The Doctor is in

Features - Workplace Management Series

With 10 questions, business executives can check the vital signs of their client relationships.

October 8, 2012
Andrew Sobel

Most doctors firmly believe that certain types of regular screening tests and checkups are essential and help save lives. Most of us, no matter how much we despise devoting an hour or more to getting poked and prodded, dutifully go for an annual checkup. After all, our health is vital to our overall wellbeing and happiness.

Andrew Sobel, an expert on the topic of client loyalty and building trusted business relationships, says annual checkups can play a vital role in your professional health as well, especially with regard to client and customer relationships, which are the lifeblood of every business.

“In fact, you should absolutely review the ‘health’ of your client relationships on a regular basis,” says Sobel, co-author along with Jerold Panas of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business and Influence Others.

“All business interactions are human interactions,” he says. “And part of being human is acknowledging you don’t know everything about everything—and you certainly don’t know everything about the other person’s needs. Questions help you understand these things more deeply, and they’re an essential tool when assessing the health of client relationships.”

Gauging the Temperature
When client relationship checkups aren’t performed regularly, the relationships can take unexpected turns. Sobel tells the story of a client, a Fortune 100 company with a long relationship with IBM.

“IBM’s then-CEO Sam Palmisano decided to visit my client’s CEO,” Sobel says. “A week ahead of the visit, my client’s relationship manager for IBM called his counterpart to discuss the upcoming CEO summit between their companies. Apparently he did not get a return phone call during that week! The story goes that when Palmisano met with their CEO, he opened by saying, ‘My people tell me we have an “A” relationship with your organization.’ My client’s CEO responded, ‘Well, my team tells me your relationship with us is a “C.”’

Fortunately, this was a wakeup call for the IBM team to dramatically improve the relationship with Sobel’s client. Within a year, his client told him, the relationship was indeed an “A,” and today the company views IBM as a key trusted partner in operating its business.

“As this story illustrates, even well-managed firms can dramatically misread the health of a key client relationship,” says Soble. “The successful firms I work with all have some type of process in place to determine the health and strength of their most important client relationships.”

Aaking Key Questions
As the IBM anecdote shows, client health “screenings” are necessary. Here are 10 questions your company should consider when gauging the health of your client relationships:

1. Do you have access? If there were such a figure as a “client relationship doctor,” Lloyds Banking Group Chairman Sir Winfried Bischoff would be the archetype. The former Schroders CEO and Citigroup chairman has guided hundreds of CEOs through “bet-the-company” transactions and deals. Last year, Sobel asked Bischoff, “How do you know when a relationship is not going well?” His first response was, “If it’s taking a very long time to set up a meeting, that’s usually a bad sign!”

“Can you actually get in to see important executives in your client’s organization?” Sobel asks. “Some leaders are notoriously busy, and it does take time to get on their schedule. But if you don’t have access, you may not be considered relevant! If you think you have a good relationship, but the client says, ‘There’s nothing going on. It doesn’t make sense to meet,’ that’s still a bad sign. It means they don’t really value your ongoing insight and perspective.”

2. Do you and your client trust each other to do things without extensive documentation, checks and controls? Trust is the essential foundation of every long-term relationship. It’s the feeling that the other person will come through for you. It’s the belief that he or she will meet your expectations. It’s the confidence that he or she will demonstrate integrity, deliver competently and focus on your agenda, not theirs. “When trust is present, you don’t need to constantly check up on the other person,” Sobel says. “You don’t need to put in place endless controls and systems to monitor results. If your client is micromanaging you then they may not trust you and you need to find out why.”

3. Does your client openly share information with you? In a healthy, trusting relationship, there is transparency. Does your client give you access to plans and proposals and freely share information with you, within the constraints of confidentiality? “When you’re a vendor, you get very limited access to information—it’s on a ‘need to know,’ restricted basis,” Sobel says. “When you’re a trusted advisor, your client treats you as part of the inner circle.”

4. Does your client confide in you and bounce ideas and decisions off you? Does your client ever call you up to run a new idea or potential proposal by you for your opinion? Or do they make important decisions and then call you afterward? “It’s not reasonable to expect them to discuss everything with you,” Sobel says. “However, if they have an issue in your domain, and the relationship is a strong one, they will most likely draw you in before reaching final conclusions.”

5. Are you the first person the client calls when it needs something in your area of expertise? “This is an essential litmus test of a healthy relationship: loyalty,” explains Sobel. “If the client views you as interchangeable with other suppliers, then you’re a vendor, and you’ll be subjected to constant price pressure as the client continually shops around.”

6. Are you treated with respect—like an important advisor? This is hard to quantify, but you usually will know in your gut if this is the case. “I had a client who I felt didn’t value me,” says Sobel. “He asked me to help teach his senior partners how to be better trusted advisors to their clients. But ironically, he didn’t want a trusted advisor himself—he wanted an arms-length ‘expert’ who would be at his beck and call. I finished the project and moved on.”

7. Is working with this client a satisfying, rewarding experience for you and your team? Some clients are draining. They are overly demanding, they check up on your every move and they basically drive you crazy. “Sometimes, you’re also stuck with a client who is too low in the organization to really appreciate the impact you have,” Sobel says. “This is not a healthy relationship! Life is too short—If you can’t fix a situation like this quickly, you should get out and double-down on more promising clients.”

8. Is the relationship economically rewarding for you? You could have a great personal relationship with a client but for a variety of reasons be losing money on the work! “Sometimes, weak profitability is your fault—you have underestimated the scope of the work or underpriced it,” Sobel says. “But sometimes it’s a sign of a client who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

9. Are you helping to improve your client’s business? In the best relationships, you have a clear and positive impact on the client’s organization: You help the client improve its business.

“If, for whatever reason, this is not happening—it’s a warning sign,” Sobel cautions. “Are you working on peripheral issues that are not really important to the client? Are you stuck too far down in the organization? Is the client ignoring your recommendations? Is your good advice simply falling on deaf ears?”

10. Is your client referring you to friends, colleagues and other organizations that could use your expertise? Active word-of-mouth referrals, arguably, are the ultimate sign of a good relationship. “Are you getting referrals?” Sobel asks. “Would your client give them to you if asked? How enthusiastically would your client recommend you? A testimonial is one thing—it’s passive—but an active referral is a sign of a very different level of satisfaction and delight with your services!”

Getting Important Answers

“Just as you shouldn’t make assumptions about or neglect your own health, you shouldn’t do so when it comes to the health of your client relationships,” says Sobel. “Each year, go through this checklist and rate each of your relationships. Are you weak, average or strong on each of these 10 points? Better yet, ask these same questions to your client and then compare the answers. Through quality communication and thoughtful power questions, you can strengthen your client relationships and add value to them at the same time.”


This article was submitted on behalf of Andrew Sobel, author of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business and Influence Others.