Communication! It always comes back down to communication, doesn't it? Communication is at the heart of healthy client relationships for a reason: it involves skills--skills that require years to develop--and emotional labour. Emotional labour demands that you are 100% committed to the client and the topic at hand, building genuine trust through empathy and kindness.
It's a human tendency to try to reduce business down to numbers and cold hard mechanics, but it's an exercise in futility: the result is always a far stretch from the truth of business. Good business requires good relationships, which is a human art. Confidence, trust, bravery to progress through the economy--these things support good client relationships. They take time and patience to develop. Here are five key areas to focus on to improve your client and vendor relationships.
1. Ask more questions
If you don't know something about your project, chances are, you should. Seemingly trivial details can make or break a project--despite how often they're overlooked. Don't be afraid of asking questions, especially those that involve the thoughts and thought process of your client. If a client is hesitant about proceeding with a certain design or layout, for instance, there might be a very good reason for it--perhaps a competitor has a very similar style and you're unaware of it. Or perhaps there are more subjective reasons at work. Either way, the more a client is able to give feedback on a project, the easier progress will be to make. Plus, there's nothing more difficult than troubleshooting in the dark, so don't be afraid to ask to client where the lightswitch is.
2. Be willing to make a decision
Making decisions means that you're assuming responsibility for the outcome, at least to some degree. And this can be scary waters to tread, so we tend to shy away from it. Don't. You need to be willing to say yes and no. If an element would compromise the integrity of the project, saying "No, this isn't possible for these reasons" might ultimately save the project. Likewise, be willing to give a little, go a little further. This doesn't mean that you should work completely out of scope, but being understanding of issues and being willing to stay a little later will go a long way.
3. Write clear, understandable contracts
They say ambiguity in a contract favours the party that didn't draft it--and it's true. Not only should your contract be clear, it's imperative that your client understands it. There should be clear boundaries of the work that will be provided, how it will be provided, and a clear way to measure success. In part, this helps to manage expectations. But its true value is in preventing issues that may arise midway through the project, issues that can derail multiple departments and cost both companies time and energy. And of course, good business (and the relationships it is founded on) depends on transparency. When each party understands their roles and requirements, your relationship is off to a good start.
4. Look to solve problems
If you can solve a problem, no matter how small or unexpected, it will make the client's life simpler. And the more problems you can solve, the more grateful a client will be. With a perspective unique to the client--and outside, (hopefully) objective view--we're often in the position to see (and solve) a problem differently than a client. Focus on solving problems for good--not just the duration of your project or contract--and you'll be invaluable.
5. Keep working at it
Building healthy client relationships isn't just part of the job--it's most of the job. In a B2B world, working with clients to solve problems and provide solutions depends on a project culture than can overcome bumps in the road. That requires you to make an effort each time you communicate with your clients. And the result is that your relationship is indispensable year after year.
Next time you approach your client, think clearly about your goals in the meeting and focus on communication. Ask, decide, explain, consider, solve, have patience. And remember, your client relationships are the heart of your business.