The Secret Ingredient to an Exceptional Client RelationshipA good client relationship is like building a house.

You design the structure, get all the materials together, build a sturdy foundation, and then slowly craft and add design and mold… until you have a dream home.

It’s a fluid process, with a lot of elements and a lot of places things can go wrong. 

And, unfortunately, one faulty design or glitchy appliance can create a variety of non-ideal results, ranging from a creaky door to Grandma falling through the upstairs guest room floor. 

And any good architect or engineer will tell you that sometimes, even if you do everything right on paper, the house won’t be sound.  

Some unknown variable is off. And while technically everything is right, something is still very wrong.

Nuance Determines Client Relationship

The same is true in client service and the resulting client relationship.

In most cases that unknown variable is nuance.

So what is nuance?

Officially, nuance is “sensibility to, awareness of, or ability to express delicate shadings (as of meaning, feeling, or value).”

This means many things (in life and in client experience).

Last week we talked about the client service processes you should make part of your client service plan.

The week before that we dove into client onboarding and how to make a good first impression.

This week we are going to look at the side of all that which is more about your emotional IQ and less about the tactical process.

And that secret ingredient is nuance.

Understand Client Personas to Understand Nuance

Do you really, really know your client?

  • Who they are beyond the role they play in the company?
  • What do they like?
  • Don’t like?
  • What makes them tick?
  • How are they motivated?
  • What keeps them up at night?

These are the things that create a relationship with your client.

While in many cases, they aren’t directly related to your project or the goals of your campaign, they are ALWAYS (and I mean always) interconnected.

Your client relationship depends on your understanding of the many nuances of who they are as human beings.

Essentially, you have to care about them as people vs. just as clients.

Nuance Is Our Ability to See the Grey

The digital world often forces us to look at things in black and white.

We either “like” or we don’t like, make a binary decision based on sound bites, and unfortunately often refuse to accept that in every opinion or stance there are many shades of grey and layers of subtle exceptions.

Client relationships and client service decisions are often grey:

  • When do you push?
  • When do you hold back?
  • How do you approach sensitive topics?
  • When do you stand firm?
  • When do you soften your approach?

As you can see, without nuance, client service is methodological and robotic, which takes away the entire relationship part… and then what are you left with? Where is the skill?

Client Service vs. Project Management

How do you define client service?

Stop right now and write down your definition of what “client service” is.

What is the primary goal?

A client service role can take many different forms based on the individual organization’s definition and goal of client service. 

And likewise, all will create a different type of client relationship and dynamic for your organization.

A mistake service organizations often make is to see their client service representatives akin to project managers.

Sure they manage the client relationship, but when project management is the primary goal, the definition of “relationship” also changes.

Now project management is always going to be part of client service, but instead of being the goal, it should be seen as a conduit for providing the best experience and results possible.

Mastering Nuance In a Client Relationship

I started my career in politics, and political communications is all about nuance.

It’s about understanding the subtleties of interpersonal communication and relationships—and then engaging with them.

Some people are naturally good at this and it comes rather intuitively.

Others have to work much harder.

But everyone can master it.

So while I can’t give a hard and fast formula, I can say these four skills will help.


Most people don’t really listen.

They think they listen, they pretend to listen, but they don’t.

Learn to listen, and not just to the words, but also the tone, pauses, interaction, and intent.

Paying attention to these things helps you listen to what’s not said, as well as what is.

Ask Questions

Learn to be inquisitive about other people.

People are fascinating.

You must become a scholar of people, and to do so you must research your subjects as you would any great mystery.

Ask all sorts of questions and then let those lead to more questions.

People ALWAYS show you who they are, even if they try not to.

You just need to ask, listen, and observe.

Understand Context

Different context requires different types of communication, even if all the players remain the same, and ESPECIALLY when they are different.

For example, you might be able to take one type of tone and positioning with a client when working with them individually, but need to take a completely different type of relationship when working with them in front of their team or boss.

Being able to observe and sum up relational, situational, and even environmental context is key to client service.

Open Your Perspective

Until you learn to honestly open up your perspective you’ll never master nuance.

You’ll be constantly blocked by the filter you impose on the world.

You must acknowledge the biases in your perspective and challenge your own assumptions.

And you must practice this skill consistently—even on issues, you are deeply passionate about.

Especially on issues, you are deeply passionate about.

If you can’t argue for the other side you actually don’t understand why you support yours. 

Obviously, the ability to develop nuance is as nuanced as nuance itself (whew!).

But it’s a crucial ability for any communicator, and especially if your focus is client service.

The EQ of a Client Relationship

Client relationships are the art of client service.

The relationship side is what makes client service challenging, but also what makes it so great.

When we look into the future at what roles AI and machine learning will take on and where our own careers will evolve, it’s this part of a client relationship that’s completely human.

That’s our superpower.

We might not be able to mash data at lightspeed but we can connect to each other as only humans can connect with others. 

Client service IS one of your products and so is the nuance involved in client relationships.

Which skills would you add to this list?

Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

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