Creating Value to Capture Value
September 1, 2015
Examining the virtues of a client stewardship program
By Ira L. Gleser
Having started my own marketing communications firm more than two years ago, creating value for customers and clients has taken on even more importance for me. After all, your value is why clients choose to do business with you. It's what they are paying for. But how do you really know you're generating value for your clients?
Value can be a fairly subjective concept, like forming an opinion about a piece of art. You and your team may believe you're doing all the right things and delivering real value. And based on the communications you have with clients, you assume (a very dangerous word) they feel the same way. Can you afford to not know for sure?
With experience on both the client and agency side during my career, I've learned that having a process in place to report on your company's performance enhances business relationships and facilitates productive, honest dialogue with clients to confirm, rather than assume, that you are a value-creating enterprise.
The Concept of Stewardship
During my tenure at Coca-Cola, I applied an extremely effective account management concept called stewardship. Stewardship, in the context of a B-to-B relationship, is the process by which you communicate to your clients the value you are creating to establish a competitive advantage, insulate the relationships, and grow your business.
Practiced effectively, stewardship allows you to:
- Review your strategies and performance with your clients
- Uncover red flags early and avoid surprises
- Gain a deeper understanding of your client's business goals and objectives
- Achieve a partnership with your clients and be perceived as more than a service provider
- Identify mutually beneficial opportunities to grow the business
A strong stewardship plan includes a strategy for client communications, a rundown of the necessary components, and an outline of the keys to success.
The Importance of a Client Communication Strategy
The core idea of a communication strategy is to develop a deliberate approach to managing all the relationships that directly or indirectly impact your business within your client's organization. The strategy, just like an election campaign, is to manage the relationships with your client's "constituents" so these individuals have positive things to say about your firm and the work you are doing.
For example, let's say your primary client contact is the vice president of marketing. While he or she works most closely with you, think about other members of your client's management team influencing the business relationship — e.g., the CFO, the head of purchasing, the operations vice president, members of the marketing team. While not an exhaustive list, it hopefully gets you to ask yourself a key question: Are we communicating with everyone on the client side who can influence our business relationship? If the answer is no, then put a plan together at your next staff meeting. And remember, this is not just an account management/sales function. Everyone in your organization who works with this client should have a role in an effective communication strategy.
The Components of a Stewardship Plan
There are two key components of an effective stewardship plan that everyone in your client communication strategy should be aware of: ongoing activities and formal meetings.
Ongoing activities include whatever cadence you have in place for meeting with your client, be they monthly business updates, weekly project update calls, or quarterly face-to-face meetings. Each of these interactions presents an opportunity to update your client on how you are delivering value to their business, as well as to ask a few open-ended questions to see how they are feeling about your performance and address any red flags you might not be aware of.
The formal component of an effective stewardship plan is establishing an annual or biannual top-to-top meeting with your client's senior management. This type of session is usually positioned as a business review, but it can be one of the most important interactions you will have with your client each year.
For example, you may not interact with your client's CEO on a regular basis, so this may be the one time each year when he or she will give your business relationship undivided attention. The planning you put into these sessions and the personnel you choose to include can significantly impact how your client perceives the value you are providing, help to insulate the relationship from competitive pressures, and be a catalyst to identify opportunities for mutual growth.
I tell friends and those in my professional network (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that the greatest validation of the value you provide to clients is when they pay your invoices on time. Truly, the strongest confirmation that you are delivering real value to your clients is when they hire you again, renew your existing agreement, or recommend you and your services to someone else.
Just like the football coach who is one bad season away from being fired, all of us in the professional services business must do all we can to have winning seasons with our clients. The concept of stewardship is a powerful tool to reinforce the value you deliver and help position your business as a way to win with your clients.
Ira L. Gleser is a former vice president of industry communications at Coca-Cola and current president at Amplify Marketing Communications. Based in Atlanta, Amplify helps brands and organizations connect more effectively with clients, customers, and prospects. He is an at-large board member of BMA-Atlanta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Creating Value to Capture Value." Ira L. Gleser, President of Amplify Marketing Communications. BMA Buzz. 9/1/15.
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