Strong client relationships are likely one of your top priorities as an advisor. The metaphor I use for them is the engine: built to last and a source of great power. When relationships are running on all cylinders, we gain client attention, trust, loyalty and referral. But much like an engine, without proper care, they can and will break down.
Over the course of my career, I've developed a client relationship strategy that's focused on maintenance, monitoring and repair. You should never assume that consistent financial performance will preserve relationships over time — in fact, much of what you'll need to manage is client emotions. To quote Maya Angelou: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Your maintenance program begins with establishing and then updating your shared expectations: what both of you expect out of the relationship. Often, you establish financial outcome expectations, but you'd also be wise to clarify your response times, how you'll deliver information and what success looks like overall. Managing client expectations prevents surprise, which is only a positive emotional experience when followed by the phrase "happy birthday!"
To strengthen your relationship, connect with your clients at the passion-to-passion level. Do you know what your clients love to do with their spare time? Have you asked what their current "wow project" is these days? Have you shared yours with them in casual conversation? Deeper Media research last year revealed that when you share your most personal interests with each other, tactical mistakes don't lead to serious relationship problems. Just like you would with a friend, your client goes out of his or her way to forgive you or explain away the misunderstanding.
You know the "dummy lights" that go on when your car is running too hot or low on oil? In client relationships there are just as obvious ones you need to monitor. The first indication of a problem is a communication breakdown between you and the client. They don't return phone calls or emails. When you do get in contact, they won't agree to the next meeting. Sure, they're likely busy, and you're only one of many clamoring for attention, but you need to pay attention to this pattern. Andrew Sobel, author of Clients for Life, puts it this way: "If you think you have a good relationship but the client says, 'There's nothing going on. It doesn't make sense to meet,' that's still a bad sign. It means they don't really value your ongoing insight and perspective."
You should never assume that consistent financial performance will preserve relationships over time — much of what you'll need to manage is client emotions.
Pay attention to warning signs of client mistrust. You can usually tell by body language or facial expressions when your clients believe you and buy into the advice you're giving. When they conduct their own research to verify your claims, it usually means you aren't seen as a trusted advisor. "Another symptom of a failing relationship is that people will bring in third parties to confirm their suspicions about the other person," says Brian Uzzi, professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. When your clients invite their best friend, son or neighbor to 'sit in' on one of your meetings, this often signals something is wrong.
These are subtle warning signs of a relationship that's losing power, but there are also clear signals that should grab your attention like the sound of grinding gears. When you hear anger in a client's voice, he or she pulls out your agreement to review terms or refers to how your competitors would serve him or her differently, your relationship is clearly overheating.
The good news is that you can repair relationships if you act quickly and thoughtfully. When you fear a breakdown is imminent, find a way to have a real-time conversation with your client to co-locate the cause of the difficulty. When your key signal is a lack of communication, you may need to be persistent to have that conversation, but with tenacity and creativity you can make it happen.
When Alyssa DeMattos was charged with bringing back CareerBuilder staffing group's largest client, she had to innovate to have the 'what happened' conversation. Her calls and emails went unanswered for weeks. She learned of a charity golf tournament the client's company put on each year, so she attended it as a sponsor. To ensure she would get some executive face time, she volunteered to be a server on the beverage cart that refreshed attendees at each hole. By the end of the day, she was invited to attend a dinner that evening with the president of the client company's largest division. This kick-started a series of frank conversations that identified what really went wrong, how the two companies could work together again and where the starting point might be.
Once you have a good understanding of why the client is pulling away from you, it's important to own up to your part of the problem and, when necessary, apologize empathetically. Don't focus on making excuses, but instead, seek out how you can make up lost ground with the client. In many situations, your clients merely want to be heard, and when they are, the negative feelings evaporate.
In the event that you can't get face or phone time to source the problem and hear it out, send a handwritten note or thoughtful card to express how much you value the relationship. If possible, include a detail about a time you two have found agreement or collaborated to solve a problem. Sometimes, it's the little touches like this that can be the spark to get things going again.
In some cases, when the relationship totally breaks down, the best solution is to give your client time to cool off. For my latest book, I interviewed several business leaders who brought back major clients after severe misunderstandings. In almost every case, they referred to the cooling-off period as a key part of their strategy. Later, when they attempted to re-contact the client, usually with a fresh offer or relevant piece of insight, they were able to sit down, have a frank talk about the situation and resume the relationship.
It's no fun to have relationship breakdowns, and it's not that easy to repair them. But there's an upside to the process of working through relationship misfires with clients, even those where strong feelings were expressed. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, explains it this way: "Going through difficult experiences can be the makings of the strongest, most resilient relationships."
- Stay mindful of your client's expectations, talk about them openly and, when necessary, reset them to reality.
- Pay attention to warning signs of a relationship going bad, be it distance, a lack of trust or the expression of negative emotions.
- Find the root cause of the relationship issue and, whenever possible, accept your part of the blame without excuse.
- Make a gesture to your client that demonstrates your commitment to the relationship. Whenever possible, add a personal touch.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author, who is not affiliated with Hartford Funds. The information contained herein should not be construed as investment advice or a recommendation of any product or service nor should it be relied upon to, replace the advice of an investor's own professional legal, tax and financial advisors.
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