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Why Relationships Go Bad - and Nine Ways to Revitalize Them
By Andrew Sobel - Up Your Service
Oct 8, 2013

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What percentage of the time you devote to marketing and sales is directed towards growing existing clients versus winning new prospects?

If you’re like many professionals, you get an adrenaline rush when you are in pursuit of an attractive new client prospect. You probably feel that new business naturally flows from existing relationships on the basis of doing good work, but that it’s with new prospects that you really have to raise your game, put your best foot forward, and make investments to gain a foothold.

Your existing clients, however, are almost always your best source of new business. And while quality of work is the foundation, you have to romance your long-standing clients with the same energy with which you pursue prospects if you want to sustain and grow them over time.

Wouldn’t you like to realize the full potential of your existing client base? To help you, I’m going to first describe how relationships can become stale. Then, I’ll set out nine strategies you can use to revitalize existing relationships and put them back on a growth track.

When good relationships go bad

Here are some of the things that can weaken or corrupt a seemingly healthy relationship:

Low Energy
You no longer have the same energy and enthusiasm for the client that you used to, and you stop going the extra mile. You do just what you have to but no more.
Reactive. You get used to the client giving you more business, and you stop being a proactive agenda setter who actively challenges the client and brings new ideas and perspectives to them.

Poor Responsiveness
You stop responding with the same alacrity you used to. One client of mine—before they became my client--had a major relationship with a large bank. On a Friday, some new federal regulations were approved which had significant implications for executive compensation and related personnel issues. On Monday the bank’s SVP of Human Resources had a report on his desk assessing the impact of these new rules on the bank’s programs. But it wasn’t from my client—it was from a competitor who wanted to make inroads with this very attractive client! That afternoon my client’s CEO got a call from the SVP. His opening salvo was this: “I’m going to fire you.”

Lack of personal interest
You stop trying to improve the personal relationships with the client.

Poor communications
You communicate less and less, leading to a perception of reduced value. Remember, insufficient communication leads to missed cues and a lack of understanding of what your client is expecting.

This means “going back to a past condition.” This is an evolutionary term. During the sales process you take a big picture view with the prospective client. You deeply explore their agenda of key priorities. You discuss their aspirations. But then, during the actual delivery of the work you regress and become an “expert for hire” again. You only talk about operational execution and project milestones—no more big-picture discussions!

No feedback
You stop caring what your client thinks about the relationship, and you stop asking for their feedback.

Poor actual or perceived quality of work
Sometimes, even the best companies suffer a lapse in the quality of their products and services. But equally, there can be a lapse in perceived quality. When communications are poor and expectations are not properly understood, your client can come to believe that a job that is actually objectively well done is not up to snuff.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Nine Strategies to Revitalize a Client Relationship

Here are some things you should be doing to keep your relationships fresh:
  1. Treat all old clients like new clients. You have to bring the same enthusiasm, new ideas, effort, and excitement to the 100th meeting with your clients that you demonstrated in the first meeting when you were wooing them.

  2. Ask, “What would my competitors do to try and win this client’s business?”  This is not a rhetorical question because in fact your competitors are regularly trying to win a greater share of your client’s business. Think through what their strategies might be, and examine which of those actions you should be taking yourself.

  3. Evolve your songs. Here’s an analogy: The Beatles build a global fan base and sold over 1.4 billion records by constantly evolving their music. They retained existing fans and continually added new ones.  Each successive record was a significant evolution in their music. They started with rocking numbers like “She Was Just Seventeen” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Then they began evolving their music in many different ways. They changed the instrumental arrangements - think of Eleanor rigby which uses a double string quartet--four violins, two cellos, and two violas. Where are the guitars, the bass? They used instruments like the Indian Sitar - think about the introduction to Norwegian Wood. They evolved their themes - I Want to Hold Your Hand” got the teenagers, the ballad “Yesterday” captured our parents, and “When I’m 64” pulled in the grandparents. They evolved just about every aspect of their music - BUT they kept the foundations of great melodies, terrific harmonies, and a driving beat. You don’t want to sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” year after year to your clients! You need to bring fresh points of view, insights, and ideas to your long-standing clients on a regular basis.

  4. Add talent to the team. This is especially pertinent if you work with a firm. Continuity of relationship managers is essential, but it’s also good to occasionally rotate some team members off of a client relationship and add new talent. This is good for your staff and also good for the client, because it can bring fresh thinking into the engagement.

  5. Add value in new ways. Is there a well-known academic or industry expert whose ideas would be relevant to your client? Can you use collaboration technologies to better connect with your client? Are there ancillary firms (individuals, boutiques) that you could use to offer something special to your client? Can you connect your client to other clients that you have, enabling them to directly share best practices? Can you bring someone in who can help your client better understand the impact of certain trends? Are there long-term fee arrangements that would more closely align your interests as long-term partners?

  6. Change the scenery and the way you interact. Over time, you tend to get into habits and routines in the way you manage your relationships. Perhaps you always meet your client in the same office or conference room, and use the same format for presentations and memos. Change the scenery: organize an offsite instead of meeting all day in the client’s conference room; take your client out to dinner with several of your other interesting business contacts; instead of PowerPoint slides, use multimedia, printed placemats, or oversized sheets of paper that you tape to the walls of the conference room.

  7. Do a relationship review with the client. This serves several objectives. It’s a chance to better understand their view of the relationship, to get a renewed sense of their emerging priorities and goals, and to add value by having a big-picture, agenda-setting conversation

  8. Make an investment do something unexpected. Clients are always interested in developing their people, for example. What can you offer to help transfer skills and capabilities to your client’s organization?  Is it a lunchtime seminar on a topic of current interest? A custom webpage or web portal you set up to help them access your most relevant content? 

  9. Get an objective party to review the relationship with you. Familiarity doesn’t have to breed neglect but it can certainly engender myopia. Ask an experienced colleague, who is not involved in the relationship, to sit in on a planning and review session. They won’t be wedded to the same assumptions that you are basing your thinking on, and may offer a fresh perspective.
Andrew Sobel

About Andrew Sobel
Andrew Sobel helps companies and individuals build clients for life. He is the most widely published author in the world on the topic of business relationships, and his bestselling books include Power Questions, All for One, Making Rain, and Clients for Life. His clients include many of the world's leading companies such as Citigroup, Hess, Ernst & Young, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cognizant, Deloitte, Experian, Lloyds Banking Group, Bain & Company, and many others.

Andrew's articles and work have appeared in publications such as the New York Times, USA Today, strategy+business, and the Harvard Business Review. He spent 15 years at Gemini Consulting where he was a Senior Vice President and Country Chief Executive Officer, and for the last 15 years he has led his own consulting firm, Andrew Sobel Advisors.

He can be reached at

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