We’ve all heard the adage that you shouldn’t mix business with pleasure. This is certainly solid advice in certain contexts. But I believe there’s great value in building professionally appropriate personal relationships with clients. It’s the kind of intangible that can measurably benefit both sides in any transaction.
Making an effort to get to know clients on a human level is not just good for business; it’s good for business people. It forges stronger work relationships while making the process of doing the work more enjoyable.
Be accessible. The most important element of building client relationships is accessibility. My brother, Mike, and I have always made it clear to the people we work for that when they call, we’ll pick up. We hear from clients all the time that our availability and responsiveness is one of the things we’re known for. From that foundation of professional accessibility can grow a sense of trust – valuable in business; invaluable in human interactions.
Build communication into the routine. I make it a point to check in by phone regularly with clients – including those with whom we have active projects as well as those we haven’t worked with for years. These outreach calls might only last a few minutes and may center on things other than business. But they’re personal touch points; they remind my clients that I’m thinking of them and that I care about what’s going on in their lives (not just in their jobs).
Honor the boundaries. At VPCS, the majority of our clients work for public agencies and are bound by certain rules and regulations that limit their ability to accept gifts or favors. As such, some of our clients won’t even let us pick up the tab at lunch. But true relationship-building doesn’t require material objects; it requires time and attention.
Model this behavior. Mike and I learned this business from our father, who actually built decades-long friendships with numerous clients. He was genuinely interested in getting to know the people he worked with and for. Building relationships happens easily for Mike and me because we grew up watching how it’s done and we model those behaviors for the next generation of VPCS leaders. It’s part of the DNA of both our family and our firm.
Make connections at every level. I’ve become a fan of the Project Partnering concept that elevates problems to the next level of management and helps maintain relationships that have developed. It aligns neatly with the subject I’m talking about here because it’s built on the same premise: when people are connected on a deeper level, they tend to make a deeper effort with one another. In other words, fewer conflicts arise between professionals who share a personal rapport. The fewer the conflicts, the fewer the potential headaches, delays and risk for everyone concerned.
Get more out of your work. It’s true that positive client relationships can make projects go more smoothly. But it has the power to yield a much more important benefit: a roster of people who are part of your career and your life.
By Mark Van Pelt