For a person in charge of client relationship; whether you are in business development, account management or a customer success role, getting clients, and most importantly retaining them happy, is truly a trick of the trade one has to master. There is no magic bullet to it, it is an art which takes time of cultivation and practice. So, now that you have embarked on that brand new role, how do you get customers, keep them, and most importantly, keep them happy?
Quick heads up: the three roles I describe above have different mission, but it is my deep belief that anyone in a company is a part of the customer relationship process and as such need to be “commercially aware”.
You have sales, you have customer services and then you have the account management, with one foot in each department. I have spent the last five years of my career acting as the liaison between my companies (currently New Bamboo, but also Novartis Pharmaceutical and Cognizant Technology Solutions in the past) and its clients (this year spanning from startups/SME to blue chips such as Red Bull Media House, Contagious, Which?, Wolff Olins, News UK and Walt Disney). It is my responsibility to enable for those clients the maximum values we can deliver as a service provider from a products and services perspective. But there is a large “sales” component to the account manager job as well. It is my duty to maintain, retain, and usually upsell to their portfolio of clients or accounts.
I personally prefer to use the word “partner” rather than “client”. Why is that? In my last blog post about “How Agile Development Saves Companies Money?” I declare: “The primary goal is to deliver a solution that succeeds in the market. Anything you do that helps you better define the problems, and validate the solutions is better. Getting faster is nice, as long as you’re getting faster at building the right product.” Keeping this in mind I believe that managing relationship with client should be based on the same principle that rules running a project: the client is part of the team and therefore is a “partner” which contribute as much as the rest of the team to the success of the product or service, products or services that we will deliver together, in partnership.
Make Your Partners Feel That They Are Part Of Your Family
This can be done by sending your partner a custom made “welcome pack” designed just for them. For instance, this can contain such items as your company profile, your mission statement, a t-shirt, an access to some of your system (backlog management: Man Eats Dog Food; TrueStory), your contact information, and even a small gift (not too expensive, though).
At New Bamboo we also invite our partners to work from our offices. This tight the relationship between them and the team of developer that are going to work on the project, it increase the quality level of communication while reducing the miss-communications, and finally my favourite reason: by elevating personal interaction you increase the team awareness of the partners brand. A partner that communicates its business passion is a property of project that will succeed. There are always 20% of our office at New Bamboo that is available for our partners to work, we have a powerful and open visitor wireless too.
The account manager act as facilitator, makes everyone as comfortable as possible to enable communication behaviour that ultimately deliver great collaboration.
Take the Time To Listen To the Real Needs Of Your Client
Just do not simply bombard your prospects with information about your products and services. Rather, spend the first several meetings (preferably face to face) visiting their business, and asking the right questions to really understand what their needs are. It is important to show that you are interested in, and have a stake in the welfare of their business. I personally value a lot to see my potential partners office, observe their culture, the way people interact together when you are around. Is there a dress code …
In return invite them to a “field trip”! Why not having a conversation with another team running a similar (or not) project? There is a lot of value in having your teams (developer, scrum master, designer) getting involved in a potential partner discussion. I can’t count the amount of time one of my team member raise “the question” or propose a crazy idea that onboard a partner to work with us.
Motivate and engage with your company capabilities here will help raising great client potential where originally a prospect could have just been another standard project. Make it special, raise interest early.
Always Strive to Exceed the Expectations of Your Partner
Once you have understood the true needs of your prospect, send a proposal as to how you intend to meet those needs. It is important to establish a set of mutually agreed upon goals and metrics, but even more paramount, is to make every effort to surpass those goals. If for some reason you cannot meet an expectation, then relay that immediately. Most likely, there will be understanding of the situation.
A very powerful message for your proposal is first not to try to sale in a funnel. Like I explain in one of my blog post recently (Sell In A Funnel Doesn’t Work, How To Influence This Behaviour With Minimal Effort?), it simply doesn’t work. Still it is mistake a lots of people do.
Instead think above and beyond and outside of the box, the big ideas (I do it at the beginning of my proposal), when the product is live and running, what from experience your partner will need to be ready for?
Example: Content management system, wikis and internal tools suffer from “rot” over time, where information becomes gradually out of date and less useful. It might be interesting to have an admin interface that shows the age of each entry (perhaps visually, like a heat map) – ideally with a way to quickly review them for relevance and accurate metadata.
Another one: Once the product progresses from a search & reporting tool to a collaboration tool, it might be useful to make it real- time. Using something like Pusher to implement this quickly. This would only work if there are teams working in similar areas simultaneously (and time-zones might be an issue here), but seeing others doing things in real-time adds energy to the process, and it might spark serendipitous “water-cooler” style conversations among remote teams.
Follow Through On The Commitment Which You Have Made
For example, if your partner has requested a product from you, and you have promised a certain progress, make sure it gets delivered as you suggested. Nothing irritates a client more than a broken promise. This can lead to very serious trust issues down the road.
Managing expectations is probably the hardest part the account management role. Not only because it involve your partners, but also because it mean managing the expectations of the teams you collaborate with. It means managing relationship in ambiguity (as somehow you need to be able to commit without committing), keeping a message aligned (while you know what you discussed, the rest of your company need to know) and ensure you got to know what your don’t know.
As explained earlier, the role is sitting between sales, customer services and customer delivery. Working for Cognizant was making my life very easy for the question that come at least once in the life of an account manager or business development manager: “can you do this?”. Yes we can, there is absolutely no doubt, there was no technology, methodology or processes the company was not having skills onboard or could scale in a very short time. You can’t be an expert about everything! Who knows how to approach this problem? When we can we start and where? Who can deliver the best value to the partner … are another set of questions. Having a solid network of “go to person” is paramount, especially in dispersed and matrix-oriented environment.
Always-Return Communications Promptly
Apart from broken promises, partners also get very upset when you do not return their phone calls, or e-mail messages in a timely manner. Obviously, you cannot be by your phone or computer 24 X 7 X 365, but it is always a good business practice to return that phone call or e-mail message in the same business day in which it was placed. Promptly returning their messages shows not only that you care, but you also highly value their time. Also, return the communication back in the way the client prefers.
If you cannot respond because you do not have the answer, say it, and explains positively that you acknowledge their message and will now dedicate time to collect information in order to provide them with the best feedback.
It is quite a skill to differentiate an emergency from an urgent or important question. An experienced relationship manager will carefully assess these levels of communication (requiring different tone of voice and approach) and differentiate the need to compromise, re-iterate a position or facilitate a necessary outcome. Again it all goes by “managing expectations”.
If you commit to give a call, do it. Building trust with any partner require time and commitment apply the following rules to yourself:
- Being reliable, do what you say, honor all your promises and do not belittle the promises.
- Being honest, tell the truth, if you do omit fact: admit it and be true to yourself.
- Being open, volunteer information and do not ignore important details. Feel free to express you expect reciprocity with openness.
- Keeping confidences, keep confidential information imparted to you.
- Show integrity, by displaying loyalty and competence, show strong moral ethic, be neutral when placed in difficult predicaments, aim to be objective and show fairness and finally d o not display double standards.
Never Send A Surprise Invoice To Your Partner
Just as much as you are working hard to earn your partner’s trust and respect, it is important that they pay you promptly for your products and services that you provide to them. Always be upfront about costs and prices, and what your terms of payment are. If there are any unforeseen costs, relay that information quickly and prior changing any plans. Worst yet, never send an unexpected invoice. This will only hurt your business more, after your personal commitment as relationship management the second most valuable trait of your company is your reputation.
Improving your reputation goes from managing commercial expectations and general expectations to contribute to the social and economic development of your community. Remember a business’s reputation often dictates its sales. A bad reputation leads to a lack of willingness on the part of the partner to purchase a product or service from the business. You do not need to close your business and start a new one to rebuild your reputation; confronting the problem that has led to your company’s poor reputation will result in people returning to your business. As long as you are prepared to make changes to the way your business operates, a positive reputation will follow.
Show Your Partner That You Appreciate Their Business
You don’t have to break your budget in order to show your partner that you value them. Some company are taking them out to lunch or dinner, or even taking them golfing… I personally value again activities or gesture that long term will strengthen the relationship. Recently I have started a nice case study with one of my partner in the objective that demonstrate how we helped to deliver their first Agile project while improving their platform sales figure by 121% in nine months while saving 80% time in compiling newsletters! This is a good example that demonstrates we can do more together than product development. True partnership.
Running a retrospective (part of the Agile methodology) is another great way to greatly show your appreciation by giving your partner a voice. Retrospectives are not easy. They take time, they take commitment, and they take courage. As retrospectives are a key part of a Scrum team’s inspect-and-adapt cycle having partners demonstrate openness, empathy and interest to progress: together as a team. Again for this meeting I believe the account management should be represented. Its function is to take care of the partner lifecycle with your company, attend at a major event of the partner life is essential. Retrospective are not just a due-diligence.
In conclusion, even if I do not pretend the list exhaustive, by following these guidelines, you and your partners can collaborate more efficiently with one another. It should reduce the stress of your teams and stop partners from making unreasonable demands which could lead to toxic business relationship. It should also minimize miscommunication and provide a better client experience in general. This often means a positive reputation within your industry and repeat opportunities.
One last point, success does not come easy, skills, resilience and experience lead to better account management result.