Client service made easy

A successful senior manager needs more than technical expertise and problem-solving skills to attract clients. Here’s how to increase market presence with superior client service.

Jane is an experienced senior manager at a professional service firm and she wants to be a partner. Jane knew she was seen as a technical expert in her field, a savvy problem solver and a provider of innovative solutions to clients. However, when it comes to her client relationships, her mentor indicated that there was room for improvement. While clients are satisfied with her deliverables and the quality of her work, feedback consistently shows that clients do not connect with her and seek out other senior managers before they call Jane.

Partners in Jane's group report she is deep technically and is a high potential senior manager, but in order to be considered for partnership, they would like to see her increase her presence in the market and improve her business development and client management skills. As a first step, she will need to become more rigorous about client service and learn how to better connect with clients. Great client service with existing accounts drives more work with those accounts and forms the basis for referrals to new clients. Becoming good at building client relationships is critical to her future career aspirations.

Engaging the client well is the first step

While many professionals excel at client service, to others it may not come naturally. There are key things that Jane needs to keep in mind to build and sustain relationships and keep clients happy. This starts with building a successful relationship from the beginning. Jane was asked to work on a new client account that aligns well with her area of expertise. The partners see this as an excellent opportunity for a fresh start with a new client. To help Jane, they assigned her a coach.

Successful client relationships are about trust. In The Trusted Advisor David Maister outlines the components in the equation of trust, which include a combination of credibility, reliability and intimacy. While Jane has the content expertise down, she needs to work on her executive presence —both the physical aspects (eye contact, volume and tone of voice, dressing the part) as well as her attitude (believing in her abilities so she is projecting that confidence, enthusiasm and passion for her work). Jane is also reliable in a general sense, but she needs to promote this as her personal brand. Jane wants to be known as the service provider who is not just smart but also follows up quickly, goes the extra mile and is dependable. Jane's coach explained it's the small gestures that clients value (sending meeting materials in advance, staying current on client events and names and always meeting deadlines). And finally, intimacy refers to thinking about the kind of courtesy and respect that are characteristic of close relationships with friends and applying those to relationships with clients.

The coach guided Jane not to leap into the work but to get to know the client first. It was suggested that as Jane prepares to meet with her new client she should consider drafting a few questions to ask. Not only will this set clear expectations up front but it will also show the client that she is invested in the relationship and in working as effectively together as possible. It is important to gain an understanding of the client's business (the current state) as well as learning about its strategy and objectives (future state). In addition, the following questions were suggested: what challenges and obstacles will he or she likely encounter as he or she implements the strategy? How does the client like to work with service providers? What are the things that really bother him or her about past service providers?

Successful engagement is followed by successful delivery

Once Jane has engaged with her client and built trust, she needs to shift to maintaining the relationship in a way that sustains trust. It's easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day commitments that come with working for a professional service firm. There are endless meetings to attend, reports to write, emails and requests to read and follow up on. However, Jane's coach cautioned her to be careful about sending hasty emails to clients and to think about the impression that she was sending to her clients. A hurried response could be interpreted as "this person is too busy and doesn't have time for me." Jane was told to keep her emails and voicemails professional, keeping texting jargon, emotions and slang words for friends outside of the workplace environment.

The same concept applies to voicemail greetings. Jane would often record a greeting at the start of the day explaining that she would be in back-to-back meetings and would not have access to voicemail or email. No matter how busy or overwhelmed Jane is, her clients should be none the wiser. She should always keep what's going on behind the curtain. It is recommended that she record a more welcoming greeting, then follow through and listen to messages often so she could get back to clients right away, even if only to say, "I got your message, I am working on it, and I will book a meeting for us to discuss findings." If Jane can learn to be more responsive and return calls quickly, it will show clients that they are important to her.

Asking for regular feedback deepens the relationship

Jane would often wait until the end of the engagement to ask if her client was happy with the results. Requesting feedback in a timely manner throughout the engagement would be much more effective. By checking in and asking for input along the way, Jane will be able to make adjustments if necessary, and it will also validate when she is on track and meeting her client's expectations.

To gain specific, meaningful feedback, Jane's coach suggested that she ask her clients the following questions: what is working well for you? How satisfied are you with my work? What could I be doing better? What would you like to see more of? Are you happy with my level of responsiveness, the frequency of our meetings? What has been my greatest contribution? Where can I contribute more?

Jane is confident that with a better understanding of the principles and best practices around building client relationships, she will be able to build trusting relationships and have clients seek her counsel. By engaging the client, successfully delivering the work, and asking for feedback to deepen the relationship, her client management skills will improve and she will be able to increase her market presence. This will help build her business case as she strives to make partner in the coming year.


References

The Trusted Advisor, David H. Maister (2000, Free Press, New York).

"Show Your Strength as a Leader," Harvard Business Review, The Management Tip (August 27, 2013).

"Start Your New Client Relationship Right," Harvard Business Review, The Management Tip (September 20, 2012).

"Four Ways to Exceed Client Expectations," Harvard Business Review, The Management Tip (May 14, 2009).

About the Author

Sandra Oliver


Sandra Oliver is a business coach and owner of Impact, a global business coaching firm. She is CPA magazine’s technical editor for people management.

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