Last week Simon Houpt, of the Globe and Mail wrote an interesting piece called “In praise of older relationships”.  He quoted Shelly Brown, president of  the Toronto-based ad agency Zig, as saying “I think we live in a culture where the grass always appears greener on the other side, where change is always good, and where [people often say] ‘Let’s move on’.”

I reflected on his article as I was travelling back from Montreal to end another busy week. I had participated in three major client meetings where there were significant customer/relationship issues to address. One involved a disagreement about a strategic direction for a campaign, another was to gain a better understanding of the client’s service requirements, and the final one was a contract re-negotiation. All these meetings ended successfully, though at any point it could have gone off in another direction. Although I did not plan it this way each meeting took on a similar pattern that resulted in a successful resolution of the issues at hand

First, in each case I spent a great deal of time listening to the point of view of the client. This took some restraint on my part, because what I really wanted to do was to come at the problem with “both guns a blazing”. Instead I tried to focus on the client’s perspective, and damn if I did not start feeling some empathy for their point of view! So I just started asking questions about why the clients felt the way they did.

Once I had established with the client that I knew how to listen, I found that the client was more open-minded about my perspective and prepared to take on a mutual responsibility for solving the problem. The perspective I gave was direct but respectful, and most importantly I had listened and took account of the information the client had just imparted to me. We were then able to drive to a satisfactory outcome. Just to make sure there were no second thoughts, the next day our team followed up to reconfirm our go forward plan. (In one case the reconfirmation was critical because our meeting ended up being a very late night out and memories were a little foggy).

Anyway the pattern was effective because I was on “receive” instead of “transmit.” As Houpt discussed in his article, a client relationship is no different than a good marriage; you really have to work at it. If things really fall off the rails you can bring in a third party to help, but hopefully by spending more time listening to your client you won’t have to reach this point.