Author Andrew Sobel on sustaining valuable client relationships in a recession

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By Javon Smith,
Division Manager-Midwest, The Saint Consulting Group

sobelAndrew Sobel, author of All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Relationships, was guest lecturer last week at an Association of Management Consulting Firms dinner discussion in Chicago — “Sustaining Valuable Client Relationships in Today’s Environment”. I attended the dinner and have a Q&A below on his new book.

The panel discussion focused on value; most importantly how each firm and client defines “value” is different. Of course the key is to understand what your client needs and values. There was also emphasis placed on building “institutional” relationships vs. personal, which requires more collaboration among managers.

Participants agreed that business has changed in the last year, but for most sales were steady or improved over 2007 & 2008. Larger firms are using a multi-pronged approach to sales, from hiring “rain-makers” to lead-generators, but their most consistent source of business development is the existing client manager. They are spending more time on existing relationships, bringing their clients new ideas and strategies instead of being reactive to issues.

Sobel believes that relationships skills are intrinsic to a point, but can be developed with training. Larger firms such as IBM and Aon shared information about their advanced training programs which deal specifically with client relations, and include role-playing and video taping exercises to build communication skills.

1. What is a “Trusted Client Partnership”?
Trusted client partnerships are client relationships that transcend any one individual
professional, issue, or project. They endure for many years, providing a stable revenue
stream to the service provider and great value for the client. Some firms call them “Key
Clients” or “Office of the Chairman Accounts.” The US Navy, for example, has been a
continuous client of Booz Allen Hamilton for 70 years. Invariably, the work conducted
for these major clients focuses on critical strategic and operational issues. No more than
20% of a firm’s clients will usually fit into this category, but they provide a
disproportionately large share of revenues and profits—and often create valuable
intellectual capital that can be re-used elsewhere. Trusted client partnerships, in short, are
the lifeblood of most services organizations. In All for One, I also call these “Level 6”

2. Why did you write All for One?
Some of my clients have struggled to understand how to systematically build these large,
institutional client relationships; others wish they could develop more of them. I wanted
to create, in essence, a field guide to reach Level 6—trusted client partner (the first 5
levels are contact, acquaintance, expert for hire, steady supplier, and trusted advisor). I
was fortunate in that a number of great firms opened up and let me study their most
significant clients. In analyzing them, I realized that it isn’t just about the derring-do of
one or two rainmakers—it’s actually as much or more about creating the right culture and
organization to support the professionals who are asked to lead these large relationships.

3. What does the expression “all for one” mean, anyway?
“One for all, and all for one” was the motto of the musketeers in Alexander Dumas’
book, The Three Musketeers. They had a unitary purpose, which was to protect the King
from the evil Cardinal Richelieu. The musketeers were inseparable: their ethos dictated
that each individual would put the group first, and that the group would in turn always
endeavor to help the individual succeed. In my title, the “One” is first of all the client;
and secondarily, it’s the individual professional who must be supported by the firm. In a
large services firm like Ernst & Young—or at a global bank like Citigroup—the
fundamental challenge is to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. You
do this by getting all of your professionals to work collaboratively to bring the right
service offerings and best ideas to each and every client.

4. What should firms be doing differently during an economic recession?
The basic blueprint to develop Level 6 client relationships applies in a recession as well
as in boom times. The current downturn, however, requires some special strategies. First,
you have to increase face-time with clients and prospective clients—you have to get out
in front of people more often, bringing ideas, perspectives, and suggestions to help them
be more efficient; and adding value around topics of importance to them. Second, you
need to help clients understand what they can do to stay afloat and even grow their
business during the contraction. This means spending more time than usual to dig into
their agenda—their most critical concerns and issues right now—and to understand their
business. Third, this is a time to be creative about how you engage with clients. Consider
using slack capacity to invest in understanding an important issue of interest to your
client; think about how to change the “experience environment” for the relationship—
e.g., getting your client offsite, involving new players in your interactions, and creating
higher levels of collaboration; propose novel ways of working together, including
innovative team structures, pricing, and contractual arrangements; and so on. Now is the
time to take some risks and get out of your comfort zone.

5. A “me first” ethos has prevailed in many quarters over the last few years. How
do you now motivate people to collaborate for the common good?
There are three platforms or strategies that you can use to create a collaborative culture.
The first I call Inculcation. Leaders need to inculcate—or imprint—the collaborative
values on the organization through their own behavior. They need to role model the
collaboration and client focus they seek, and communicate this message on a consistent,
daily basis. The second platform is Institutionalization, which is about developing the
organizational structures and processes to reinforce collaboration. This means creating
client-centered teams and organizational units, ensuring that measurement and reward
systems support long-term relationship development, and so on. Finally, a firm’s
Infrastructure needs to support collaboration. The most innovative service firms—IBM is
an excellent example—are using leading edge collaboration software and knowledge
management systems to link their far-flung professionals, encourage collaborative
innovation, and connect with clients.

6. Isn’t being a trusted advisor good enough?
My first book, Clients for Life, sets out a comprehensive model for 7 attributes that define
a trusted client advisor. Reaching trusted advisor status (what I call Level 5 in All for
One) is essential, and it’s the foundation upon which you build a Level 6 Trusted Client
Partnership. However, having a group of individual trusted advisors by itself is indeed
not good enough if you aspire to build enduring institutional client relationships. Level 5
relationships are often limited to the service offerings that the particular trusted advisor
knows well; and if he or she leaves the firm, the client may also leave. To reach Level 6,
you have to create many to many relationships at multiple organizational levels, and
apply the collective intelligence of the firm as opposed to that of just one brilliant
rainmaker. Many clients are in fact demanding that their outside advisors become skilled
at Level 6. Shell, for example, has reduced the number of law firms it uses from several
hundred to about 15, which it calls “strategic law firm partners.”

7. If you boil it down, what are the ingredients of really breakthrough client
When you look at a broad sampling of Level 6 client relationships, there are a handful of
commonalities. The quality of the work that’s been delivered is always very high.
Multiple individual relationships have been built—at many organizational levels—
including with key economic buyers or decision makers. Often, the firm has worked with
the client through a major crisis or turning point—the bond has been forged in fire. You
also find that individual executives have benefited from the relationship on a personal
level—their careers have been advanced, they have received excellent coaching from the
outside advisor, and their own networks have been enhanced. Also, the issues being
worked on are usually very strategic. It’s tough to build a Level 6 relationship if you’re
focused on low-level issues or doing commodity work.

8. Are some clients just never destined for “trusted partner” status?
Many factors have to come together for a client relationship to evolve to a trusted
partnership. The most important thing is that your main client has to be truly ambitious
and view the work you are doing as forming part of a broader agenda he or she is trying
to achieve at the company. The client also has to see value in forming long-term
relationships with key advisors. GE, for example, tends to view bankers and consultants
as commodities. It sends routine legal work to India, to be done by US-trained Indian
lawyers, and often uses impersonal, web-based reverse auctions to get the lowest prices
from professional service firms.

9. You say that clients are demanding more value from their relationships. What
exactly are they looking for?
As part of my research for All for One, I routinely asked relationship managers—and
their clients—about value. Not surprisingly, each client organization has a unique set of
benefits that it seeks from a service provider. So the first step in creating value is
understanding what the client really values. One client may seek quantifiable cost
reduction; another, risk reduction; and yet a third, innovation. I have found that in the
best Level 6 relationships, value is created along two distinct axes: Institutional versus
personal, and tangible versus intangible. At the beginning of a relationship, the benefits
sought are usually tangible and institutional in nature. Later, personal value also becomes
important. Are the individual executives improving their skills and advancing their own
careers? Finally, intangible value becomes part of the legacy of an advisor’s work: Has
the client’s culture been strengthened? Have internal relationships improved? You have
to deliver against all of these.

10. What surprised you in researching and writing All for One?
First, as I mentioned earlier, I was struck by how Level 6 relationships are very
dependent on an overall set of organizational capabilities rather than just the skill of one
brilliant relationship manager. One client I work with, a leading marketing and sales
consulting firm, has grown at more than 20% a year over the last ten years. They now
have 1000 professionals. If you met some of their client account leaders, you would sense
they are extremely competent and knowledgeable but you would not be bowled over by
their individual “charisma.” Yet their culture is amazing in terms of the way they
collaborate to serve major clients. The second thing that surprised me is the importance
of focus. I always knew it was essential, but in case after case, I saw how major client
relationships are built on an almost evangelical zeal and intense concentration of
resources. Multi-million dollar relationships don’t become that large based only on good
work—they require zealotry, commitment, and military-style planning.

11. Is it possible to develop and train professionals to lead these large, institutional
client relationships, or do you have to simply find “naturals” with innate talent?
Some people are naturally good at building client relationships. They have strong
emotional intelligence, are good big-picture thinkers, and have a passion for serving
clients. If you dig down, however, there are three foundations of your capabilities with
clients: Talent, Skill, and Behavior. Talent is innate, and it’s hard to improve
dramatically—although recent books, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff
Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, make the case that practice is far more important than
talent. Skills can certainly be improved, and behaviors can be modified and re-learned. So
a pretty big part of the equation can be influenced. I have found that with the right
training and coaching, many relationship managers who are performing at an average
level can become very good if not excellent client leaders.

Javon Smith is a division manager-Midwest for The Saint Consulting Group, email

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