Here’s a sticky situation that many project managers have experienced: You’re managing a project that’s rife with misunderstandings and disagreements about scope and priorities. On top of that, your client seems disengaged and isn’t giving you the buy-in you needed to go forward.
This is a symptom of what I call a transactional customer relationship. This type of relationship is compliance-driven and based on tasks and transactions (i.e., exchanging messages, documents, procedures and other surface interactions).
On the other end of the spectrum is the transformational customer relationship. This type of relationship (based on trust and servant leadership) puts the customer first and has you both work towards a common goal. It also engages your customers at a personal level and leaves them with an uplifting, enriching and transformational experience. In other words, you’ve created a relationship that has changed both parties for the better.
It’s about building trust
Trust is one of the most important ingredients to creating a transformational customer relationship. Trust is a powerful force. It promotes loyalty, increases credibility and defines how individuals relate to one another. Most teams and organizations are filled with people who have specialized jobs and responsibilities – and the only way to collaborate effectively is to understand each other. This is the core of trust.
Here’s what you need to do to build a transformational client relationship right now:
- Listen. Whenever you spend time with your clients, make a point to listen and understand their views and worries before you start to talk. During my coach training, we were often told that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. That picture stuck with me. Listening is about making eye contact, asking about your clients’ feelings and opinions and then listening to what they say. When you invest time in really understanding your clients, the dynamics of the relationships change. People become more open and receptive.
- Take full ownership. A great way to build strong customer relationships is to take full ownership of the solution to your clients’ problems and to provide them with the best product or service ever. Spend time with each client and get to know the intimate details of their business and universe so that you can meet their needs in full. At the end of the day your ultimate goal should be to serve your client. Be proactive, face your client with a can-do-attitude and be committed to providing an outstanding project plan, product or service.
- Be honest. Always communicate as openly and honestly with your clients as you can. Sharing accurate and reliable information is the key to building trust and respect; it’s also the foundation of a transformational relationship. Never withhold important information even when it’s unpleasant news, such as a deadline risk, a shift in project prioritization or a delay. Instead, focus on how you can be transparent while also demonstrating that you’re on top of the situation – for instance by coming up with clear options, mitigating actions and contingency plans. When your client can rely on you to share good and bad news, and always show up with solutions, they know they can trust you.
- Ask for feedback. Asking your clients for feedback is one of the most powerful and transformational tools available to you. We sometimes shy away from asking for feedback because we’re afraid of what we’ll hear (e.g., it might challenge your processes or hold up the project). But we’re much better off knowing than not knowing – especially when you’re committed to servicing your client. So, when was the last time you asked your clients how they feel about the project and if they’re kept sufficiently informed about what is going on? Try it and see what happens!
- Keep your promises. As a project manager it’s vitally important to be the walking example of the vision and the values that you communicate to your clients. If you say one thing and do another, people will quickly question your trustworthiness. Do you always do what you say you will, or do you have a tendency to promise more than you can keep? Committing to aggressive deadlines without delivering on them is one of the biggest causes of broken trust between project managers and their clients. Don’t let this happen to you.
- Admit mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes from time to time, but what matters here is: Can you admit them, and then learn from them? Think back to the last time you made a mistake that affected your client. Did you openly admit it and correct it – with an apology, ownership and then a solution – or did you hide it? Making mistakes can be embarrassing, but covering them up can undermine trust quickly. Taking ownership of your mistakes isn’t a weakness but a strength, which shows that you have integrity and that you’re reliable and trustworthy to the end.
If you can practice these six principles to building trust, you’ll nurture your client to a deeper level of engagement and the project will reflect that kind of transformational experience we all hope to gain from our working experiences. Practice, and enjoy!