11 things to do at the start of a new (business) relationship

Nick Clegg and David CameronThe last week has seen the beginning of a coalition government in the UK. For me personally, it has seen the start of two new client relationships and the renewal of an older one. It seems like a good time to think about what makes relationships work and how to ensure that each marriage is all honeymoon.

  1. Be friends first. Try to find common ground with your partner. As a freelance journalist and now in marketing, I find that the best business relationships I have are with people I like. The ones that went off the rails always involved someone I didn’t like. It helps to be friendly, enthusiastic and to start with the assumption that everyone is going to get along.
  2. Get into bed with the right person. As John Coulthard says, it’s essential to ‘think individuals not organisations’ and ‘negotiate with the right person’. In my experience, the most important thing you can do is to find the right champion for your work at your client. This is the person who understands
  3. Set expectations. Aparna Singh said “I think establishing expectations clearly is very important. This is one reason why companies/individuals that do business together often end up feeling let down/cheated at a later stage.” I agree. I wrote earlier that writers are from Mars and clients are from Venus, so agreeing what is in scope is very important. I use a detailed project brief. John McGarvey prefers a more formal contract.
  4. It’s all about them (even when it’s about you). One of my clients defined marketing as “talking about clients on your terms, not talking about yourself on their terms.”
  5. Overcommunicate. It’s a cliché that men don’t call the day after a first date and that women want them to. But in business relationships, it is essential to build trust by communicating early and often. Trust is certainty based on past experience. Doing what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it is essential at the beginning of a relationship. If you get the proposal in on time, your client will be more confident that you’ll get the whole project in on time. If you return calls quickly at the beginning, it’s more likely you’ll return calls later when there’s a problem.
  6. Don’t overpromise. Another way to corrode trust is to overpromise and under-deliver. Make sure you know what you can realistically achieve and plan your schedule and deliverables accordingly. See my previous article: How to budget for, plan and measure writing output.
  7. Shake hands. My wife, Aileen Gonsalves, is an actress and director. Her golden rule is to go in and shake hands with everyone in the case on the first day of rehearsals. Last night, we went for dinner at Lola and Simon in Hammersmith and the owner shook hands with us as we went in. It makes a big impression. On a small scale, it’s the kind of compelling event that politicians like – think about the press conference in the garden at No. 10, for example.
  8. Be a trusted advisor. David Maister’s book The Trusted Advisor is one of the few business books that I really respect. Read it. It explains how to build a business relationship on trust.
  9. Be specific about money. In business, there is always money in the relationship. But as with personal relationships (or political ones), it is more likely to be destructive than constructive. This is why it needs special handling. For example, I always try to speak to people personally about money issues rather than sending an email.
  10. Relationships are projects too. Despite what you see on Mad Men, account management is not about three martini lunches. It’s about project management. Schedule calls, identify criticalities, reconcile differences, use formal change control, set service level agreements, pay attention. Good relationship management is not rocket science but it’s not an accident either.
  11. Understand the ending. I think it’s very healthy to understand one another’s red lines. It’s also good to define the way a relationship will end when everyone is positive and cooperative. A business pre-nup, if you like. This could be the successful completion of the project with a debrief and dinner. Or it could be an agreement about how the project will be closed out and wrapped up if one party walks away. My policy, which may be controversial, is that you should make it as easy as possible for your clients to fire you. It’s a commitment to them that you will stand or fall by how good your work is and how much effort you put into the relationship, not how good your lawyer is.

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9 Responses to 11 things to do at the start of a new (business) relationship

  1. Einat Adar May 18, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    Wonderful advice. Particularly no. 11 which I never really thought about in this terms.

  2. Rebecca June 28, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

    Thank you for this insightful blog post! I like all of the points but #8 stands out. Show your client they can trust you by completing projects on or before the deadline. Make sure you contact them when you say you will. If you can meet a deadline, be honest about it.

  3. Riles July 2, 2010 at 12:49 am #

    I love that the main idea seems to be, ‘make business personal’ , the exact opposite of the popular idea. However, your approach makes sense. From what I’ve read browsing on this blog, you’re logical. Thanks

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