Last week I spent a bit of time with some of my Executive colleagues thinking about the way in which we understand and foster relationships with people who work for our clients.

Our business, like many in the professional services space, depends on relationships between people. The ways in which we establish, foster and maintain those relationships are changing: in the post-Covid era of hybrid working, it’s far less common for us to spend time in the same physical spaces as our clients’ people. Building relationships during project work, eating from the same pizza boxes as you get close to a delivery deadline, is probably a thing of the past.

There are many things to think about here, but there was one simple tool we used in last week’s session that felt useful enough to share. This is that share…

Value of client v strength of relationships

The starting point was to take a list of our top ten clients by revenue/month and stack rank them on a chart, thus:

Now of course just assessing the value of the client on the basis of monthly revenue is extremely simplistic, and there are far more factors at play. But it was a rough and ready way to get 10 clients that are obviously important on the board quickly and ranked in a way that was relatively objective. In the diagram above they are simply numbered 1-10, but we used their organisation names in the actual exercise.

Next up as a group, we moved the clients around on the horizontal axis until there was a consensus about how strong the relationships with those clients currently are. It ended up something like this (this is not the actual end chart, just an impression):

This raised a number of questions.

First of all, what do we mean by the Strength of Relationships?

With a group of well-informed people in the room, it was an exercise in exploring their perceptions, which is completely valuable. What your exec members are feeling about the strength of relationships with your clients is extremely important.

But if we wanted to get more rigorous we could start to look at things like

  • the number of relationships that we have
  • how senior those relationships are
  • the extent to which we know people who aren’t directly involved in the work that we are currently doing
  • the results of client perception surveys
  • and so on…

But more importantly, it started to get us to think about what the lifecycle of relationships with clients might look like. There appeared to be a rough clustering around a line going from the bottom left to the top right that would indicate a correlation between the value of clients and the strength of relationships, but is that a causal relationship? Maybe. Should we be looking for leading indicators that mean we should take some action with a particular client? Almost certainly.

Since the session (which then went on to think about framing our activities around relationship building going forward) I’ve been thinking more about paths that relationships might take between a client and supplier over time.

There follow a few suggested patterns based on my own experience of consulting over the years…

A natural build of a client might look like the above. An initial small piece of work that is based around a neutral relationship that fosters over time as increasing value of work is delivered.

When a client engagement begins through an objective competitive procurement process it can often mean that a fairly large piece of work is kicked off without there really being any great relationships between the client and the vendor. In fact, having just come through a contract negotiation phase, the starting point can be quite negative.

That can pan out in many ways, but it’s not uncommon to see an oscillating relationship that slowly increases in value, but never becomes hugely strong. That’s especially the case in time-bound contracts where both parties can be soon watching the clock for when the next procurement process will happen.

I’ve personally had clients like this in the past – the supplier is brought in by someone who has worked with them somewhere else in the past. A reasonable amount of work is sold. But then this champion leaves, and the supplier is left with no, or poor relationships that quickly worsen. The work then ends.

I’m not sure how totally realistic any of those scenarios might be, but it has definitely got me thinking not only that trying to track the strength of relationships with your clients is a good idea, but that also doing it over time so you can see where paths emerge so that you can take action where necessary might be a good thing too.

It also strikes me that for consumers of services, it might well be valuable to track this kind of information too as part of good practice for supplier management.

I’m fascinated to hear about other client value/relationship paths that you have experienced…

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