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Client Relationships: A Changing Landscape

What one word is the most important when it comes to client relationships? Trust? Insight? Communication? All are valuable to have when it comes to building a strong foundation to any relationship. But, when it comes to business, what we really need to do is listen.

At the end of 2020, TML Partners co-hosted a virtual roundtable table with Introhive to discuss this very idea with leading Chief Marketing Officers. Ryan O’Sullivan, Industry Director, Professional Services at Introhive began the conversation by sharing his findings from his doctorate on client relationships underpinned by Social Capital Theory. 

There are three layers to Social Capital Theory: structural capital, relational capital, and cognitive capital. But what does this mean to the professional services industry? Structural capital focuses on type, volume and frequency of communication. How often do you talk to your clients and, when you do, is it a meaningful conversation? Relational capital: Rapport, credibility and trust. Do your clients trust you and your brand? Does your brand stand up in the market? Can you build a trusted relationship? Cognitive capital: Shared interests and common belief systems. Are you able to create common ground? Whether it’s through mutual business goals or personal interests. Can you connect to your clients?

Navigating the new normal

The shift to being online due to the pandemic has thrown up many challenges when it comes to building a successful business relationship. Face-to-face contact has always been key to relationships. People trust what they can see. But, what can we do to create impactful relationships virtually?

The roundtable discussed five main themes during the conversation; the challenges of the shift online, the importance of data and how to use it, effects on the marketing profession, how to win in the digital world and what does the future hold.

Nick Burbridge commented that “rapport is the hardest thing to replicate” when it comes to business practices being solely online. Many have found that existing relationships are able to make the shift from in-person to online easily and smoothly but it is not a given that new clients or prospects are receptive to this new way of communicating. Let’s not forget the issues that we have most likely experienced with the wifi dropping off, family members making noise or simply not having an office and pitching up in a corner of the house. 

“There are still opportunities to build rapport,” said Bill Burgess, individuals just need to find a way that suits them and their client. It could be as easy as joining a Zoom meeting a few minutes early to have that all-important small talk to put your client more at ease and to gain those valued insights. Other technologies can suit situations better than others. Leor Franks suggested Remo as it allows breakout discussions and an ability to choose who you ‘sit’ next to.

So how do you stand out in a digital world where everyone is doing the same versions of what you are doing? Bill Burges commented that “cut-through is a big challenge. We write for a world where we present in person.” Marketing teams had to pivot their 2020 strategy to meet these new challenges whilst filling skill gaps with either training or new hires.

Data as a solution

Is data a solution to these new challenges? Nick Burbrudge observed that “it’s about using data in the right way to generate a tailored conversation.” Palwinder Kaur agreed. “Good data analytics will mean you have more insight and therefore interactions are better prepared,” creating a smoother client experience from the first conversation through to closing the deal. Chantal Low noted that marketing teams “are now picking up on behavioral signals through data and informing client teams,” a shift from when sales teams held all client information through conversations. These data-powered insights are now accelerating marketing teams across all industries but especially within professional services.  

But sales teams are also evolving. Palwinder Kaur observed that sales tactics need to adapt “out with the standard deck, in with being better informed.” The same old, tired sales materials that worked face-to-face will no longer work now we have transitioned to being online. It’s about acknowledging what a prospect wants and listening to their concerns rather than just ‘presenting’. If you build a brand that is trusted, clients will trust and listen to you. David Price highlighted that data can inform marketing teams how your brand is seen by clients and can help to form a brand that is truly impactful. Nick Burbridge agreed, saying “raise the importance of brand to differentiate, and stand out through personalisation”.

Looking ahead

So what does the future look like? Dominic de Mariveles could see the argument for a lot of it being sustainable. “Finance teams will be seeing the reduced costs of sales over the past year and perhaps travel in future will not be signed off in quite the same way it was. Ultimately, if people feel they’re achieving the same thing without the face-to-face contact, why would they revert?” However, on the flip side, many people are desperate to get back to a sense of normality. Leor Franks agrees “there is a human nature element”, we are designed to interact with each other face-to-face so there will be a willingness to revert, somewhat, back to the ‘old’ normal.

Ultimately, the client relationships and interactions have changed over the last year and business have adapted to this new environment. Modern client relationships are built on the use of technologies and data insights, empowering businesses to make smart and cost-effective decisions, for both themselves and their clients. However, it does not take away from the crucial need for building rapport with your clients and listening to their needs.

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