According to the song, ‘Money makes the world go round’ but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Relationships are a far stronger currency, certainly in order to get things done and achieve success in the workplace. This is especially the case if you manage relationships with clients (those receiving a highly specialised professional service, e.g. marketing) or customers (those paying for goods or services, e.g. one-off recruitment campaign).
Lots of the executives I work with have internal clients and customers, i.e. people who work in the same organisation. And the mistake I often see made is for those relationships to be taken for granted. After all, it’s not like your ‘client’ or ‘customer’ can vote with their feet.
And yet, are you missing a trick? In my experience, organisational projects and programmes can live or die by the quality of the relationships the person delivering the service has with their clients or customers.
Here are my five tips to help you build and maintain great relationships with your clients and customers:
1. Be careful that you don’t let hierarchy get in the way of clear and honest communication
There can sometimes be a bit of a weird servant-master thing going on in the relationship between the person delivering a service (you) and the person receiving (your client or customer). This can mean important things remain unsaid for fear of upsetting the client. This could cause problems later on down the line, at a critical point in a project or service.
A study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that a key barrier to good communication between nurses and doctors was that the hospital hierarchy puts nurses at a power disadvantage. Many were afraid to speak the truth to doctors. The researchers recorded what went on in operating theatres during surgical procedures. They found that nurses didn’t directly request what they wanted or clearly express their needs. They communicated indirectly, which confused doctors, who then ignored the nurses’ requests and moved on to the next item rather than ask for clarification. The study also found that because doctors and nurses approach patient care from vastly different angles, achieving understanding isn’t easy.
2. Work together to set realistic expectations, particularly where deadlines are uncertain
In a study published in the European Journal of Operational Research, researchers found that embracing uncertainty around project deadlines could lead to greater success. In a series of experiments testing a project team’s technique, taking a more flexible approach improved the success rate of projects by up to 40 percent. The key factor that helped was the relationship with stakeholders, helping them see deadlines as an active, manageable variable – rather than fixed in stone.
3. Don’t underestimate the power of connecting over food and drink
If you keep your interactions to stuffy, meeting rooms, you might want to rethink, particularly if you’re having to negotiate. A recent study by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach found that when people in a business negotiation shared a meal, particularly a communal one where plates were shared, they collaborated better and reached deals faster.
And if the idea of meeting with your client or customer over lunch or dinner is not to your liking, how about just meeting over a coffee? A 2008 study by Lawrence E Williams and John A Bargh found that experiencing physical warmth, such as through holding a hot drink, can promote interpersonal warmth (i.e. we’re perceived as more generous, caring, friendly).
4. Be like Goldilocks when it comes to assertiveness – not too much, not too little
A 2007 study from Columbia University asked over 200 MBA students to rate their boss’s assertiveness. The researchers found that managers who were seen as too assertive damaged relationships with superiors, peers and followers; but conversely managers who were not deemed assertive enough didn’t press people to achieve sufficiently tough goals. Moderately assertive bosses were rated as most effective overall.
And if you’re a woman then you need to be extra careful. Karen S Lyness and Angela R Grotto found people are less likely to tolerate high confidence in women than they are in men. This means a lose-lose situation for women. As women are often seen as less confident than men but we believe confidence is key to effective leadership, we demand extra displays of confidence in women to consider them successful. However, when a woman does seem as confident as, or more confident than, men, we write her off because her high levels of confidence and assertion don’t quite fit our gender stereotypes.
5. Be proactive in asking for feedback
If the previous tip left you scratching your head because you’re unsure how assertive you come across as, then why not ask? Here are some questions you could ask:
- What is one thing that I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do?
- What is one thing that I don’t do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?
- What can I do to help you even more?
Try and get into the habit of asking this at regular intervals. It could be once a quarter, or every six months, or once a year – depending on the nature of the relationship with your client.
Ultimately, for a working relationship to be of any decent kind of quality requires you to put consistent effort in. Some days will seem easier than others but my tips will go someway to helping you.
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