Having started my own marketing communications firm several years ago after a successful career on the corporate side, the goal of creating value for customers and clients has taken on even more importance for me. At the end of the day in the B2B world, creating value is why clients choose to do business with you. It’s what they are paying you to provide. But how do you REALLY know you’re generating value for your clients?
The concept of driving more value into your customer relationships can be fairly subjective, like forming an opinion about a piece of art. You and your team may truly believe you’re doing all the right things—like achieving the deliverables outlined in your plan, meeting deadlines, staying on budget and publishing regular status reports to keep clients informed. You’re proud of the work you’re doing and know in your gut you’re delivering real value. And based on the communications you have with client contacts, you ASSUME (a very dangerous word) your client feels the same way. Can you really afford not to know for sure?
Having been on both the client and agency side during my career, I’ve learned that B2B organizations hire professional service providers based on two key factors: your company’s value proposition (Why should I do business with you?) and your brand (What will an affiliation with you do for my business?). Delivering on these components every day and having a process in place to report on your performance, enhance your business relationships and facilitate productive, honest dialog with clients can help confirm—rather than assume–you are a value-creating enterprise.
The Concept of Stewardship
During my tenure at Coca-Cola, working in a variety of marketing, communications and customer-facing leadership roles, I learned and applied an extremely effective account management concept called stewardship. Stewardship, in the context of a B2B relationship between you and your clients, is the process by which you communicate the value you are creating to establish a competitive advantage, insulate your client relationships and grow you business.
When practiced effectively, stewardship will allow you to:
¥ Review your strategies and performance with your customers
¥ 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
Following are elements I believe a successful stewardship plan entails:
¥ The importance of having a coverage plan for client contacts
¥ An overview of the components of stewardship
¥ Keys to Success
The Importance of a Client Coverage Plan
The core idea of a coverage plan is developing a strategic approach to managing all the relationships within your client’s organization that directly or indirectly impact your business. 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 VP of Marketing. While he/she works most closely with you, think about other members of your client’s management team who influence your business relationship — e.g. the CFO, the head of purchasing, the operations VP and members of the marketing team. While not an exhaustive list, this hopefully gets you asking yourself a key question: “Are we communicating with EVERYONE that works for our client that 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 coverage plan.
Components of A Stewardship Plan
There are two components of an effective stewardship plan that everyone in your client coverage plan should be aware of: ongoing activities and formal meetings. Ongoing activities include whatever cadence you have in place for meeting with your client–be it monthly business updates, weekly project update calls, quarterly face-to-face meetings, etc. Each of these interactions presents an opportunity to not only update your client on ways that you are delivering value to their business, but also to ask a few open-ended questions to see how he/she is 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 a biannual or annual top-to-top meeting with your client’s senior management. This type of session is usually positioned as a “business review,” but 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, and this may be the one time each year when he/she will give you their undivided attention on the topic of your business relationship. The planning you put into these sessions and the personnel you involve from your team, especially your senior leaders, can significantly impact how your client perceives the value you are providing, helps to insulate this relationship from competitive pressures and can be a catalyst to identify opportunities for mutual growth.
Keys to Success
Regardless of the size of your business or what business you’re in, any organization operating in the B2B space calling on clients and customers can benefit from the concept of stewardship. While the planning and execution may look a little different from company to company, here are a few keys to success you may want to keep in mind as you begin to implement a stewardship plan in your organization:
1. Steward to all levels within your client’s organization. Everyone at your company who works on a particular piece of client business has a role to play in executing an effective stewardship plan.
2. Steward formally and informally. If you don’t have an annual “top-to-top” meeting on your calendar already, ask for one. And prepare for it like it is the most important meeting of the year.
3. Ask open-ended, thoughtful questions when you engage with your customers. Get them talking.
4. Actively involve your senior leaders in your stewardship efforts.
I tell friends and those in my professional network, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that the greatest validation from clients that the services you are providing are of value to them is when they pay your invoices…on time. But I believe the strongest confirmation that you are truly delivering value to your customers 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 need to 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, insulate your relationships, create a true business partnership, and help position your business as a “way to win” with your clients.