Managing B2B Customer Relationships — Best Practice Walkthrough
Keeping clients happy and making them successful with your product or service can be a daunting task. Here are some best practices when managing clients.
This article is a summary of a recent seminar I lead for a large social media and marketing firm where I went through customer management best practices.
As someone who has founded a bunch of companies, I am no stranger to the hurdles of building companies from scratch. Whether you’re launching a new startup or scaling your business, managing customers will almost certainly be an important component of success. Learning how to properly manage customers is both challenging and exciting.
This skill is important at every stage of your customer relationship — from onboarding new clients to growing them, and of course, retaining them, there are best practices you can leverage to maximize success.
In this article, we will be looking at some practices that I regularly implement when dealing with customers. I hope you will take home some nuggets you’ll want to implement in your business!
The first thing I imagine anyone would do when thinking about how to manage a client is to go to Google and search for how to manage clients. I did exactly that before this presentation.
But like with most topics, Google’s front page results tend to provide vague instructions on how to handle clients. They focus on broader aspects of the customer relationship, like communication, leadership, listening, and strategic thinking. These are important, but they’re not helpful for people seeking more specific instructions.
I will be going through some exacting tactics and practices that have (and haven’t) worked for me in my years of experience. So let’s get to it.
#1 — Onboarding New Clients
When you’re handed a new deal from your sales team, the first thing you need to do is get them up to speed on your product or service. Onboarding is something that I have miserably failed at, but it’s also an area I was able to crack the code for success once I learned a few things.
I found that the first 30 days with a customer is the make-or-break period for onboarding. The way you handle things during this period will determine whether they stick, refer, grow, or leave.
The important thing is to make sure that your clients feel like they are getting value from you. Over time, I have learned that each customer usually resonates with one or two things. And when you’re running a business, be it a software company, marketing service, e-commerce, or anything else, there are a million features and functions you can show them.
Let’s take content marketing, for example. Even if your client says that they only want content and not any other type of marketing, there are many areas you could focus on, but what are the most important and most impactful activities to do first?
Most companies make a lot of promises to their clients, saying they’re going to do this and that. But in the end, it’s just one or two things that grab the client’s attention.
The smart way to go about this is to identify these key points as early as possible. You should use the initial conversations to find out what resonates with your client and use past experience to learn what actually works best.
Of course, this does not mean that you won’t be doing everything the customer is paying you to do. You will eventually have to get to all of that. But in the initial onboarding period, you need to nail those key points to earn your client’s trust.
The approach to finding these things will vary for each customer. I would encourage you to try and extract this information from early conversations. This will keep your clients focused on the tasks at hand.
Many companies make exaggerated promises that set unrealistic expectations. While setting expectations is important, setting feasible and realistic goals and metrics is more crucial to onboarding.
So don’t overload your new customer with bells and whistles, you’ll have plenty of time to do that later if the client sticks. Instead, focus on the two or three things that resonate with your clients and get results during the first 30–60 days of the risk period.
#2 — Gaining the Client’s Trust
Trust is an interesting topic for me. From my experience, clients start working with you in one of two ways — they come trusting and lose trust over time, or they come not trusting and gradually gain trust. This has consistently been 50–50 in my experience.
Frequently the person at the company you’re working with is not the same person who was originally sold to. That means there may be misaligned expectations. The original person who was involved in the sales process might have been excited about the new relationship with your business, but the person who is ultimately responsible for implementing your product or service is thinking something totally different. This erodes trust and it’s something that is partly out of your control.
To address this, focus on quick and small wins. Don’t get wrapped up in a big initial project that will take months to show value to your customer. Find a few things you can knock out and show progress so you earn a little trust.
Back to the content marketing example; generally this work takes a long time to show results. Your client may not fully appreciate this. So give them a few little wins early on before embarking on the long-term efforts.
This approach is likely to put your client into a position to accept more chunky initiatives and be patient as you show more and more value to them.
#3 — Be Responsive to Emails
In a business, you will have to deal with multiple mediums of communication. Phone calls and emails are the most common forms of communication in any business. Many companies neglect the importance of being responsive to emails. But this is such an easy win with a new client. Just respond quickly.
Often, account managers get overloaded. But a simple email saying that you understand the clients’ questions and will get back to your client will dramatically improve your client’s trust.
Just like highlighting small wins, giving attention to the little details goes a long way for customer relationships. And always read incoming emails thoroughly, even if you are busy. Frequently clients will ask multiple questions in one email and often in a long-winded way. It’s your job to extract the key asks and let them know they’re being heard.
#4 — Identifying Problems
Your clients hire you because they have problems they expect you to solve. Either they aren’t getting enough leads, or they need more traffic, more social media likes, and so on. That is their end goal. But it isn’t necessarily their root problem.
Aim to extract the root issues from the customer as quickly as possible. The way I do this is by asking them about their annoyances. Find out what frustrates them, what’s cumbersome or repetitive, these are the paths to a real problem.
Be careful not to simply ask customers about their problems? When you do this they’ll almost always say that everything is fine. Or they might give you a vague answer that won’t help you very much.
When you ask them about their day or what is bugging them, they are more likely to address their real problems. And when you find out what’s really going on for your customers, you can angle your service to address that.
It’s good to do this early on. This gives you a lot of time to identify the problems and helps build rapport with customers.
#5 — Mastering Challenging Conversations
The one thing I always say about challenging conversations is, “Don’t be afraid.” Nobody likes bad news. I hate it and want nothing to do with it. My default reaction to bad news is to avoid it at all costs.
But I’ve conditioned myself to be open to bad news and let go of that fear. I get that having tough conversations is uncomfortable; nobody wants their clients to be mad or unhappy.
It’s impossible to move forward and make progress without figuring out what is working and what isn’t. So when a client is unhappy and has bad news, I embrace it and hear them out.
The obvious next step is to move towards a solution. And the longer you delay bad news, the longer it will take to find a solution. Moreover, communicating makes it easier to solve the problem at hand. You can break down your problem into smaller chunks and deal with them one at a time.
Apologizing is the automatic response to bad news for a lot of people. While you should apologize for your mistakes, you need to let your clients know that you are working on fixing the problems.
Merely apologizing and thinking the matter has been dealt with will only cause more damage in the long run. You need to let your clients know that you’re taking the matter personally and trying your best to solve it.
However, keep in mind that you won’t be able to solve every problem, so you shouldn’t make empty promises. You need to make it clear that you will do your best and bring out the best result that is realistically achievable.
#6 — Building Communication Skills
Good communication is challenging but critical. I teach high school entrepreneurship and communication is a cornerstone skill we work on. One thing I have my students do is take part in practice sessions. I give students a prompt and have one student talk to another student in front of the rest of the class.
They converse for five minutes while the rest of the class watches and evaluates them. They point out things that worked and things that didn’t.
This system creates a great mechanism for circle learning. Everyone learns something, and I do this in corporate environments, too.
Best not to practice communication in large groups. Instead, divide bigger groups of people into small teams and do communication sessions on various topics. Discussing in small groups offers more value and keeps people engaged in the conversation.
In addition to practice sessions in groups, do mini breakout sessions to work specific problems with your colleagues. For example, when your client is trying to accomplish something and you’re stuck on a solution, find a few co-workers and set up a five-minute session on it. You can learn a lot of things from such conversations while also improving your communication skills.
In my experience, agencies are not the best at communication. Agencies rely a lot on PowerPoint presentations for things like onboarding. They often walk clients through a 15-page presentation and leave it at that.
Presentations are one of my least favorite ways to communicate, so I try to stay away from them as much as I can. It’s hard to keep people engaged when going through a step-by-step presentation.
Instead, make an outline with single-line bullet talking points. I like to keep things more casual and natural. If I need to show any material, I stick to one-pagers. While this might not be possible in places where customers expect a corporate atmosphere, this is a great way to break down barriers.
#7 — Retention
Most companies send a monthly report with tons of graphs and data to show their progress to the clients. Similar to my points on presentations, I find that summaries with bullet points are generally more effective.
This is something I follow when working with clients. I break down key information into bullet points and add a couple of relevant screenshots and graphs. But the important part is that instead of sending a monthly report, I do it every week for the first 30 days.
The first 30 days are a crucial period. During this time, I want my clients to see every little win as soon as they happen. So, I will send them an email with ten or so pointers that I want them to know. After the first month, you can switch the weekly or monthly.
Many customers will be used to seeing charts and graphs to showcase progress, but the truth is they aren’t super actionable. When you’re trying to move a client from point A to B you need to show how the data can be used to take meaningful actions. Graphs are great for showing long-term trends, but I suggest using bullet points and short summaries to get customers moving forward.
#8 — Documentation
In my experience, most companies are bad at documentation, but I love documenting processes. Whether it’s onboarding, a check-in process, content creation steps, social media workflow, whatever, I document all the steps for future reference and reusability.
I have a step-by-step written document for everything I intend on doing more than once for my clients. This helps me keep to a process that works, but also, when I need to scale my team, I can just show them the documents that explain the process they will need to follow.
You can use tools like Notion to substantially improve your documentation experience. It is arguably the best tool I have found for storing these kinds of documents. The platform not only makes the documentation process simpler but also keeps everything organized.
#9 — Inter-Team Collaboration
Collaboration is an essential part of any business. But collaboration becomes more difficult as businesses start to grow and scale employee counts. Frequently people start to work in silos. Sure, you can be effective when your heads are down and no distractions, but from a client management perspective it has its drawbacks.
Consider one of the great assets of any startup; speed and flexibility. With only a handful of team members like an early-stage startup, it’s easy to be collaborative. The bigger your team gets, the harder it is to keep the collaboration going. Be deliberate here. Make time to connect with team members. Keep it simple, don’t have 3-hour weekly update meetings. Instead, take a cue from agile development and have 15-minute standups. You can always break out with a smaller group to discuss larger topics.
#10 — Value Demonstration
Clients come to you with certain goals in mind. It’s important to know those goals and work towards them. But demonstrating value to your customer isn’t exclusive to achieving their stated goals. Value comes in a lot of forms. Simply taking work off your clients' plates is valuable. Saving them time is valuable. Making them more organized is valuable. These benefits are generally easier to achieve, so don’t miss out on giving them to your customers.
Value demonstration begins when a company understands its customers, this is often called customer development, which is an ongoing process of connecting with and learning about your customer needs. When it comes to managing customers, you can take the same approach to find ways to create value for them.
I think about value demonstration in two ways: short-term and long-term. Short-term value is small wins often unrelated to what you were hired to do. Short-term value gets clients motivated and engaged and gives you time to provide long-term value. Long-term value is why clients renew and refer. This is where you knock it out of the park on their stated goals. You need to do both but focus first on short-term value so you have a shot at long-term value.
Remember, clients often have a hard time seeing the bigger picture. And, BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) usually take time to get results. That means you need to balance the long-term goals with short-term wins to really lock a customer in.
#11 — Clarity
Clarity is an integral part of ensuring smooth communication between different parties. All too often I observe businesses replying to customer questions in a vague manner that just doesn’t get the job done. Don’t do this. Be specific and direct. Keep communication short and simple.
Whenever you are writing an email or relaying a message, you should think about the things you can do to make your client’s life easier.
Here’s an example. I sent a Dropbox folder with 10 files and instructions to a partner. A week later, they asked me to add more files. So, I added the files to the same folder. But instead of just telling them I added the documents, I actually included the link again. Yes, they already had the link from my last email, but why make them hunt through the thread to find it. Just paste it again. This little time saver makes a big impact.
This is something you should focus on whenever you are dealing with clients. If there’s something you can do to make your client’s life a little easier, do it without a second thought.
Customer Relationships, Wrapping it All Up
Managing customer relationships is an art form as much as a science. Being an effective account rep takes effort and discipline. The best practices I’ve outlined in this article are guides to progress, but ultimately you need to find your own style and process. How you deliver information, extract needs, demonstrate value, and so on, are things you need to figure out. And once you do, write it down.
Managing customers is all about making an impact; for the client, for the company, and for yourself. If you focus on doing that, your customers will be happy and you will never get demotivated.