a couple of questions?”
Here are a few questions I suggest asking:
- Who else did you consider hiring?
- Why did you hire us instead?
- How will you know we’re doing a good job? What does success look like?
- What are your pet peeves? What could we do that would annoy you?
- How often do you want to meet, and what should we discuss during our meetings?
- Are you a big-picture person or more detail-oriented?
- Do you want to meet in person or over the phone?
- How do you like to receive information? Printed, voicemail, email, or via text message?
You can learn much of the aforementioned information over time by observing your clients’ behavior. But why wait? By the time you’ve observed clients’ preferences, chances are you’ve made mistakes that they aren’t likely to tell you about.
Asking these questions is not a one-time event. Tell your clients, “I’m going to revisit these questions a few times a year. Know that I genuinely want your honest feedback. We can’t fix problems that we don’t know exist.”
Then you actually have to ask. Telling a client you’re going to ask for feedback and then not doing so is worse than saying nothing at all. Also, please don’t ask, “How are things going?” “How is it going” is a greeting, not a question. It’s vague. And if you ask a vague question, you’ll get a vague answer.
Ask specific questions quarterly. Remind your clients that you really want their feedback. Promise them you’ll say “thank you.” If you become defensive – which is a very human and normal thing to do – apologize and do better next time. Every time you make it difficult to tell you the truth, you train people to replace you instead of giving you a chance to retain their business.
When a senior leader humbles himself and connects directly with clients, this is perceived as a great value by the client. In my experience, clients will tell you the truth when you ask and make it clear that you really want to hear the answers.
Asking for specific feedback and saying thank you is a differentiator that costs nothing. And in my experience, few, if any, business owners are doing it. Not only will you establish stronger relationships with your clients by making it safe to tell you the truth, you’ll set yourself apart from your competitors.