Friday, February 5, 2016

The trouble with relationships

Communication is the key but don’t oversell or have high expectations

“I would label the consumer of 2025 in three ways: more demanding, wiser and more worried.” — Mike Clasper, former President of Procter and Gamble 

Although, I wear multiple hats  in both professional and personal life let me just focus on two - that of a voluntary counsellor where I (try) to help people in emotional distress and two as the head of a service organisation that has been handling clients in communication for nearly three decades. In marriage counselling for instance, I find one striking thing about today’s youngsters who have troubled marital relationships. Their expectations from each other are way too high making staying together very difficult unlike my parents who lived together for a small matter of 67 years!  The thought of leaving each other never occurred to them despite their differences. Moving on to the professional side, the situation seems to be not too much better. My immediate response is, instead of moaning and whining about clients which seems more pronounced after two drinks, let’s focus on what is controllable by us and that is about managing expectations. Managing clients or relationships is all about managing expectations. The trouble is many of us don’t provide enough thought or attention to this vital aspect of customer service and end up either jeopardising or losing the relationship altogether.

Start right
In cricket and in relationships it is critical to start out on the right foot. There is an important point to be noted though. Getting new business is heady and we can bask in the glory for some time but if you have got the business by over promising, you are already landing on a pitch that is seaming and swinging. Understandably you don’t have my sympathy. Having said that I do realise that while “under promise and over deliver” is a great philosophy it may not necessarily result in new business. Why would the client want to shift the business to you unless you promise more? In our anxiety to acquire new business are we biting off more than we can chew? Are we putting our delivery teams under pressure that may cause tension, strife and heartburn? In Public Relations which accounts for most of our business we have another variable, the media. I put in the best efforts, organise the interview with great difficulty and yet nothing may happen either because the client did not say anything unique or differentiated or the news itself was not newsworthy. So what’s the bottom-line? Dangle the carrot and package your offering smartly but be clear about your deliverables as this is the biggest challenge and the clearer and more explicit your documentation is, the better for all concerned.

How are we doing?
In ongoing relationships maintenance is more important than excitement though that certainly helps. We have an adage in advertising that says you win a business on creative but lose it on poor client servicing. So what constitutes good client management? Service can be boring but it is relentless and an unfailing adherence to process. In our business it is about documenting discussions correctly by minutes of meeting, status reports, monthly reports, and the gamut which demonstrates that we have a plan and are adhering to it. Often clients don’t do what they have to do and finally the problem lands on the service provider because it is easy to say that she has not delivered.
Sadly clients tend to be very touchy if you even suggest that the fault lies with them. So the service provider has to walk the rope delicately, escalate prudently and get his way. Is it difficult? Yes it is. Is it possible? Most certainly and the smarter relationship managers do it.

Relationships in crisis
On occasion things go wrong, badly wrong and yet it can be salvaged. It’s important to hear the customer out completely instead of jumping to the team’s defence, you will get your chance later. Own up, apologise and set plans in place to ensure that mistakes are not repeated or you may lose the relationship. Let senior management closely monitor the account till things are on even keel. When things are on even keel and the client calmer explain your point of view. Like in marriages there will be good times and bad and successful marriages outlast the tough times.

Work on your relationship
While I have been talking about things as boring as process the crux to great relationships is friendship and mutual respect. Relationships take time to build and you must invest in them. It means remembering simple things like birthdays and anniversaries, spending time at a personal level and maybe even attending their children’s weddings. Remember other things being equal people will buy from friends and some of my best clients have been friends for years. So work on your personal relationship with your clients and watch your professional relationships and profits soar. It’s not easy but it can be done. Maybe you will get ulcers or even lose your hair in the bargain like me but what the hell you have only one life!

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