Tweaking the new client relationship

Karl Palachuk

I am in the process of on-boarding a new client. He is very worried that the previous consultant was not actually doing his job. Both before and after the sale, he has been very focused on what the last guy didn’t do. At first this seems like a good thing, right? But it’s important to steer the conversation away from that perspective.

When I probed about how things worked, the answer was always that they are working fine. When I asked about whether this was done or that was done, the answer was always “I don’t know.” And then a comment or two about never knowing what’s done, or never being sure that the work is done at all.

There’s both a good part and a bad part to this conversation. The good part is that the client is telling me his pain. It may not be his biggest pain or longest-lasting pain. But he’s telling me the most important reason I’m here today. It’s not because of my technical prowess: It’s because of what the last consultant did (or didn’t do).

Lead-the-ConversationThe bad part about this is that it’s not really related to the forward-looking plan for server maintenance. We should be looking at the current state of the network, squashing down any immediate issues, and building a plan for the future. It is the consultant’s job to make that conversation happen.

Obviously, you want to listen to the client and understand their perspective. Just remember that this early messaging is about the minimum you need to do to keep this client. In the bigger picture, you need to take care of all the details that actually help maintain the network.

The Post-Sale Interview

It’s a good idea to script your first client visit after they’ve signed the contract and paid for their first month of service. Make this a true fact-finding mission. You need to collect up all the documentation they have – if it was left behind. Then you need to do a walk-through with the client.

At this point, you can ask all the questions you want about the status of maintenance. For example, is the firewall up to date? When was the last time the battery backups were stress tested? Are the backups working every day?

That series of questions will uncover whatever attitudes the client has about the former consultant. Let the client vent. Let them get it all out in the open. Then take control of the conversation and make it about the future.

The first visit will probably be your opportunity to install your MAX agents on the servers. Make a point of telling the client that you’re going to get a lot of information really fast about their systems. You’ll need to make some adjustments to the monitoring. But if things appear to be working well, they probably are.

Next, you’ll create a service ticket for every item you discussed, even if the answer was “I don’t know.” Let’s go ahead and check that firewall. Let’s stress test the UPS. Let’s verify that the backups are working.

All of these tasks are things you would have done anyway, but now the client sees that you are doing them as a response to their concerns, and as a way of taking control of the maintenance. When you leave that first meeting, the client should feel relieved that they made the right decision when they hired you. They should honestly feel happy and confident that their network is being taken care of.

Next you need to determine the technical level of communication preferred by your new client. Some of this will come from the first visit and some will emerge over time. As you know, some clients like to pretend to know more than they do about technology. Eventually, you’ll learn their real level of understanding.

Three Tiered Client Communication

Three-TierSome clients want lots of technical details. They understand the basic role of a firewall and a switch. Some clients want just a little. They know that each of these things has to work just right. And many clients don’t want any details. They just want to know that you are taking care of business. All of them are made happy by something I call three-tiered communication.
Three-tiered communication looks like this:

  1. A vague overview statement about whether things are good or bad.
  2. A specific statement that is more technically accurate in describing the status.
  3. A proscriptive statement about what should happen next.

For example:

  1. There’s no immediate danger, but your hard drive is beginning to have some problems.
  2. After spinning 24 hours a day for three years, the drive is starting to get old. You have a number of bad sectors. That means the drive has to work harder to make sure it writes files to the good places on the drive.
  3. I’m going to get you a quote for a new hard drive. It’s not urgent, but definitely want to make sure we have good backups in case that drive suddenly decides to give up the ghost.

You can see that totally non-technical clients will understand statement one and the beginning of statement three (I’m going to get you a quote). People with a little knowledge will also understand statements two and three. Very technical people will get the big picture and feel confident that you’re not BS-ing them and trying to sell them something they don’t need.

Making the Conversation about the Future

About-the-FutureIn general, your ongoing client conversations should be very future-focused. A client like the one described above will want constant updates on what’s been done. And you should give them. But the long-term relationship will be built around looking ahead.

Here’s the secret of being a good consultant: You can see just a little bit into the client’s future. No matter how technical they are, they don’t follow your industry as closely as you do. And the technical knowledge they get is from various online and printed news. It’s not from practical experience or attending conferences or trainings.

For example, you know when their server will fall out of the official “support” window from Microsoft. You can combine that with the actual age of the machine and the client’s growing needs. As a result, you have a very good idea whether this client will be moving Exchange to the cloud or keeping it on a new server in a year or two.

You have similar insights with regard to their desktops, tablets, switches, printers, etc. Because of this, you can always have a future-focus conversation that’s not sales oriented. No client will get defensive when you say that they’ll need to look at the cloud in two years. They will engage you in a conversation without worrying that you’re going to send them a proposal as soon as you get back to the office.

The more you can talk about the future, the more the client will see that you really understand their network and their needs. And when you have a never-ending conversation about the future, they will be very comfortable when you start to talk about needing that server in twelve months, nine months, or three months.

Remember: As the consultant, it’s always your job to drive the conversation about technology. You may need to steer the client a bit at first, but remember that the client is paying you to be the expert. Consult!

Do you have any advice on how to manage a new client relationship? Share your tips in a comment below!