For Better or Worse: Business Relationships Built to Last

Deal or No DealHave you ever looked back on a failed business relationship and thought, “Where did it all go wrong?” Yeah, me neither. Ok, well, maybe once or twice. But more importantly, I’ve found there’s something we can do as service providers to establish a rock-solid foundation with our association counterparts from the get-go. You may be interested to learn that the answer lies in effective communication.

Following a client engagement late last year that ended with kick-ass deliverables but a sour aftertaste in my mouth, I began reflecting on what I could have done better or differently to ensure post-engagement bliss. While I have no illusion that every client relationship will spout sunshine and rainbows (you’re right, I need to lay off the Care Bears with my nieces), I’d at least like to find some balance.

Colleague Advice

As a result, I immediately reached out to a respected association consultant for some advice. (You know who you are – thank you!) The first thing she told me is: “A wise consultant friend once told me if the proposal/contracting process is painful, the engagement will be worse. Walk away.” Touché.

Some additional insights from our conversation follow:

  • Prospective clients should be open to setting aside time to meet and talk as needed; and the process to do so should be relatively easy.
  • During the initial interview phase, ask more human questions (e.g., culture, morale, teamwork and collaboration).
  • What you’re looking for is best cultural/personality fit, which is why conversations and/or meetings in the proposal phase are so important.
  • Ultimately, we’re starting to form and then build a relationship, which means the human side is critically important.
  • Respect, however, is a two-way street. As the prospective consultant, I need to be easy to reach and communicate with and be accommodating to the degree I can, and I need to treat the prospective client with respect and consideration, too.
  • From the very beginning, be sure to form a relationship with the project owner and the decision-maker.
  • Help the prospective client to prioritize projects and processes.
  • Following the initial interview phase, spend some time reflecting on the conversation:
    • How did the initial meetings go?
    • What is the chemistry like?
    • Are there unreasonable demands/timeframes/red flags?
    • How easy/difficult is it to schedule time with the primary contact?
  • Assuming the project moves forward, identify who will participate in the initial kickoff meeting at least one week in advance.
  • During the initial kickoff meeting, discuss roles, responsibilities, expectations and communication preferences.
  • Throughout the engagement, circle back to project management. Are things working? What needs to be tweaked?
  • Finally, always host a project wrap-up meeting.

Agreement Clause

Based upon this feedback, I have added the following clause to my client/contactor agreements:

A “getting started” success guide will be developed by Event Garde and disseminated to you within three (3) business days following execution of this Agreement by both parties. This document will comprise:

  • Key player names, contact information and communication preferences
  • Expectations of all key players, including frequency and mode of status updates
  • Ground rules for successful engagement

Client Section

The success guide includes a client section listing key staff contacts and subject matter experts, their contact information, their preferred communication methods and a summary of their responses to the following questions:

  • How do you generally like to communicate day-to-day (e.g., email, phone, text, in person)?
  • What is your preferred process/procedure for check-ins/progress reporting (e.g., status updates/reports, meetings)?
  • What forms/methods do you prefer to receive check-ins/progress reporting (e.g., email, report on letterhead, in person, verbally by phone)?
  • How frequently and with whom would you like check-ins/progress reporting?
  • How do you like to share documents (e.g., email, Dropbox)?
  • What file formats do you prefer (e.g., Word, PDF)?
  • What else do you need from my team to feel adequately onboarded/successful during this engagement?
  • How do you like to be prompted when there are outstanding deliverables/needs?
  • If you have any additional insights from previous consulting engagements (e.g., what worked, what didn’t and what you learned), please share them.

happy-couple-having-meal-out-horiz_rs3iszEvent Garde Section

Our Event Garde section also includes a listing of key staff contacts, their contact information, their roles/responsibilities relative to the engagement, their preferred communication methods, guidelines for scheduling meetings and the following reminder:

Just like in a restaurant, if you aren’t happy with something, please let Aaron know right away (directly) so he can fix it while it still matters. 

Hat tip to Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE for her post on Getting the Most Out of Your Consulting Partnerships and her reference to this analogy.

Ground Rules

I also like to include the following insights into the Event Garde culture as a basis for each client engagement:

Following are some ground rules my team tries to live by. Thought I’d share them to give you added perspective into our culture. Hopefully, they’ll provide a baseline from which we’ll all work, as well.

  • Work hard, play hard
  • Be respectful
  • Stay open minded/positive
  • Listen
  • Offer constructive criticism
  • Don’t micromanage
  • No one is “wrong”
  • Respond to email within 48 hours
  • Respond to phone/text the same day
  • Participate/share ideas
  • Be understanding of everyone’s schedules

  • Life happens

  • Use tech (in meetings) for emergencies only

  • Get to know the person, not just the job

  • Ask questions

  • Assume the best

The success guide then concludes with a recap of the project’s scope of work and tentative timeline.

What resources/approaches have you found most successful in building business relationships that last?

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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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