Laura Petrolino

Four Skills for Successful Client Service Negotiations

By: Laura Petrolino | March 7, 2016 | 

Four Skills for Successful Client Service NegotiationsBy Laura Petrolino

Today I have a tale of client service woe……

A parable of a client relationship gone wrong……

An epic narrative of broken dreams and destroyed relationships…..

(Ok, I’m maybe being melodramatic….. if only Gini Dietrich would let me install the background music plugin, this post would sound like a Univision Telenovela.)

Anyway, here’s the story.

A few months ago we had a client who was working with a graphic design firm to do a big rebranding and visual refresh. It was something the client wanted to do for awhile, and their entire team was super excited about finally having the funds to devote to it.

They spent countless hours internally thinking about what they wanted their new image to convey and we worked with them on the communications strategy to make sure everything aligned.

When they received the initial outlines from the design firm, they were less than impressed. But, they figured it was part of the process and went back to the firm with feedback and examples of other brands they really loved.

Next round came in and pretty much none of their feedback was incorporated.

At this point, the chief marketing officer asked to sit down with the client manager at the design firm and talk through the disconnect. He hoped an in-person meeting would allow him to translate their ideas better than through email.

While in the meeting, the chief executive officer of the firm came in unexpectedly (at least to our client; it was obvious the design firm had planned it), and in so many words told our client he had no idea what he was talking about and that was why he didn’t appreciate their fantastic designs.

After a somewhat “civilly heated” discussion, in which our client persisted in the fact there were certain design elements missing they really wanted, the chief executive officer threw her notebook across the table and stormed out of the room (I suppose as a statement of absolute exasperation).

Client Service is Your Product

Fast forward a few days later. The design firm sent another round of revisions—which were actually much more in line with the client’s vision and fairly good.

Unfortunately, tainted by their poor client service experience, our client was unable to see these designs without the shadow of the horrible experience—nor any designs that followed after. The relationship and the product had been destroyed.

Now, I know we only have one side of this story, but I can’t think of any reason you’d be so upset with a client, you’d throw something and walk out.

Sure, you may want to…and you may do it privately. But in front of them? Never.

The moral of this story: Client service is a fundamental part of the product you provide.

No matter how innovative, skillful, or down right awesometastically fabulous your work is, if your client service is poor, the client will never be able to see the work itself separate from that negative client service shadow.

Product and service are never mutually exclusive.

This is not only true in service businesses like ours, but in every business. And, most interestingly, while a good product will not help a client overlook bad client service, good client service can help make an average product acceptable (not that I’m advocating average products).

  • It’s the yeast to your bread.
  • The water to your flower.
  • The hips to your hula.
  • The yo to your yo-yo.

You get my point.

Negotiation, Compromise, and Client Service

However, client service is NOT just bowing to your client’s every demand. It’s about creating a relationship of trust and leading your client down the best path based on your insight and expertise—after all that’s why they hired you in the first place.

(And as Gini discussed last week, you need to make sure the business relationship starts out based on mutual respect and understanding in the business development phase. If you have a client who hired you to be a “yes-man,” and bow to their every demand, then that’s a disconnect which should have be caught in the prospecting cycle.)

But there is a right and wrong way to lead a client. The example above highlights many angles of the “wrong.”

The art of negotiation and strategic compromise are two of the most important skills a client service professional can have. Unfortunately the definition of these words is often very misunderstood.

Negotiation is NOT getting your way. Nor is it about bull-dozing your way through a situation in an aggressive (or passive aggressive) manner.

Negotiation is about guiding.

A successful negotiation is always one where both parties walk away successful.

Successful Negotiation is Client Focused

Here are four important tenants of a successful client “negotiation” process:

  • The conversation should always be results-oriented: Often simply re-focusing the client on goals and results (vs. emotion or preference) is the alpha and omega of any conflict of opinion. You job is to help a client remain focused on their goals, and use your expertise, research, and knowledge to align tactics and strategies to those goals.
  • Facts vs. emotion or preference: Watch any political discussion on Facebook for a 101-level course of how not to negotiate. Why? They often are based on soundbites and opinion vs. any type of logical fact.
  • Ego has no role: Negotiation is always about the client and their best interest. It’s not about you, your ego, or getting your way. If taking the self-possessive words such as “I,” or “we” out of your messaging leaves it blank, then you know you are relying on ego too much in your discussions.
  • Understand your client: I’ve discussed before the importance of communicating with your client on their level. We are communicators, it’s what we do, yet too often we don’t talk to a client in a way that best resonates with them and their needs/concerns/world view. Think of client service as a product, and your client is your target audience. We create “buyer personas” for each of our clients to help guide our communication with them.

Client Service is Your Number One Asset

Take the time to develop a strong client service operation in your organization.

Treat it like any other type of skill. It should be the focus of professional development for all team members (not just those directly client facing, since it all goes together), and you should invest in resources, tools, and people which continue to help you improve from a client service perspective.

And always remember—client service is not how you deliver or communicate your product, it is your product.

About Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.