Nine warning signs that your customer relationship is unhealthy

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By Olivier Jacob and Andrew Sobel

A CEO I was working with noticed that year after year they were doing less and less business with a major client. The partner in charge of the relationship, however, confidently insisted that everything was fine and that they were on excellent terms with the client.

So the CEO visited the client and met with his CEO to review the relationship. Was the CEO satisfied with the quality of the work? Absolutely. Had they met the CEO's business needs? Yes. Did they have high quality team members involved? Yes. But... When my client asked about the partner managing the relationship, the CEO stopped. Finally, he shared that the relationship partner was the wrong person to lead the relationship. Although technically competent, the CEO described him as complacent and not in sync with their new strategy and culture. In addition, his inability to listen had seriously impacted their senior leadership.

Customers rarely sit you down to share their dissatisfaction with your relationship. More often than not, they simply vote with their feet and slowly hand over your business to competitors. Or, one day, you find out that they are making offers to other companies to do your work. In my client's case, they were lucky to have discovered the problem in time.

Within six months of installing a new partner to manage the account, the negative revenue trend reversed.

Here are nine warning signs that your relationship may be in trouble:

1. You seem to be the last to know about your client's new strategies and initiatives. In a healthy relationship, your client should share their priorities and plans with you early on, even consulting with you when they are in the early stages of planning. If you learn about them at the same time as everyone else, it could indicate that your relevance is waning and that there is not a deep level of trust.

2. Your revenue from the client decreases. There may be many reasons, unrelated to the quality of your relationship, why this happens - for example, the client may have a serious financial crisis, or the previous year there may have been an unusually high demand for your services (e.g., due to a major transaction). However, relationships tend to go up and down - they rarely stay the same. If your income is steadily declining, it should be an eye-opener to take a very close look at the relationship.

3. Your client is watching you. If your client is watching your every move, insisting on frequent check-ins on your work, and allowing you little autonomy, there is a lack of trust. Without deep confidence in yourself and your ability to deliver your work, you will have a hard time developing the relationship and building a broader network with leaders, which is essential to growing a client account.

4. You start seeing your competitors more often. When you start to learn, by accident, that your client is using your competitors for new projects, it could be a sign that your influence and awareness is waning. The same is true if new competitors that you've never seen before with this client start to appear.

5. The account executive or manager constantly says that everything is fine and never asks for help. If this is the message being sold to you, caveat emptor! First of all, things never go well in a customer relationship. And second, an account executive can almost always use help: subject matter expert colleagues, investment resources, training, ideas on new ways to add value to the relationship, etc.

6. Your relationship depends heavily on the whole. It's great to have a trusted advisor relationship with a key leader. But without a broader set of relationships within the client's organization, if that person leaves or changes roles and needs your services longer, you may be sunk.

7. You have no trusted relationship with a consultant - no one at the client seems to really want to have a relationship with you. If you don't have strong relationships with individual leaders at a client, you will always be a vendor who can be fired at any time. And, you will often be asked to participate in fierce bidding for each new job.

8. The relationship consistently consumes more time and resources than expected. If the relationship is always tilted in the customer's favor and you find that you keep giving and giving, never reaping enough financial rewards (e.g., your profitability and total profit are low), then something is wrong.

9. You are unhappy and frustrated with the relationship. If you are not happy in the relationship, it is difficult to give it your all and be enthusiastic about serving the client. This does not necessarily mean that the relationship is about to fall apart, but it will eventually happen if your own attitude and feelings do not change. You need to analyze why you are not satisfied and what problems need to be solved.

In some cases, there may be offsetting factors that mitigate some of these negative indicators. For example, if the client is an industry leader and working for them provides other important benefits. Nevertheless, if two or three of these factors are present, it is time to investigate more seriously. 

About the authors

Andrew Sobel is the leading authority on the strategies and skills needed to develop clients for life. He is the world's most published author on the subject, having written eight best-selling books on customer relationships, including the international bestsellers Customers for Life and Power Matters. More than 100 leading firms, such as PwC, Citibank, UBS, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cognizant, Deloitte and many others have used his book Clients for Life to develop trusted advisor skills and increase their clients' revenues.

Olivier Jacob has decades of expertise as a coach, trainer, and conference facilitator on the topics of management and sales. Author of the book "Make your business grow" and passionate about personal effectiveness, strategy, sales, commitment and new technologies, he created Inéa Conseil in 2008 to help companies sell more and better, and managers better mobilize their employees.

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Price kindle format: 9,99€
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Number of pages: 188
Author: Olivier Jacob
Preface: Bertrand Dumazy