“Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno”
Those who have read the novel, Three Musketeers, already know that its author, Alexander Dumas pere, took advantage of every appropriate opportunity to have his principal characters (d’Artagnan and his friends Athos, Porthos, and Aramis) proclaim “One for all, all for one!” Andrew Sobel had that motto in mind when selecting a title for this book because it is in this same spirit of solidarity and comradeship that he introduces and then explains ten strategies “for building trusted client partners,” for creating what Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba characterize as “customer evangelists.” In an exceptionally informative Introduction, Sobel briefly acknowledges six important trends and pressures that should guide and inform relationship-building strategies, briefly reviews three epochs of client relationships, and then provides a “quick sampling” of several practices (e. g. enhancing dialogue with clients exemplified by Bain & Company and customizing the relationship experience exemplified by WPP) that he will examine when presenting ten strategies for building what he characterizes as “trusted client partnerships.”
Sobel carefully organizes the material that follows within four Parts: First he presents case studies of two “extraordinarily successful trusted client partnerships” and defines the six levels of professional relationships before summarizes the aforementioned ten strategies; next, he rigorously examines the first five strategies that are primarily (not exclusively) the responsibility of an individual professional; then he rigorously examines the second five strategies that are institutional and require specific commitment and support of senior management; and finally, he poses and answers the 17 most commonly asked questions about how to build long-term client relationships. This is a clever idea because the Q&As enable him to review key points after completing his narrative; also, Part IV facilitates, indeed expedites frequent review by his readers later.
At this point in the review, it seems appropriate to share two questions I always ask when meeting with a prospective consulting client to discuss its client relationships: “How many `customer evangelists’ does your company now have?” and then a separate but related question, “How many of your other customers are not `customer evangelists’…but COULD be?” Presumably Sobel agrees with me that in many (most?) companies, there is a tendency (albeit unintentional) to take customers for granted, to neglect them, with the inevitable results that (a) there is less frequent direct contact, (b) a diminished understanding of their needs (especially unmet needs) and concerns, and (c) increased vulnerability to competitor initiatives. None of this would happen if the relationships were “trusted client partnerships” that are steadfast but resilient and mutually beneficial. Hence the importance of executing strategies such as those Sobel recommends.
After identifying the components of trusted client partnerships, he devotes almost all of his attention to explaining how to establish and then sustain those relationships, with “sustain” obviously a key consideration and objective. What impressed me especially as I worked my way through this book is that Sobel combines the skills of a cultural anthropologist with those of a raconteur. He anchors his observations and insights in real-world situations, citing exemplary companies such as Environmental Resources Management (ERM), Bain & Company, Citigroup’s Global Corporate Bank, IBM, Towers Perrin, Cognizant, WPP, and Eden McCallum. Better yet, he does so with a focus on the impact of each strategy on human interaction. Insofar as customer relationships are concerned, Sobel is a pragmatist with an insatiable curiosity to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why.
Previously, I referred to the six levels of professional relationships. They form a progression that begins with Contact (initial encounter with prospective client), followed in order by Acquaintance (preliminary exchange of information), Expert (establishing credibility), Vendor or Steady Supplier (incremental increase of involvement), Trusted Advisor (differentiation from others in terms of judgment), and Trusted Partner. How to know when you have reached this highest level, Level 6? He provides his answer on Page 21 and explains on the next page how a client would probably view each of the six levels.
Readers will especially appreciate Sobel’s provision of specific recommendations with regard to how to become a Trusted Partner. For example, with regard to the first five strategies: Becoming an Agenda Starter (Pages 49-51), Developing Relationship Capital (Pages 64-76), Engaging New Clients (“Listening Pitfalls” are listed on Pages 100-101 and suggestions for “Getting to Know Clients as People” are provided on Pages 104-105), Institutionalizing Client Relationships (“Pathways to Growth” are listed on Pages 114-115 followed by best practices for activating each on Pages 115-1129), and Adding Multiple Layers of Value (“Foundations of Value” are examined on Pages 134-136).
Sobel also offers provides specific recommendations with regard to how to use effectively each of the other five strategies, presumably with the full commitment and sufficient support by senior management. The generous provision of advice continues in Part IV as Sobel presents 17 Q&As (Pages 267-294), sharing his thoughts about how to make regular investments in client relationships, four ways of staying in touch with clients, what needs to be emphasized during the relationship-building process, and how to use “traffic building” activities that build a professional brand and create an inquiry stream from prospective clients.