Here’s a scenario: You landed or have been assigned to a new project with new clients. The work has just started, in more ways than one. In addition to making sure the project stays on course, on budget, and meets the expectations of many (usually conflicting) stakeholders, you should keep another important consideration in mind: How will you build strong, lasting relationships with this new client group?
While being proactive about establishing a solid foundation with new clients may not be top of mind during the project kickoff scramble, the benefits to be reaped can be tremendous. I’ve had the pleasure of being involved with a very wide variety of client projects in my career, and from interior design to building websites, from product development to operational consulting, I’ve found that some key tactics of client relationship building apply to almost any business. Carving out successful relationships is an ongoing process, but practice makes perfect.
Bring All Levels to the Table
In a traditional project kickoff, the clients at the table are typically high-level leaders. This is often when the leadership can meld minds and show its commitment to making great things happen. While these people may be the decision makers, they often are not the doers, which means that there are empty seats to be filled. I’ve learned that an approach of extreme inclusion – from looping in the wider team to empowering new people for leadership roles – results in not only better projects, but much stronger client relationships. Whether it’s a junior coordinator or a mid-level designer, bringing all levels to the table enables all parties involved to have an opportunity to develop strong ownership of the project. In turn, these embedded advocates will fight for your ideas internally, because they will feel like they have a stake in the project, too. This type of inclusion builds true collaboration rather than leading to friction and negotiation. My favorite example of this occurred during the creation of a luxury real estate marketing campaign. The client leadership knew that it wanted their web presence to match its upscale offering, but budget limitations threatened many of the key designs that would make the site successful. In the end, it was the leasing agents – not the owners – who fought to keep many of the more unique pieces of the work. These same agents have also become our champions, coming to us for further work and as well as introducing us to new potential clients.
Hold Informal Work Sessions
Throughout your project, it’s important to include all players in ongoing communication, whether it’s during a working session or by sharing rough drafts. In lieu of formal presentations, informal work sessions are an ideal opportunity to make clients feel like partners. By extending this professional courtesy and offering a high level of service to everyone, you gain more allies and thus, maintain the integrity of your project.
During many of our interior design or architectural projects, we turn the presentation format on its head. Instead of a slick presentation, we pin up working materials and plans and come with tracing paper and markers ready for active design exercises with the client. These sessions are an extension of the principle of inclusion – making the client a literal active partner during these sessions leads to a greater sense of ownership and a deeper relationship over time.
Remember That Great Relationships Aren’t Transactional
After hours of collaboration, emails, and meetings, your project is finally coming to a close. You’ve interacted with your clients within a project vacuum, and now is the time to shift the nature of your relationship from transactional (the project at hand) to something more long term and meaningful. Take this time to groom the relationships you’ve established and actively stay in touch with the many talented people you now know. The project manager may rise to take a leadership role or an executive may join another company, giving you an opportunity for future work if you have established strong relationships.
This post-project phase might include catching up over coffee in a few weeks, inviting them to a work event, or adding their emails to your monthly newsletter so they know what you’re up to. Many of my personal friends were once part of client teams or worked for vendors, and those experiences were the basis of a lasting relationship. We all have friends who call only when they want something—they treat the relationship like a transactional commitment. The friends and colleagues who seek to be of service are those who build real loyalty and they are the ones who become your long-term partners and best advocates.
Laying the groundwork for client relations requires mindful practice, but it sharpens your skill set, sets you up for the future, and establishes your professional reputation. By approaching client relationships with a strategy of inclusion, joint and collaborative interaction, and ongoing friendship and advocacy, you build the kind of strong business network that leads to continued success.
This article originally was published on SharpHeels.
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