“You will be my most important client”

Anyone in a business development role will be familiar with the phrase above. There is a feeling that it should be said, especially to a big client that you are very keen (and probably incentivised) to win, and is often said at that peak in effort—the pitch. But is it the best thing to say?

 One of the key documents we have created and developed over our many years of advising on business development and pitches is something we simple call “The Clients Rights Act”.

 It is now in the 2014 edition, and still fits on one page (without a microscopic font) but of course is not likely to become anything the UK Govt legislates for. There have – to be candid – been very few word changes to this Act of ours over the last few years; it has finally settled down after robust testing with our colleagues and clients in workshops around the UK and wherever we work overseas.

The very first of the clauses in this one page Act is this:

“1. Important. Treat me as if I’m important, because I am. In fact treat   me like a God: I’m the most important person to you”.

Yes, that seems to sum it up well. But the practical problem with doing this is that you have other clients already (unless you just landed from another firm), lots of them probably, and they   all want this. Plus you have probably   told them at the time of your pitch     that this is their status to you.

 That makes some 50-100 “most important clients status” clients. Or better known as a contradiction. They can’t all be, and the likelihood is that they know this, so when you said it, they didn’t believe you. It is so common a phrase, it’s an unverifiable claim about the future, it’s not very specific, and everyone says it without meaning it.

 Even if you haven’t any clients yet, it’s not a phrase that is likely to hold true beyond the first win you make.

 Clients are not stupid. They know that when you say such a phrase, that even if you do mean it, as soon as a bigger and more important client comes along, you will say the phrase to that new one, and all of a sudden we perceive we are slipping down a greasy pole to insignificance.

Despite clinging on tight, this client is about to slide down the well-greased pole of significance...

Despite clinging on tight, this client is about to slide down the well-greased pole of significance…

So what should you do instead of making this statement, good though the intentions were behind it?

 Well, we could start with the truth and the reality. They will be your most important client, for some possibly even most of the time, and if you are a good professional adviser, the times you do that will be the times that matter, and especially the ones that matter the most. It will also include being available pretty darned quickly if there is an important and urgent need.

 Clients are also realistic (well, OK, nearly all of them are, and certainly the best ones are). They know and expect that you will have other clients you work for.

 Our clients will go further—they see this other work as a clear advantage, for how else could you have gathered together your expertise, and in the same sector that they operate in. Our clients even demand this and its absence would be a commercial disadvantage.

 So, what do you say and not say? Well, don’t say something that’s not true.

 You have to be available, committed and exclusive when you are working for the client in front of you. One of the most irritating traits they could see is you working for another (absent) client when you are actually with the one in front of you. 

This is most commonly exhibited with the latest generation of smart phones. When mobiles first came out it was a brag to show them off and have them ring in meetings. Wow, you must be so important! The same thing happened with the first smart phones, but now we are on the iPhone6, it is all a bit passé. Even the iWatch, Gear2, and the other latest gismos seem to be having as limited impressive effect. It’s what medics call ‘attenuation’, or the reduced effect of further and further doses.

Not so smart phones…

 It is a house rule at GPB that these devices are on silent and out of touch and sight whilst we are advising our clients. We (and they) pick them up in the regular breaks in our workload. We have yet to have a client have a wobbly because we did not get back to them soon enough.

Yet you see bankers, lawyers and accountants pick smart phones up in meetings, take and make calls, and read and type emails. Even going out of the room sometimes to do so. It seems to be getting worse not better in the last year or two, as economies come out of recession, business picks up and spare capacity falls to zero.

 This is the clearest signal that someone else is more important than the client in front of you.  Our clients know that when we are with them, we are not available for other clients.

These others leave messages or emails for us to get in touch and we follow through just as soon as we can.

 So, here’s how we think we should deal with this one:

 First, tell the truth: “All our clients are important. We will be available, exclusive and committed whenever you need us” is a distinct improvement.

 Second, whenever you are with your client, show them that you meant what you said by devoting yourself to them and them alone. Step away from your smart phones!

 Ewan Pearson

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