Breaking Through Client Relationship Barriers
Sometimes you do great work with a client but struggle to broaden your relationships within that client’s organization.
It’s a common problem for consultants. You’re working with a client, it’s going better than expected, and you know you can do more to help. But when you try to connect with others who could benefit from your services, your efforts are stymied.
Usually, you hit the relationship wall for one of two reasons: either the client blocks your attempts to branch out, or the client doesn't really know what else you can do.
Converting a Controller
One common obstacle to extending your relationship network is working for a “controller,” and I don’t mean the accounting kind. This is someone who supports your project, but keeps a tight rein on your access to others.
Typically, a controller insists on knowing about every meeting you have, wants to understand the meeting agenda in advance, and insists on reviewing all material before anyone else sees it. Often, you have to arrange the schedule so the controller can attend meetings too.
Relationship-wise, a controller keeps you boxed in. Assuming you want to grow your business with the client, here’s one suggestion for getting out from under a controller's thumb.
First, identify a thorny problem the client faces (one that you can solve, of course). Develop your ideas for resolution, and suggest a meeting (or two) with the controller to discuss the matter. Your goal is simple: offer ideas that are so innovative and useful that the controller wants to share your thoughts with others.
I know that’s easier said than done. But you need a controller's blessing to reach out to others in an organization. It's not advisable to try an end-around.
One consultant, for example, suggested to a controlling CIO how to make small changes to the company’s merchandise return process. The consultant’s idea had reduced costs and avoided a major system modification for other companies. The CIO embraced the idea, discussed it with others, and then supported the consultant's effort to sell the project.
When a controller willingly takes your ideas to others, you have broken through an organizational barrier – without creating resentment. It just takes time and compelling, targeted solutions to help a controller see that your ideas are worthy and that you can be trusted.
Escaping the Pigeonhole
Sometimes, you do such a good job selling your specific skills for a project that clients pigeonhole you. Maybe clients brand you as a “logistics consultant” or an “IT consultant” because that's how they know you.
Unfortunately, a firm's brand travels quickly throughout an organization, and can be tough to redefine. In most cases, the client knows that you have other capabilities. But without a recognized need for those capabilities, don't expect much interest.
The simplest approach to rebranding your business is through education. But I'm not talking about making clients sit through a monologue about all the things you can do to help.
Instead, as you work on your current project, find subtle, valuable ways to introduce your other capabilities. Be sure to reference how your past experience influenced and helped develop your ideas for the current work. Use examples from your other projects to clarify how you want to approach the current one.
Tell the client about your work with others, focusing on the results they achieved. Show them articles you wrote, talk about speeches you gave, or refer them to case studies you developed.
What's most important is relevance. Your stories, cases, and references won't help your rebranding effort if you don't connect them to the current project or other critical issues. Plus, if clients suspect you're being self-serving, they will stop listening.
Whether you are working with a controlling client or are trying to break through limiting perspectives about you, remember three strategies to help expand your client network.
Be Curious. Ask lots of questions. When you meet with a client about a project, use some of your time to ask about company issues, priorities, and recent developments. If you’re not devoting a part of every meeting to discussing the client’s business, you’re missing an opportunity. Your curiosity – and the knowledge you gain–will demonstrate your commitment to your client’s business and lead to discussions of potential new projects.
Be a Conduit. Find ways to share the experiences of others with your client. Offer to connect your client to others you’ve worked with who face similar challenges. Tap your network of people and resources and freely share ideas and solutions. If you want clients to think of you when there’s a new opportunity, make sure they view you as a source of good ideas and value.
Be a Catalyst. Bring your best ideas to your clients, along with practical options for implementing them, on a regular basis. Don’t focus only on ideas that you think will lead to the next sale. Take the initiative. Collaborate with your client to develop ideas and high-value projects you can work on together.
Before You Try to Sell Anything
Of course, you won’t sell anything new if you’re not delivering your services flawlessly. So be sure your project is humming along before you focus too much attention on looking for new work.
Taken together, these strategies are a “client-first,” not a “sales-first,” approach to managing relationships, educating clients, and finding new opportunities.
Marketing to existing clients is not easy but, with a client-first mindset and these strategies, your efforts will be more productive and profitable.
To learn more about breaking through client relationship barriers and closing the gaps between buyers and sellers, check out Inside the Buyer's Brain, available as a free download.
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