The client is king! – There will be very few who haven’t heard this statement before and most people would agree with it wholeheartedly without a second thought. However, every time I hear it I can’t help but think that it must have been conceived by a client! My second thought normally is…’well, what does that make the supplier?’.
The term ‘supplier’ has always had a bit of a negative connotation, yet without suppliers there would be no product or service for the clients to buy, therefore making the relation between the two parties rather symbiotic and mutually dependable – a ‘partnership’ if you like.
Having worked in client facing rolls all my life (i.e. supplier-side), achieving this ‘partnership’ is the true utopia of account management and very difficult, but not impossible to achieve.
For my (potential) clients reading this, rest assured that I am not going to commit commercial hara-kiri by lecturing you on how you should play nice with your suppliers. However, a recent rather disappointing (but thankfully uncommon!) situation which involved one of the senior stakeholders walking out during the middle of a pitch (which we had painstakingly prepared for 4 days), claiming he had ‘something more important to do’ inspired me to focus my thoughts on how to nurture this delicate relationship.
So, how can we ensure that we find the right partner for us? I don’t claim to have all the answers but here are my thoughts:
Qualify each other
The initial stage of getting to know each other (in my sector it is normally the presentation and pitch process) is hugely important for both parties. The client will want to see if you are a safe pair of hands and capable of doing the job. As a supplier it is your chance to find out if the client is right for you. Ask the difficult questions and dig deep. If the client is unwilling to answer your questions for fear of giving the game away, you might want to consider if this is a relationship that can be built upon. How can you give a client sound advice if they don’t trust you enough? If their tender process includes 15+ other potential suppliers, is the client really confident in your abilities (or sure of what they want)? And therefore is your time not better spent on the clients that have taken the time to understand your business and value your time and work?
Once the relationship has begun it is only natural that as a supplier you will have to work hard to maintain the relationship. By now you should be working with someone who values your opinion, so make sure you voice them. Provide them with proactive communication and honest advice. Of course the relationship has to be win-win, but if you attain the trusted advisor position the client will not want to lose you, and will be much more inclined to treat you fairly. Don’t take advantage of this relationship and don’t allow yourself to grow complacent.
Evaluate the relationship
In an interesting blog post by Jason Ross on how to re-pitch for an existing account, he raised the importance of evaluating the relationship. No one likes to admit when a marriage has failed, but most of us also know that it is a lot worse for all involved to let it fester. Evaluate each other on an ongoing basis. An interesting approach is to score each other at regular intervals and on a mutually agreed scoring system. Present each other with the findings and discuss them openly. This way adjustments can be made before it is too late.
Now, I would love to say that I follow these rules all the time and that it is never our fault that a client relationship has turned sour, but you would all know I was lying. It is incredibly difficult to build ‘trusted advisor’ relationships and it also requires courage, especially on those occasions when you need to say ‘no’ to a client. But it does work…ask some of the clients I work with…(but let me select which ones!).
Ps. We won that pitch!