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Building and Maintaining Positive Client Relationships

By: Jamie Gregory and Keith Thrash

Let’s take a minute and think back to the beginning of your relationship with your best friend or significant other. What makes your relationship work? Why is your relationship strong? What makes you feel comfortable around them? Are there specific traits that come to mind?

Contrary to what you might now be thinking, this article is not about traits of a best friend or finding your significant other. This article is about applying the knowledge of your experiences in personal relationships to relationships with your client.

We developed a list of five elements that are key to building and maintaining positive client relationships. These elements are depicted in the graphic to the left. Each element is directly related to one another and they all revolve around trust. If you keep these five elements in mind in your daily interactions with your client, you will be well on your way to building trust and ensuring positive relationships with clients.

Trust – Think about how long it takes to build trust. Think about how quickly and easily trust can be lost. The foundation for all positive relationships, including client relationships, is trust. The key to this element is being genuine and honest in your communication with the client—just as communication is the key to building and maintaining positive, harmonious personal relationships.

Communication – Think about the person in your life that is there for you when you need to talk, blow off steam after a hard day, or share a great accomplishment. Having a person like that is important to our clients too! There are two different types of communication with your client; communication related to the project and communication that is more informal.

Project-related communication involves discussions, both verbal and written, about the project and deliverables. This type of communication is the main priority because it is the primary reason we have a formal relationship with the client! Keep in mind to not over-promise and under-deliver, because this reduces trust. Solicit feedback from the client to find out how to improve the quality of deliverables and work products to facilitate trust building.

Informal communication is non-project related communication with the client—both verbal and nonverbal. Focus on finding things in common with the client to establish a more personal rapport. Be sincere and authentic in your words and actions. Show the client you care about them as a person and work on building a personal relationship with them. Don’t be afraid to show a sense of humor—have fun!

Reliability – Not following through with plans, or habitually being late, will never win over your significant other. The same is true with our clients! It is important to value the time of others. Our clients rely on us to assist with issues they otherwise may not be able to handle or complete on their own. It is our responsibility to ensure timely completion of a job, and that it meets client requirements and needs. Would someone consider you reliable if you are constantly late, forget about meetings/appointments, and always say “Yes!” even when you do not agree? We should judge our success on the success of our client; no one wins by being unreliable.

Responsiveness – One of the best ways to maintain a relationship with your significant other is to demonstrate that you care – this is as simple as responding to texts and calls quickly, and prioritizing their needs. Being responsive and available is important to our clients as well. We do not earn their trust by avoiding calls or emails or ignoring seemingly minor issues. This behavior is unacceptable in any type of relationship. Being responsive to the client shows that you are committed and willing to help, no matter how small the problem may seem. This requires being attentive and present—active listening takes committed effort and focus, and means that you are listening to understand, not just to respond. Thoughtfully listening and understanding creates an environment of caring about your client and their needs, not just “punching in and punching out.” Being responsive also requires a degree of flexibility and the capability to adapt to changing needs. It all comes down to knowing your client and anticipating their needs. If you spend time understanding both, you will be well prepared to respond to your client’s needs and increase their trust in you.

Honesty (Delivery) – Like any relationship, honesty is crucial to building a healthy, trusting relationship, and this is no different with our clients. When we tell our client we will do something, we must deliver on that promise. Every day, when we talk deadlines and upcoming issues with our clients, we are making promises. It’s simple, under-promise and over-deliver. This means being conservative with your promises and allowing time for potential setbacks. There is typically a downstream effect to our promises and timelines—our client (and their management team or leadership) depend on the completion of our work. If we consistently give unrealistic deadlines, or fail to deliver, it makes our client look bad and reduces trust, which is the exact INVERSE of our goal!

So, what does this mean for me? Whether you are working with a new client, or an existing client, it is never too late to improve the amount of trust in the relationship. The elements above will help with both new and existing clients, and remember, relationships take time and effort. If you are starting out with a client with a lot of face time, remember the above, trust is central to the relationship. Always keep in mind that your clients are people too! No one likes to talk work all the time, take the opportunity to find some common ground (i.e. hobbies, activities, or interests) and talk about those! Offer a trip for a coffee, or get outside for a walk during a particularly stressful time. Be patient when you are building these relationships, remember that strong bonds take time, and make sure you are doing it for the right reason. At Kearney, our focus is on the client and not personal gain or accolades.

I do not directly interact with my client, what does this mean for me?  Not all of us are in a position that directly interacts with our clients. If you fall into this category, know that no matter what team you are on, you are still contributing to a larger picture! Your management team is working to deliver the best for the client, but without a good team supporting them, our efforts only go so far. Use the elements we have discussed to focus on building positive, professional relationships within your team. As the entrepreneur and philanthropist Richard Branson says, “If you take care of your people, they will take care of the client.” Take this time to commit to your team, and work hard on learning more about your client and your project.

The bottom line with these five elements is that you build positive relationships with clients just as you build positive relationships with all the people in your life. Focus on building trust. The key to building trust is with honest communication, being responsive and reliable, and delivering on your promises. These same fundamental elements are what make our personal relationships work. If you keep this perspective in mind with client relationships, it makes it a much better experience for everyone.

Author’s Note: We would like to extend our gratitude to the Kearney Principals and Partners that shared their insight and institutional competencies (more on this in the Kearney Career Path Guide) for positive client relationships. Your input was key to the development of this article and we appreciate the knowledge you shared.

Kearney offers several internal development programs for employees, one of which is the Leadership Education Advancement & Development (LEAD) mentoring program for mid-career employees.

This article was written by LEAD members Jamie Gregory and Keith Thrash.

If you’re reading this and would like to learn more about Kearney & Company visit today! #LetsGoKearney