Three days ago I was sitting in a quiet coffee shop when I overheard an all too familiar conversation. Not recognizing or caring that he was in a public space, the gentleman at the table behind me cursed loudly before picking up his cell phone. From his side of the call I could tell that his client was irate, the repeat of “Yes, I understand” and “I’m so sorry” cycling every minute with an increasingly exasperated tone. When the call ended ten minutes later, his deflated-balloon sigh pushed frustrated carbon dioxide rapidly into the small room. I’ll spare you the brands of both client and provider (which were stated openly) – suffice it to say that this relationship had failed.
Whether personal or professional, it should come as no surprise that relationships fail every single day. What is a surprise is that we tend to focus more energy on fighting fires than root-causing the sparks of discontent. Given the unprecedented number of remediation calls we’ve received over the past six weeks alone, there are a few reasons why relationship failure is such a systemic issue.
The Pace of Change
The problem: Whether client or provider, the speed and ferocity of change has imposed unprecedented demands for immediacy and elasticity. Client requirements once static and known have become dynamic and continuous, evolving the measure of one’s provider relationship well beyond historical service level agreements. In his recent Forbes article, Kotter International engagement leader Ken Perlman summarized the problem as follows:
“The measure of every executive team trying to keep pace today is not whether the instructions they are giving are the right ones; the new measure is this: Do their policies, procedures, practices and behavior accelerate peoples’ ability to adapt, innovate and exceed customer expectations?”
The solution: Break down barriers in two important areas. First, within the walls of the service providers themselves, begin to audit the most common client change requests among relationship management personnel to preemptively identify opportunities for new capabilities on the product/service roadmap. If you’re thinking, “but we ask customers for that all the time“, you’re trapped in the false premise that annual self-reported feature requests in a formal format truly represent the real-time needs of your clientele. Second, both parties must assume that SLAs are table stakes and instead openly discuss scenarios for change that may be on the near or long-term horizon. This continuous dialogue/feedback loop ensures that surprises are limited and the type/scope of change (and the provider’s ability to support anticipated changes) is well known and documented.
Message Versus Messenger
The problem: Understandably, the marketing prowess of a service provider is often measured by their ability to out think and out message their competition. This short attention span theater often involves the discussion of future capabilities, beta client excitement around the product/service roadmap and targeted quotations from executive leaders conveying that, “we believe the future is [X]“. But here’s the challenge – your current clients are often the most fervent consumers of your future-speak and understandably may ask their account executives, “so when I can take advantage of [X]?“
With potentially thousands of front line employees maintaining your ongoing relationships, we’re finding that the proper internal messaging is not making it into the hands of service providers’ client-facing personnel. The greater the dissonance between a client’s day-to-day experience and what the provider is proffering to the market (with no path to closure), the higher the likelihood of dissatisfaction.
The solution: In his recent interview for Government Executive Magazine, retired U.S. Army Colonel Harry Scott talked about how he and his leadership team tested how well they were getting the message out to the 6,000 soldiers under his command. Although I suggest you read the entire article, his recommendations apply to directly to the problem identified above:
1. Use Multiple Channels: Don’t assume that a simple game of executive telephone is going to get the message out correctly. Leverage every communication vehicle at your disposal to ensure consistent and persistent communication occurs across all layers of the organization.
2. Keep It Short: The old adage of “less is more” definitely applies. If your messaging is complex, document and circulate FAQs so your client-facing resources have the right answers at their fingertips.
3. Share The Purpose: Content without context is useless. Service provider resources must be able to articulate why this matters and clients need to comprehend the relative importance of your messaging within their specific environment.
4. Test and Retest: This is implied in Colonel Scott’s process, but without some means of internal validation you cannot assume that the troops received the message and can effectively communicate your plans to clients.
The problem: This one is very easy to describe but somewhat difficult to absorb. Service provider account/relationship managers have very little incentive to expose the nature and severity of issues to their management teams. Instead, they tend to work feverishly behind the scenes to try and get the reds to yellow and the yellows to green, never having the time or luxury of stopping long enough to assess if their internal peers are suffering from similar challenges (thereby signaling more systemic product/service issues).
Moreover, variable incentive plans do very little to compensate these account executives beyond maintaining and extending the client’s contract. Yes, satisfaction is a measure, but I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve discussed terminable offenses with surprised provider executives who were either completely unaware of any client issues and/or thought that the client was extremely satisfied with their services.
The solution: Transparency must be a part of incentivizing client-facing personnel. Yes, satisfaction measures should also be revamped (and that topic is broad enough to warrant its own discussion at a later time), but service provider executives must think through the most efficient means of drawing true connective tissue with their clients. In most cases, once the right provider executive is made aware of the severity of certain issues, a plan to resolution can be crafted and deployed. These internal service provider barriers to communication must come down and account executives must be made to feel comfortable (and financially whole) when issues that are out of their control (and resolution) arise.
Lack of Honesty/Disclosure
The problem: To more clearly understand this significant problem, we should examine the two common subtypes of lying:
1. Lies of Commission: There are a million reasons why clients and providers openly deceive one another. I’ve heard everything ranging from retribution to visceral disdain as the “logic” behind this destructive approach. The bottom line is that a lie, once told and subsequently discovered, undermines the entire foundation of a strong and meaningful working relationship.
2. Lies of Omission: This is a far more common concern as the omitting party feels that the burden of knowledge is not a requirement for the recipient. As outlined in a piece by Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, specific questions are the most common means of exposing this type of non-information flow. I’d tend to agree given that a direct question requires the receiving party to decide if they’re going to shift from a lie of omission to a lie of commission – a line that very few individuals would care to cross.
The solution: Although this is the single most common complaint I hear from clients and service providers, it seems like it should be the easiest to resolve – simply decide to stop lying to one another while recognizing and rewarding honest behavior on both sides.
Nearly every single item identified above comes back to open communication built upon a foundation of trust. Clients and their service providers must both recognize that challenges are going to arise and their businesses are going to evolve in predictable and unpredictable ways. So why not enter into your next relationship by simply putting these facts on the table?
And while you’re at it, consider heeding the advice of Sir Walter Scott, who said:
“Success or failure in business is caused more by the mental attitude than by mental capacities.“
Please share your thoughts below and let’s keep the conversation going.