There is a saying that "nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care". While this saying may not have historically been applied to managing a customer relationship, it fits in just the same.
Working with companies and their people is a tricky thing. It is a bit like personal relationships we've experienced in our own lives. There are similar parallels to the stages that make up the desired long-term relationship.
First, there is the attraction and whether there is a good match between what we represent and sell and the company's interest and desire to talk to us. This is a bit like courting just prior to dating. There are conversations where we look to impress the company. We try to say the right things, drop names and proof points that seem credible and impressive and eventually garner the strength to ask for that first important meeting.
Second, the date (meeting) takes place and this is really where there is a mutual understanding that begins to take shape. It is here that we both discover whether there is going to be more to the relationship and whether another date makes sense. It is also here that we (service providers) can kill the relationship before it gets started. We are looking to win a new client and the company is looking to find the right partner. Our zealous nature sometimes presents itself in the wrong way and in our efforts to impress we often do just the opposite.
At times, it is the assumption that the company wants to see endless PowerPoint or listen to unrelated case studies or even to us touting our own achievements.
More often what is needed or rather expected is simply us asking some key questions about solving problems and looking to discover how the company views a successful engagement and relationship. In other words, we often make it about us vs. trying to understand them.
Third, when we are past dating there is an engagement. While no ring is presented, there is a contract to solidify a relationship and the responsibility to perform work on behalf of this company, which we now call the customer. It is here that our defenses drop a bit, we look to hit a stride and we begin to learn much more about our customer including meeting the extended family (stakeholders). Typically during an engagement period there is pressure to get things done, make sure plans are being completed and fulfilled and we are all working tirelessly towards a future date which may be related to a go-live date for a project, a milestone for achievement or to complete a proof of concept in order to engage at a larger level, in other words "to get married".
It is often here at this stage that the risks become more visible because flaws become apparent on the service provider's side and impediments, obstacles, bad habits and difficult behavior show up on the customer side. This is where the relationship begins to get tested. It is also here that the relationship needs to be proven and validated. It is here that service providers often get lazy or change the approach they worked so hard to sell in exchange for a less risky approach that serves them better.
Here in this third stage, we begin to get feedback from the customer and then we find ourselves reflecting on how to manage that feedback, something we call retrospective. The customer will often express what they see as needing improvement in the relationship and they look to understand how we will react or respond to that feedback.
I believe it is at this critical point that long-term relationships are made or severely damaged. Problems will always arise in relationships but how we solve them is what everyone remembers most. It is here that the best organizations show their true colors. Their willingness to adapt and change for the customer, their ability to make necessary shifts in people and process and their desire to remain humble vs. arrogant is what communicates to a customer that the relationship is important on more levels than simply revenue, profitability and the use of their logo.
Fourth, when the engagement has proven successful and many of the challenges have been resolved or are on their way to a positive resolution, the discussion of a longer term commitment takes place. The mistake we often make is that we believe a long-term relationship always equates to a monetary exchange. While we desire more work and revenue for our company with the customer, the true value is the relationship we've solidified and the desire to make it continuously better, deeper and well rooted in trust.
The value of the values we need to instill in a customer relationship go far beyond a transaction, something we are all guilty of forgetting at times.
Relationship Management is not the same as account management, business development or project management which by definition allude to a transaction or task oriented relationship.
Relationship Management is simply about caring enough to work alongside a company and it's respective stakeholders to help them achieve their goals, learn from your learning and establish trust. Our ability to deliver the work from a skills and competency perspective is only half the equation. The other half is our ability, desire and interest to manage expectations, provide good advice and counsel and look to listen and learn... to build a relationship.