Having been involved in managing groups which provided services – thought leadership as well as tangible projects – to companies <albeit the “advanced” adjective could be debated> I have been involved in many discussions on what it takes to have a healthy partnership relationship and how to effectively guide teams as a leader.
Ok. I admit. I cannot remember where and when I was involved in this list of “things” we discussed with regard to leadership in a business relationship therefore if I am failing to give someone due credit please accept my apologies.
While this list was developed with advertising/marketing relationships in mind I would suggest that there are some valid points for any type of business relationship within.
All that said … here you go. 10 thoughts on how to build and maintain a business supplier/provider and client/company relationship along the lines of an effective partnership:
- Multiple agendas.
When meeting with companies and leadership always develop several agenda items. Beyond the stated agenda, always develop other “hidden” agenda items, such as:
- Meet someone you haven’t before met. Just tell them who you are and that you wanted to make their acquaintance. It may be the CFO, the head of Purchasing, R&D, whoever.
- Touch base with someone with whom you have not talked to recently. It may be the CEO’s assistant, it may be a junior client, etc.
- Lay seeds for a future meeting or lay seeds for an idea, e.g. “We are starting to think about your trade problem. We will be scheduling something soon to give our analysis and recommendations.”
- Schedule a breakfast, lunch, or dinner with someone whom you want to discuss an idea, or get to know better, etc.
- Drop off a relevant article or some competitive tidbit.
- Introduce someone in your team to someone they have not met before, especially junior people.
- Assess & feel the vibe.
Whenever you enter a company’s building or office you get a vibe. That vibe could be excitement, anxiety, tension, or any other feeling. Feel it and find out its origin. The answer could provide an early warning signal or it could represent some unexpected opportunity. Trust your feeling. This vibe often speaks louder than any words a direct contact you may have will actually verbalize to you.
Oh. Word of caution. Paranoia is not one of the ‘vibe’ words I used. Paranoia blinds you from the real vibe as well as it can create perception of an unreal vibe. Anyway. Paranoia has no place in leadership.
- Proactive thinking.
Enforce the regularity of putting initiatives in front of a client contact until it is burned into the souls of your people. This has a twofold benefit: (1) it constantly places you in some other ‘mental space’ than ‘order taker’ and (2) this may be the single best tactic for holding onto clients.
The ideas don’t all have to be large ideas which are expensive. The key is regularity. It is nice to tie rewards, and punishments, to this activity.
- Check in.
You should periodically schedule a check-in meeting with the senior company contact. And it should be a peer-to-peer meeting. I like the meeting to be held over dinner <or food>. There is typically no rush to get anywhere, the mood tends to be relaxed contributing to a more informal, even revealing conversation. I recommend that the subject of “How are we doing and what more can we do for you?” be raised over dessert and coffee. By then, you will have a real good gauge of the mood and know how to get into the subject. Of course, the subject could come up naturally, in which case you just go with it.
- Think long-term.
Always think long term <even on immediate short term projects & needs>. The senior leader must be mindful of how every action you make will affect the long-term relationship. For example, in the advertising world if the agency does not stand up for the creative, the agency is ultimately conditioning their client regarding creative (the client can dicate creative to the agency) Similarly, if the agency stands up for the creative, even the small stuff, the client gets conditioned that the agency stands up for its creative.
Another example is if a client asks the agency to forego profit on a job so “we can bring it in under my budget,” recognize that doing so tells the client that you will cave on price/profit in the future. Do not ever do it <ever>.
- Fold your tent.
Sometimes, hopefully not often, your antennae tell you that the conditions are just not right to present whatever it is you want to present. Any number of reasons could create that vibe. Unexpected bad business results, an extraordinary calamity with an employee, total pre-occupation with some other major activity <like a buy-out, a merger, a huge board meeting>. Your instincts tell you the thinking or work will not get a fair hearing.
Do not present it.
Just be real honest, “Look, with so much going on around here right now, this is not a good time to do this. Let’s re-schedule.”
You are protecting your thinking.
This may be one of the most difficult things to teach let alone do. Think of it as taking a step backwards to move forward.
- Replace yourself <or planned obsolescence>.
Not only is it your obligation for the protection of your own company, but it provides you with a mechanism to get promoted and, maybe most importantly, to become better at your own job. The people may not be ready today, but you must keep it in your mind that either someone on staff is that person, or you must find someone outside. This recognition helps you in your development plans with your key employees. What does he/she need in order to be ready to replace me? Employees get highly motivated by the attention to their careers that this approach represents. Great companies do it with their own products & services. They call it planned obsolescence. As soon as they build something they envision a time they can make it obsolete with something else. Sound silly? Nope. Because if they don’t someone else will.
- People Development.
There is always a lot of talk about Performance Evaluations. That is fine but it is … well … what it is. Inevitably I find that the evaluation top performers most value relates to development (“what should I be working on in order to grow?”).
I recommend one central idea be shared with an employee. Otherwise, they will lose track and not focus on changing specific behavior. If you can say it in a sentence, that is good. If you can use a few words, even better. If you can say it in a word, then you have a real chance for the employee to really spend time to improve that behavior. Here are some development ideas:
-“Thank you. I’m sorry.”
- Terminating employees.
This is as difficult and as simple as it should be.
Difficult because no one truly likes to do it.
Simple because you just do to others what you would want done to you.
Of course, you must have created documentation with regard to performance issues and conversations with the employee prior to acting. But … some general ‘rules of the road’:
-Tell them in person.
-Be direct, brief, and clear … upfront.
“<name>, I am going to terminate you, effective immediately.”
If this sounds harsh, consider how agonizing it would be for the employee to hear a speech when they know what’s coming.
-Keep it short. Provide details of the separation agreement, logistics about vacating office, turning in keys, etc. Do not provide reasons. Do not respond to comments made by the employee. Say nothing.
-Wish them good luck.
- Terminating clients.
This is also never a pleasant task (unless they are really monsters) but it must be done in a manner that reflects class and professionalism (even if they are monsters).
-Put it in writing. Be direct and to the point.
“Pursuant to our contract, we are terminating our relationship, effective immediately.” Whether you want to provide reasons is up to you. But keep them on a high professional level, e.g. “creative differences, change in direction …”
Always assure the client that your agency will continue to provide service in the same manner as always for the duration of the phase-out period. Add that you would be happy to assist in any way possible to help them find another service provider. Assure the client that the turnover of materials and any briefings the client deems necessary for us to conduct with the new company partner will be handled in the highest professional manner.
And wish them good luck.
-If at all possible, deliver the written document in person. It provides a classy way to bring a relationship to an end, even if it’s uncomfortable. Like with the written letter, make the official communication brief, clear, and to the point. Then more informal conversation can take place. Ask the client to call you directly if anything in the changeover process does not go in the way the client requires and you will deal with it personally and immediately.
-Make sure your team goes above and beyond to comply with the client’s wishes in making the changeover.
-And make sure that your team provides an even higher level of service than has even been done before.
-However, also make sure that you are briefed on any new projects that are assigned so you can decide how or if your company will handle them. And make doubly sure that the agency is not vulnerable in any way financially during the wind-down/phase-out process. If you have to withhold work while you wait to be paid, do it.
I am sure we could develop a 20 things to do list or some other number derivative but suffice it to say these are probably the basics. Not all relationships can be partnerships nor should they all be. But in all cases I would suggest there has to be some aspect of respect. Without it it becomes … well … demeaning. Or subservient. Or whatever semi-negative word you would like to use. And if that happens I can guarantee pretty much one thing … the relationship will end sooner rather than later.
No one wants to be subservient in the long term even if you are making money. And it will show <even if you put your ‘happy face’ on>.
No epiphanies in this post. Just sharing some basics.