How do you manage client relationships

Important:
The more preparation you do on client relationship questions, the better.

These really are among the toughest questions you'll ever do, in any business or profession, and you must get them absolutely right.

In a large range of industries, client relationships are more essential than anything else. Relationships can be very sensitive, and huge amounts of business and therefore money depend on them.

Dissatisfied clients can, and will, get up and leave, and take their business with them. If you're directly engaged in client relationships at any level, you have to know how to handle situations.

Questions about client relationships tend to come in groups, usually as an integrated set of questions. They can be a major component of the whole interview, so getting a grip on this subject is important.

The interviewers are looking for:

  • Knowledge,
  • Experience,
  • Competencies,
  • Examples of client relationships and how they're managed.

The questions are very useful for checking out consistency in answers, and for comparison between candidates.

Sometimes they're the only way of really making a decision about who gets a job, because the questions are based on the job.

In this case, even being competitive with other candidates is a luxury, compared with the need to get the basics right. What you don't say is likely to be a problem, so you have to put the answers together well.

Example

Take a basic situation, in a relatively low level job:

You're dealing with customers all day. You're the first point of contact for problems, technical issues, complaints, and a general fixer. You are the functional relationship with the clients. If management wants to know what's wrong, you're the one who's supposed to know, and fix it.

The relationship issue here is that you can create serious problems for your employer, the client, and a lot of possibly permanent problems for yourself, in a few seconds.

A relationship is the interaction between people. In this job, it's ongoing. You develop a familiarity. You know the person you're talking to on the other end. There is an actual relationship.

In a good relationship, the customer will come to you for guidance, advice, and as a sounding board for business ideas, probably related to your services, prices, etc.

In a bad relationship, the person on the other end can be actually hostile.

They'll complain if you sneeze on the phone. They've taken a dislike to the way you do things, and the relationship becomes a one sided minefield for you. Clients will go straight over your head, which you may need to replace, if the problems get to management level.

A good relationship is built on good results and interactions on the job.

A bad one is built on mistakes, service problems, bad communications, etc.

If you don't know what a bad client relationship can do to you and your career, don't try to find out. It's a potential disaster. All the books written on Managing Business Relationships were written for a reason.

That happens to be what you're doing, in the practical sense.

At the interview

You may not be asked directly How do you manage client relationships, although that question is asked in some jobs.

The indirect version of the question can be in several parts:

  • Problem solving
  • Client service
  • Advisory at all levels
  • Management communications
  • Supervisory roles in client service

In any job where you're involved in direct contact with clients, these are life or death questions, as far as getting the job is concerned.

Important: If you blow one of these interviews, make a point of finding out what you did wrong, from the interviewer's perspective. You may know what you did, but you need a second opinion.

The questions are similar to answering questions about how you do these things for yourself in your job, but with the extremely important added component of solving the employer's problems and the client's as well.

The issues raised by the questions, explained

With all these issues, you're now down in the depths of the major difficulties in managing the relationship with the client.

Problem solving

The client's problem is your problem. You have to act in the interests of your employer, and solve the problem for the client. That's not always easy. The client may want something you just can't do.

Client service

All employers have performance standards. If there's one area where those standards will be enforced, it's client relationships. What you do, how you do it, and why you do it are all important. The employer must know you're doing your job the way it's supposed to be done.

Advisory at all levels

This is perhaps the most sensitive of all client relationships, because advisory work often deals with future business. In a good client relationship, it's a lot easier. In a bad relationship, it can be fatal. Bad advice can totally undermine a client relationship and lose business like nothing else.

Management communications

Client relationships have a further degree of difficulty on top of the normal management communication issues. You're acting as an interpreter between the client's management and your own management. This is real responsibility, and you don't want to get any of it wrong.

Supervisory roles in client service

If you've ever supervised people doing client relations, you'll know what you're letting yourself in for. Anything can become an issue, and something always will happen where you're going into damage control mode with both your own management and the client's, while trying to sort out the mess. It's also your fault, when things go wrong, because it's your staff causing the problems.

Your reactions have to be actual reflexes. You solve problems, provide the service, advise the client, keep your own management briefed, and get the staff working on undoing the damage.

Practical example: A combination of all the issues

At the interview, these questions absolutely must get structured answers that are easy for the interviewers to understand.

Communications is the basic skill set in client relationships.

Question: One of our best clients is complaining that your staff have botched a big order worth two million dollars.We've sent it to the wrong place, and they're worried this will cost them business if they can't complete their own order. You didn't know about it, but you have to clean it up. What do you do?

Answer:

This is an extremely serious situation, one that should never occur. There are two parts to my answer. I get straight down to dealing with the client's concerns, immediately, then find out how this mess happened, to prevent future problems.

Part One

  • First I check out the situation, and get my facts straight about what needs doing.
  • I find out times, dates, and places. I locate the order, and arrange for re-shipment, getting times, dates, and costs.
  • I fully brief our management first, and if it's OK with them, I confirm arrangements and we get the order moving for the client.
  • After that consultation I brief the client on what we're doing to clear up the mess, giving details of times, dates, locations, etc.
  • I also apologize directly to the client contact for the lapse in service, and make it clear that we're doing everything we possibly can to rectify the issue.
  • I get details from the client of what they were told, by whom, and try and identify what went wrong. (This way they can also see that we're taking the matter as seriously as it deserves.)

Part Two

  • I then go to work to find out how the fiasco happened. It's not acceptable that an error like this would occur.
  • I'd find out who did what, and make a judgment call on any necessary action, including dismissal of staff, if required.
  • I report to management on the events, and if there was a procedural error, or some gap in procedures, suggest ways of preventing any future occurrences.

You can see how the answer works. This includes all the fundamentals of client relationships, on the practical level:

  • The client's immediate concerns are the big issue.
  • There's no question your staff were in error, for some reason. The important thing is to repair the damage.
  • Management is properly advised, and you do a follow up on how the problem happened. (Management will not appreciate any further surprises on this issue. You have to make sure they're fully aware of what's being done, in case they have to deal with it at their level. You also need to know if management has taken any steps or made any commitments. That's implied in the question, but not directly stated. The interviewers need to know you're keeping management fully briefed, which covers any additional management inputs.)
  • The client is briefed and reassured their concerns are getting prompt and correct attention. It's an absolutely essential step in any disaster management with clients. They must know they're getting due recognition of their problems, and what's being done.
  • The client is asked for their complaint, not forced to make one. This makes the point with the client that your employer is making a real effort to fix whatever went wrong.
  • The actual problem is given top priority, and fixed as soon as possible.

This is client relationship in its most basic form.

When asked this type of question, you must include the client's issues and problems, as well as your own management's obvious reasons for concern.

You're the one doing the actual business.

In any client relationship, if there are problems at either end, they're your problems.

They're your clients.

It is what your job's all about.

Client relationships are the essence of good business.

These skills can create a truly fantastic career, if you have the talent.

Learn everything you can about client relationships. Study the problems that you see in your industry. Invent a few theoretical rehearsals for yourself. See how you answers stack up against the points we've shown in this article.

When you know you've got it right, you're OK for the interview.