Published: Apr 25, 2001 in Knowledge@Emory
The good news is that deep, lasting client relationships are within reach for all consultants and other professionals. The bad news is, there is no panacea – no fast-acting tonic – that can transform transient client relationships into a lifelong exchange. And yet, that is exactly what most professionals want – to turn existing customers into life-long clients.
The process by which a few outstanding professionals are able to make that happen is the territory that Jagdish N. Sheth and Andrew Sobel explore in their book, Clients for Life: How Great Professionals Develop Breakthrough Relationships. Sheth, who teaches marketing at Goizueta, and Sobel, a consultant who heads the professional development firm Client Leadership, point out that at the core of every lasting client relationship is an “extraordinary adviser” – one who makes him or herself indispensable to the client. But becoming indispensable is difficult in a market glutted with information. It requires becoming an extraordinary person who is hungry for knowledge, independent, selfless, empathetic, well rounded, profoundly ethical, and capable of synthesizing divergent ideas into meaningful solutions.
In today’s market, being an expert-for-hire is not enough, says Sheth. “At one point I was the expert,” he notes, “but now my students can go to a web site and learn more about a company than they can from me.” To stand out, professionals must offer more than focused knowledge. They must provide a breadth and depth of understanding that spans many fields and strive to earn their clients’ personal trust. In short, they must focus on becoming advisers rather than experts.
While the qualities of a great adviser are difficult to teach, they are easier to illustrate. Each chapter of Clients for Life profiles a historical figure who embodies the traits that Sheth and Sobel want to highlight. For example, in Thomas More’s refusal to endorse King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he displayed a “selfless independence” that Sheth and Sobel believe are essential to good advising. “[Thomas More] was completely devoted to King Henry,” they write, “yet there were some things he just wouldn’t do.” Based on interviews with clients and successful advisers such as former MediaOne CEO Chuck Lillis, the authors says that the ability to maintain emotional, professional and financial distance while supporting the client’s agenda is the first step to creating lasting relationships.
The second step is subtler, yet equally essential. It involves paying attention to a client’s hidden emotional cues as a way to develop meaningful personal and professional bonds. Sheth and Sobel call this skill “empathy,” and write that three preconditions foster the ability to exercise it: Sincere interest in others; self-awareness tempered with emotional self-control; and personal listening skills.
While the authors acknowledge that professional listening skills are important to conducting business efficiently, they point out that without the ability to “tune in on a personal level,” advisers will find it difficult to establish a lasting, collaborative relationship. “Great client advisers are superb listeners,” they write. “Their ability not only helps them gain information critical to their work, but gives their clients breathing space and allows them to think through the issues on their own.”
To improve one’s ability to empathize, Sheth and Sobel suggest placing oneself in unfamiliar situations and asking lots of questions. They also suggest traveling as a way to understand the human psyche. It is no accident, they say, that some of the world’s greatest writers have used travel to fuel their creativity.
Such commitment to exploration can contribute to another essential attribute of great advisers: “Deep generalism.” This means cultivating a deep understanding of subjects that reach far beyond one’s core expertise. To do this, one must acquire knowledge as would a student – studying the larger context of one’s work, following personal interests and engaging in undirected exploration. This can be overwhelming for professionals struggling to keep abreast of rapid changes within their own fields. “Unfortunately, just being up-to-date in your field alone is not sufficient to inspire client loyalty,” the book says.
After amassing information, professionals must be able to synthesize what they have learned in order to create value for their clients. But “big picture thinking” cannot take place without a “clear, overarching purpose,” Sheth and Sobel write. In the case of Niccolò Machiavelli, the 16th century political adviser who wrote The Prince, the overarching purpose was to achieve a unified, stable Italian state.
With the ultimate goal in mind, an adviser can begin the process of synthesis by identifying patterns, simplifying important issues and creating new ideas based on old information. The authors distinguish between synthesis and analysis as opposites that rely on each other to create meaning. Analysis is the ordered process of breaking things down and studying their pieces. Synthesis fuses these pieces in a way that is often illogical. Clients know the difference between synthesis and analysis, the book says, and they immensely value advisers who are gifted at synthesis.
But synthesizing does not the end the adviser’s job. Next he or she must counsel the client on a course of action. This requires good judgement, which can be achieved only through balance. Sheth and Sobel have observed five practices among extraordinary advisers that – when balanced – produce sound judgement: Great advisers frame problems appropriately; gather facts creatively; follow their intuition; employ a clear set of personal values; and are honest enough to learn from experience by admitting failures and not taking too much credit for successes.
Having strong personal values based on proven experience also contributes to an adviser’s conviction. Good judgement, supported by conviction, is a powerful tool for advisers, the book says.
Finally, an adviser must inspire trust to ensure lasting client relationships, Sheth and Sobel recommend. Often the casualty of profit objectives, trust is a disappearing commodity in today’s marketplace. Great advisers believe that no amount of money justifies compromising one’s integrity, and this conviction elicits their clients’ trust.
To illustrate the importance of integrity, Sheth provides a trust formula: Trust equals integrity multiplied by competence, divided by risk. “Your clients’ perception of each factor in the equation will raise or lower the trust they place in you,” he says. An adviser’s integrity also must extend beyond the professional world – to his or her personal life – to inspire clients’ trust, he adds.
After exploring some of the pitfalls to avoid in client relationships, Clients for Life ends with a look at the soul of an extraordinary professional. Based on interviews with such professionals, Sheth and Sobel write that great advisers possess certain outlooks – including an abundance mentality, a clear mission, the ability to learn from adversity, and a commitment to self-renewal – that inform every aspect of their work. “[These] are not so much personal characteristics as they are ways of looking at the world,” they write. “If you cultivate them, your ability to add value will be enhanced, and you’ll become a more appealing person to your clients – someone they will both respect and enjoy spending time with.”
Clients for Life teaches that extraordinary professionals are extraordinary people. They are students of the human condition whose personal values inform their professional conduct and whose ability to create meaning for their clients makes them indispensable.