For better or for worse – how to form a long lasting supplier/client relationship
Annalisa Fiorentino provides some words of wisdom for those in the midst of, or those about to leap head first into, a (hopefully) long-lasting relationship…with a client or supplier.
“Being with a client is like being in a marriage. Sometimes you get into it for the wrong reasons, and eventually they hit you in the face,” says Roger Sterling, Partner at Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising agency.
Oh, it started off well enough. Your eyes met across a crowded networking event, you reached for the same sandwich at the break; there were coy giggles. You call them, discussed some work, you really clicked, you felt elated, alive … you complete the first few projects and the honeymoon period begins.
But as with any long-term relationship, things change over time. There’s going to be a first-row, tension, disagreements about money. One party may become distant, they could even stop returning your calls. Hopefully they won’t actually punch you in the face like Mr Sterling’s.
Suppliers and clients are bound together in sickness and in health, and it could be for years to come. And in any marriage there are setbacks and rocky bits along the way. Times of compromise and adjustment; times of darkness, times when you don’t feel listened to or truly understood. In fact, you don’t even have to be married to know that.
But there’s no need to feel blue. Here’s how to give each other your best years and prevent either of you from straying at the end of it.
Wham bam …
… thank you ma’am. Yeah, you know what that means. Don’t work on a big important project and forget to call after. You’re hoping this is a long-term relationship so keep the lines of communication open. Say it was great working together and that you’re looking forward to working with them in the future.
Once you’ve delivered a year’s worth of stonking work, scooped a couple of awards and delivered return on investment three-fold, you’ll both be looking for ways to top this honeymoon period. At your next meeting, the supplier should surprise the client with a ream of creative ideas or if they’re a more conservative bunch, show they care by keeping abreast of industry news. Clients bring your own ideas and don’t be afraid to try something new.
Know each other’s needs
As a supplier you need to decide which role the client needs you to play. Some people need a bit of hand-holding and encouragement, while others need animated discussion, or even a sparring partner to crystallise their vision. Perhaps they’re new to their role and are relying on your professional experience to guide them through. Perhaps they’re hugely experienced and need you for a supplementary role?
Try a little tenderness …
Numerous studies show that a bit of small talk forges strong bonds. Remember to ask how little Samuel did in his GCSEs, write down where they went on holiday. If all else fails, moan about the weather like a true Brit. The trick is to keep it professional and keep it light. If you’ve been dumped by text over the weekend, your client/agency doesn’t need to hear about it. Permissible discussion topics: transport woes, the Olympics, Made in Chelsea, Julian Assange. Over the years, your relationship will become more genuine and you can relax!
R-E-S-P-E-C-T – find out what it means
Both suppliers and clients have professional pressures and if you’ve never worked on the other side of the fence you might not always appreciate this. So if they take a little while to reply to an email, try and empathise. Always return each other’s phone calls/emails within the hour, even if it’s just to say you’ll get back to them soon.
It’s not me, it’s you
Sometimes pressure makes people a little er, emotionally charged however lovely they were in previous incarnations. This will be the most testing time of your marriage. Staying patient goes without saying, but take a deep breath/few shots of whisky and find out what exactly is bothering them. Who knows what they’re dealing with their end?
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it …
If your client has come up with a truly bizarre idea which you KNOW won’t work or your supplier wants to implement a creative solution you KNOW the CEO will never sign off, it might be kinder to challenge it. Tactfully. Given that most people are wise to the feedback sandwich now, it’s usually best to come straight out with it, humbly/sincerely/sympathetically … and offer a mutually beneficial solution where possible.
A rite of passage for any relationship; sometimes you will have to spend extended time away with your client/supplier on business, and however much you like them, you will need to set ground rules. Getting utterly inebriated on Business Class G&Ts? No. Tearing around the local clubbing scene until 5am? No. However much mischief beckons you still have to work together and it’s not worth risking the business relationship for.
Take them out to dinner, remember them at Christmas, and buy them a Milk Tray. Why? Because you love them, really.