Tips for developing a smooth sailing client-partner relationship

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Today I was reminded of the importance of ‘big picture’ communication and how easy it is to forget that this ship we are sailing actually has a destination. We are immersed in the day to day grind of keeping ship-shape, navigating through obstacles, and keeping morale afloat, but sometimes when we are too involved in the running we take our eye off the horizon and find ourselves floating off course.

I’d been invited to a vendor day for one of our clients, not entirely sure what to expect I put on my professional best (so a shirt and black jeans – a consultant’s uniform) and arrived to a very formal presentation hosted by the executive leadership team. Promptly greeted, I took a seat at the back of the large room filled with vendors and partners like us. After the inevitable technical issues, with the missing monitor and connection cables, the presentation began and for 2 hours I ferociously took notes and nodded my head. I had more ‘aha’ moments in that session than I’d ever had in any project meeting for this client.

Why, you say? It was the first time I was taken through their long term strategic vision. I have of course been in countless meetings where these objectives were eluded to, but never was it explained to me ‘why’ these objectives existed in the first place. Understanding the bigger picture allowed me to see where, we as a partner, could bring greater value to the client outside of our current scope of work.

Now I say partners intentionally as we at digital balance are exactly that. We work alongside individuals to help their business realise its potential, be that through mentoring, data and analytics, or developing short and/or long-term digital strategies.

A symbiotic relationship.

Although very much a cliché, when it comes to our business relationships, ‘their success is our success’. As a services company, our fate is tied to theirs.

Which is why the simple action of ‘pulling everyone together’, stepping back and having a formalised discussion or presentation about the ‘business’- be that the strategic vision, new methodologies being introduced, new technologies acquired, the campaign calendar, whatever – high level conversations about the ‘business’, its long term objectives and vision are so important.

The vendor day presentation was an opportunity for the business to bring the partners up to date in one fell swoop, discussing where they are, where they want to go and the practical application of bringing that vision to life.

I can’t stress enough the importance of this. Not only does it mean you communicate one story to everyone efficiently (saving time), lowering the chance of miscommunication or varying interpretations, but also the very exercise of developing the presentation realigns the business and reminds them of their overarching goals.

Which, let’s face it, can become lost in the day-to-day fodder of getting stuff done.

Now this was communication on a large scale; a 3 year business plan outlining the vision and internal restructuring (people, place, infrastructure) and ‘why’ we as partners are vital for helping to realise their vision. This very smart exercise allows us as partners to;

  • take a step back and re-evaluate our current scope of work and make sure we’re delivering to the clients roadmap
  • see if there’s opportunity to further expand the current relationship and services we provide, growing both businesses in the process
  • feel included, valued and responsible for our part.

After all, clients hire partners for their expertise. Sometimes it can feel like a one-way relationship, but the act of keeping us engaged in your vision means we are part of your future.

Make it formal.

This is a scalable practice, teams at any level should be initiating regular meetings with their partners all together. It does however need to be a formalised process, not just everyone in a room randomly talking with no real objective or purpose. Here is my interpretation of ‘formal’:

  • Meeting dates secured in advance so there is no calendar conflicts or clashing priorities.
  • A prepared agenda, which the client is responsible for developing and driving.
  • A presentation that structures the meeting which should be no longer than 2 hours with a tea break.
  • And if possible, a neutral venue. The very act of getting out of the office is somehow transcendent – not sure why – but moods are lifted and attention is high when people are placed in new environments.

My experience is that these catch ups are organised a year in advance, and dates aligned with your campaign activity, so either bimonthly or quarterly. These are non-negotiable meetings and the expectation is all partners must be present.

The presentation template is with the client, but each partner is responsible for updating the group on past activity results, what’s in the works and what activity is coming up. This is probably the most important step, as it allows for cross collaboration where partners/agencies can build on, or help support current or future initiatives which otherwise would of been missed opportunities. It also means they’re briefed and are now responsible for working together to deliver on your objectives.

Make it a priority.

So why doesn’t this happen all the time, when clearly these meetings should be a no brainer?

The reality is, that even with the best intentions, the ‘now’ can disrupt even the best laid plans. Be that shifting priorities, staff turnover or sheer size of workload these catch ups get moved, postponed or forgotten. A way to overcome this is changing your perspective; plan these meetings like you would any other activity.

Allocate resource: make sure this is considered ‘work,’ not just additional workload on top of the ‘day’ job. I have found that rotating ownership within your team keeps it fresh and gives everyone the opportunity to present and learn from the experience.

Make it fun: a quick group activity, which may seem lame, but in reality when you step out of your comfort zone together it creates a sense of unity and builds relationships between partners.

Provide brain food: don’t forget the treats. Feeding people, especially large groups, is important for keeping everyone awake and active during these sessions. It also works as an incentive, I have worked with people who literally attend meetings because they know they are getting fed.

Make it happen.

Go on, keep your ship on course by giving your crew the motivation and big picture thinking. This will not only give greater purpose to the ‘day to day’ but also develop stronger cross partner relationships which will mean you can spend less time in the engine room and more time steering the vessel in the right direction to your final destination.


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