Not sure if this is a big secret or not, but from my many years in professional services and with technology companies, I can tell you that not all customers get treated the same – regardless of how much they pay. The reason is that some customers are just great clients – they treat the vendor team with respect, they are transparent with ideas, they allow access to important data and resources, and they provide access to other people in the organization. The result is that they end up getting the best ideas, the best people wanting to work on their business, and first dibs on cool new opportunities. In short, they make it enjoyable to help them succeed – and so the entire vendor organization responds in tune.
Smart vendors spend a lot of time thinking about how to provide client service. There are discussions about values and methodologies and process and support structure. Yet, when we are on the buying side, we rarely develop concrete relationship success strategies (if you or your company institutionalizes this, then I’d love to hear about it!). I am in process now of hiring consultants for both database marketing and public affairs. Midway through, I realized we needed to discuss internally the commitment to being a great client – the epiphany serving as genesis for this column. Immediately, I started asking around for ideas.
The feedback was very consistent; first in validating that the inequity in how clients are treated is directly related to how they manage the vendor. “It’s in the relationship, stupid.” And yet, if it was so obvious and important, why don’t we all do it?
Perhaps because we assume that these relationships will succeed only because we put so much into the selection of new vendors (and vendors into the acceptance of new clients). Yet, what is missing is an ongoing method and purpose. I am calling this a “purposeful partnership methodology.”
“We need to build trust with the client, and build the relationship so that they will want to be good clients. If they trust us first, and believe earnestly that we will help them achieve a business objective, then we get the open door policy,” says Grazia Sorice Ochoa with data-driven travel media platform Sojern, and previously at Starwood Hotels and Yahoo. Her experience mix on both the client and vendor sides gives her a great perspective on this subject.
The first step of that “purposeful partnership methodology” is to put the foundations of a good relationship in place. This is not a one-time exercise, but an ongoing commitment. “We always do detailed kick-off meetings with vendors where we share our story. Not just because it’s fun and interesting, but because in some ways, even though we’re the client, we want to sell the vendor on us, too, and get them excited about the project and its potential,” says Kathy Doyle, director, Macmillan Quick & Dirty Tips network.
Grazia agrees. “The first step is to recognize that it takes two. No one will know their business like the client, but no one knows the solution like the seller, and if there is more transparency between the two, you will get a much better outcome,” she says.
To work, this has to be somewhat formal, or at least undertaken openly and with intent. “When I was at Nationwide, we started a vendor management program for all our digital marketing and marketing automation managers. We tied success to business and performance objectives and we aimed to compete a little bit internally to see who could inspire the coolest new ideas that were adopted and proven successful,” says Brian Jaffe, now an independent consultant.
Clients who take quarterly reviews or advance product briefings are usually in the lead for innovation. “Ask your partners for ideas – they love that opportunity and are hungry for input,” Grazia of Sojern says. “Part of the criteria for picking solutions providers is that they stay ahead of the curve, and stay knowledgeable about the latest trends, issues, and benchmarks. We push suppliers on this at the RFP stage, but then we don’t always make it a systematic part of the relationship to tap that perspective and knowledge.”
“So much rests on the client – to be humble, transparent, and open to ideas,” she says. This is how clients advance their own innovation cycle and even suppliers’ product development priorities. Since everything – data, knowledge, secret sauce, business goals – is so competitive today, it’s a good idea to make sure that your contract reflects these mutual commitments’ trust, transparency, and cooperation.
Brian agrees. “QBRs are something that many vendors offer, but few actually follow up on,” he says. Setting a mutual agenda is the key to good QBRs, and should be a shared effort between vendor and client, he advises.
A good client clearly articulates expectations for outcomes, deliverables, and, as needed, communication style/frequency, says David Justus, principal at Counter Currents, a digital media consultancy, and co-founder of the New York Media Collective. And, of course, he says, a good client pays bills on time.
“I take very seriously my responsibility to put the right people in the room with the vendor on an ongoing basis and to give them access to what they need to be proactive,” Kathy from Macmillan says. “Relationships are much more productive and positive when you, the client, provide the vendor with clear information about your goals and workflow – and access to the people who make stuff happen,” she says. “Put something in writing that partners can use as a resource. Don’t let things get lost in translation.”
There is no shame in sharing internal challenges with your partner network. “When a client is able to confide in me, it helps me tailor our customer support based on their strengths and restrictions,” says Colleen Kazemi, senior director, digital solutions at marketing automation provider Teradata Applications. “When I hear of something cool happening internally, the first people I think of are our clients who are open with us. They always hear about the new opportunities first.”
A bold approach may work for your business. Grazia says that one Sojern client shares weekly performance rankings among all the publishers to motivate everyone to do better the next week. “Ultimately, this competition drives better dialogue and performance,” she says. In other cases, she has worked with a vendor to develop brand new analytics models that were perfected for her business, and left the vendor with a model that can be repurposed for other customers. A win-win-win.
This transparency is not without risk, but again, if you adopt a purposeful partnership methodology, then you also take responsibility to make it work and be executed safely and securely. For example, a vendor must protect client data vigorously and vigilantly. Always. And, if the client is transparent and gives access to others in the organization, partners must respect the business owner’s position of authority. “Don’t go around me and create more drama and work for me to correct,” Grazia emphasized. Brian agreed, “I recognize you want to sell beyond the gatekeeper, but make sure I know what you are doing so that I can support and guide you,” he says. “Respect has to be shown both ways.”
The most important quality in a great partner manager is curiosity, claims Sojern’s Grazia. “Curiosity is so important in both client and vendor. In the digital space, you will quickly get behind the curve if you are not interested enough to poke around for new ideas, and to challenge your existing lead. We made vendor meetings a priority and allocated two to three hours each week for this, because it was a learning experience,” she says.
What are you doing to build a purposeful partnership methodology? What have you learned from both good and bad experiences? Please let us know in the comments section below.
Image on home page via Shutterstock.