Building Client Relationships: My Perspective
What I want to share are my experiences in attracting and retaining clients and my belief that all service professionals enrich their professional lives in many ways through building and nurturing client and business relationships.
In my 39 year career advising and representing small businesses I have had the opportunity to assist businesses of all kinds get off the ground. They have ranged from artistry, consulting, contracting, counselling, horticulture, instructional training courses, manufacturing, manufacturing representative, marketing, medical arts, physical training, real estate investing, real estate development, real estate brokerage, retail sales, software, title insurance agency and tutoring. These businesses have been both for profit and non-profit. The entrepreneurs starting them were of different genders and ethnic backgrounds, had different educational levels, financial resources and knowledge. For all their differences, the people all had at least one thing in common, a desire to succeed – a dream.
My challenge and, I believe that of every lawyer, banker, advisor, accountant, counsellor and consultant who works with entrepreneurs is to understand each client’s dream and provide my professional resources to support them. The first step for me is to actively listen to my client. Listening must be intentional, purposeful and solely focused on the client and his dream. It requires conversation, personal observation and interaction at a level that allows me to read between the lines, get the full picture, understand the motivation, the strengths and weaknesses of the business plan. This active listening is an important part of the value a professional advisor can offer to his clients. Clients know when their advisor is actively listening and when he not fully engaged. Active listening is not easy for me. I constantly fight the urge to interrupt with advice especially when a client “bird-walks” through our meeting.
Obviously, we advisors should provide to our clients with our knowledge and advice. Once we have actively listened to our clients we can share that collection of information we have studied, practiced, tried and experienced over our careers. This collection of information, our mental database of knowledge, is built not only by our client’s experiences but information and experiences we pick up everywhere every day. We have seen the successes and failures and experienced our own. Lawyers especially understand the challenges two or more business owners may experience working together and, when the time comes, going their separate ways. My favorite phrase for my clients when I advise them on the importance of creating an agreement at the beginning of a new business that deals with common and often thorny issues is, “You and your partner will never get along better than you do right now as you share the optimism of your future success. Talk about the difficult decisions you will need to make now, come to an agreement and we will write it down.”
Another area of service we can provide to our clients is careful referrals to the other professionals we believe might be able to help our clients. I have spent my career building relationships with service providers in many fields. I have a pretty good idea of their strengths and try to match those strengths with my clients’ needs. When possible it is helpful to provide our clients with advice on how to approach that relationship. I prefer to contact the professional to whom I wish to make the referral in advance for the final check that it will be a good match in expertise, timing and level of interest. If I detect any hesitation I usually do not make that referral.
A value-added extra we can provide in the appropriate situation is our personal perspective of the client’s business goals. Would we buy it, use it, value it? Do we believe that others will? Are we buying in the client’s dream? We need to be careful here. We now must separate our professional knowledge and experience from the purely personal and make sure our client understands the difference. In some cases my personal opinion may have little value and I am sure to let me client know that. By sharing my honest thoughts about this I am giving my client a better chance to evaluate whether he is comfortable with me as her lawyer and whether I should be part of her team going forward.
Finally, we have the opportunity to help our clients build their businesses. My experience has been that personal referrals and endorsements are very important. I challenge myself to set aside the time and effort to tell others about my client’s new business. As a lawyer I must be mindful of my confidential relationship with my client and clear with him what I may share with others.
My experience has been that business relationships, like personal relationships, take work and the benefits are not always immediately obvious. For me the relationships I have been able to successfully build and nurture have been rewarding in many ways.