AAJ was notified this week that we were rated the top Solution Provider at Citrix. In 2013, we were ranked number two and have been recognized as one of the top Solution providers since Citrix started ranking their vendors. We are very proud of ranking higher than so many quality firms, from local businesses and global outsource companies, to the leading billion dollar management consulting firms. Our Citrix team deserves all the credit for their customer service focus, technical excellence, and knowledge of Citrix internal systems and culture. This honor spurred an internal conversation about what we are doing there, what makes us successful, and how we can continue to replicate it over and over.
In this post, I would like to document some of the critical success factors (CSFs) that we determined were the keys to our success at Citrix. Here is a list that we came up with.
- Continuous delivery – do what you say; on time, on budget.
- Provide added value – see opportunities and innovation to seize, or challenges to solve.
- Care and dedication – care about the success and happiness of your client. Become personally vested.
- Understand procedures and protocol – know what to do and say, how to do and say it, when to do and say it, and why to do or say it.
- Be immersed in the culture of the client – Every client has a unique culture, when on site you must understand and embrace it.
- Have a strong commitment to the AAJ customer experience model, which focuses on process predictability, setting proper expectation (i.e., no surprises), high quality, customer engagement, team work and completing work on time and within budget.
- Have technically intelligent consultants who become technical advisors.
- Have thought leaders as engagement managers and solution advisors who understand the customer’s business and strategic vision.
- Have focused attention from the executive management.
- Continuous longevity is key to building relationships, knowledge and mutual understanding.
Let’s take a look at each one of these and discuss why each is important to the overall success of the relationship.
1. Continuous Delivery
This CSF is both logically self-evident and the foundation for all other CSFs. You either perform the job/task well, or you do not. If you don’t, you will not be asked back. An award winning relationship with a client is built on the foundation of quality delivery. You must be good at what you do. You must have expertise and be able to execute that expertise to solve problems or build solutions. Over time, with each successful delivery of project after project, you earn a reputation of dependability, trust, and efficiency. If you want to start building long lasting client relationships, start with being good at what you do, and being consistent at delivering it.
This sounds easy, but I can tell you from experience it is actually difficult. I owned a company in the past that was great at marketing, but delivery was inconsistent. We would bring on an average of about 35 new clients a year. That was phenomenal for a company our size. We were bringing in more clients than companies 3 or 4 times our size. However, because we were very inconsistent in delivery, we could not build more than two or three key accounts that had continued and growing revenue. It was a real issue and became the main reason for selling the company.
That is one of the things I have really enjoyed about working with AAJ. AAJ has seasoned and proven delivery practices. We have strong leadership that understands that excellent delivery is the key to customer satisfaction which is the best way to drive growth and revenue. AAJ builds long term client relationships, some exceeding 10 to 15 years of continuous work. They do this by being good at what they do. It all starts from that simple concept.
2. Provide Added Value
As you become consistent delivering on what you do well, the next step in the consulting evolution is to become an advisor, solution provider, and innovation champion. It is the systematic process of looking for and finding new ways to improve the clients operations, processes or systems. It takes a concerted effort. It is something you must be cognizant of, and an activity you practice often. It is a skill that good consultants learn over time. It is aided by having intelligent, business minded people in the field, and an organization that trains, encourages, and rewards providing added value.
For our long term clients, having another pair of eyes and ears looking for ways to improve systems is a great thing. We are vocal if we believe there is a better way to do something. We recommend new technologies that can improve operations and we look for inefficiencies that can be eliminated. We offer more than just getting the project done (although see point one, the project is first priority). By doing this, our value increases and the ROI for the client increases. It becomes a partnership based on value and mutual benefit.
3. Care and Dedication
Now that delivery and value are taken care of, we move to more subjective criteria. Care and Dedication are probably the foremost of these subjective criteria. One of the things that have helped us build our Citrix relationship is that our team cares about the Citrix team. They care about their success, their well-being, and happiness. Because our team cares, they listen, they question, they encourage. But care without action is useless. So how does care manifest itself into action? Dedication. Dedication to the task at hand and to the project to be delivered. And while dedication is a daily occurrence, the real test comes down to what are you willing to do when everything is on the line. This is where AAJ consultants have excelled. There are many stories I could tell, but this is a blog, not a book. It will have to suffice to say that we have had consultants who volunteered to work nights, weekends, to cancel events, to move a wedding (Both Citrix and AAJ did not let that happen) just to make sure the project was delivered on time and on budget. There is no question that our Citrix team is dedicated to the success of Citrix and they care about the success of the Citrix team.
As you think about how to build successful client relationships, you have to build a team guided by solid core values. The values of empathy, care, and dedication are key if you are ever to navigate the journey of building an award winning relationship. And it is a journey. During it, there will come times that you need your team to go above and beyond. There are times you have to ask the team to work long hours or weekends. This will take a level of care and commitment from your team.
The funny thing is this a skill or attribute that does not require intelligence, skill or knowledge. We have all heard a coach tell us that effort is the one thing you can control. I certainly remember my football coach constantly telling (yelling at) me that talent, speed, athleticism was God-given, but effort was wholly dependent on me. “There is no reason you are not giving the most effort on the field”. He was right, and this also applies to caring and dedication with clients. You do not have to be the best or smartest, you do not have to be the most skilled or talented person to care the most and to be the most dedicated. Care and dedication is something you can build, encourage, and demonstrate. How dedicated you are as an organizations is completely up to you.
4. Understand Procedures and Protocols
This seems straightforward but is easily forgotten. We all have our own way of doing things. We are excited and anxious to prove ourselves so when we get to the client we just start moving forward. How often have you offended a client or upset someone because protocol was not followed? Maybe your salesperson starts calling other departments to look for more business before the project even starts. As a sales manager, I want that type of aggressive behavior, but you have to know your client and their protocols before signing off on it. Or maybe you find a way to get around an internal process that is a roadblock. It can help in the short term to do this, but it will hurt the long term relationship. So vendor beware.
Building a long term relationship with a client is like a long term personal relationship. You have to know what the client likes and their preferences. Doing things “their way” helps things move forward and reduces roadblocks. There will be pet peeves on both sides. You have to know what they are and how to effectively stay away from them.
It is important to learn these internal protocols as soon as possible. The consultants, engagement managers and account managers all need to have conversations with their constituents to learn about any pitfalls or traps. Senior management also needs to talk with the client leadership to understand their protocols and preferences. The longer the relationship, the better you know the protocols and how to navigate an organization. This will contribute to the success of the project and delivery. It also improves your value and the relationship.
5. Become Immersed in the Customer’s Vision
This is a little different from the procedure and protocols. It is about embracing the overall culture of the client. How do they do business, how do they like to communicate, what is important to them. You have to understand your client’s mission, vision, and direction.
At Citrix, our team is entwined with the Citrix team. Let me say that this has as much to do with Citrix’s team and management, as is does with AAJ. The Citrix team has embraced our team and the value we provide. It takes the willingness of both the client, as well as the consultant. Citrix is phenomenal about communicating the culture, direction, and purpose of initiatives. They encourage creativity, expressiveness, and innovation. They expect these things from their consultants, which in turn encourages our consultants to become vested in the Citrix culture and they want to produce even more value to them. It is a win-win.
When building long lasting client relationships, it helps to have the same culture as the client. But regardless if it is similar or not, your team needs to embrace the client culture and learn to work within that environment.
6. Customer Experience Model
AAJ has a well-documented Customer Experience Model that describes the various interactions with a client including the tasks, outcomes, and deliverables for each level of interaction. It guides the client experience through initial contact to maintaining ongoing client relationships. It is based on the concept similar to team-buy/team-sell. It matches executive to executive, directors to directors, manager to manager, and so on. Essentially the model focuses on process predictability, setting proper expectation (no surprises), high quality, customer engagement, team work and completing work on time and within budget.
We believe a customer experience model is key to building long term customers. As I have mentioned before, to build an award winning client relationship is a journey and you need a documented “how to” guide along the way. That is what a Customer Experience Model is. It helps to ensure consistency in customer service and at each level of the journey. You need to have a consistent way to introduce yourself to a client, to provide a company overview, to start an engagement, to run the engagement, to provide customer service, run account management, and review the health of the account. All of these areas should be defined with objectives for the contact, outcomes to be achieved, deliverables, and client benefits.
If you are interested in seeing more about our Customer Experience Model, email me at tommy [dot] simon [at] aajtech [dot] com and I will send you information about our process.
7. Intelligence and Technical Competency
Consulting is a unique industry in that we do not have a product to sell. The collective know-how, experience, intelligence, and technical efficiency, with any previous accelerators or Intellectual property becomes our product. Therefore, it follows that a large part of the value that we provide to our clients is based on the degree of intelligence and technical proficiency our consultants provide. At a consultant level, we want our consultants to become advisors in their area of expertise or technology.
We have a very strong team at Citrix. They are able to work on their own and get the job done. But they also can provide second opinions, new techniques, and technical advice when necessary. The Citrix team, as you can imagine, is very talented and proficient. But there will be times where new challenges arise and our consultants become part of looking for a solution. Over the nearly 10 years of working with Citrix, our value has increased because of this capability. The core driver of our relationship with Citrix is at the foundational layer of the technical consultant.
8. Engagement Management
One of things we take pride in here at AAJ is our engagement management. We believe it is a core differentiator from the normal regional SI or Microsoft Partner. We have two excellent engagement managers at Citrix. Both are technically brilliant (one was the top student in a state of 20mm people, one scored in the top 5 scores in a worldwide test Microsoft issued), both know the Citrix culture, and both are very good solution consultants. They both are gifted in finding innovative ways to solve challenging issues. I can share some case studies of a few of the challenges they have solved. If you are interested in seeing them send me a request at tommy [dot] simon [at] aajtech [dot] com.
In analyzing AAJ’s relationship with Citrix, engagement management kept coming up as a key difference. In fact, when we looked at the companies AAJ has a long term relationship with, all of them started small and were grown through effective engagement management. Why? Because effective engagement managers become a real value to the client. They understand the business of IT, they understand enterprise architecture and application portfolios, and they have solved complex organizational issues. Most engagement managers have been CIOs or VPs of IT, they have worked their way through all facets of IT, and they have strong business acumen. In short, they are true advisors. So rather than have PMs lead our engagements, we look for individuals with a deeper skill set that will provide critical support to our clients. And when called on to do so, they can provide needed guidance or even fill critical roles for our customer.
If I were trying to build strong client relationships, I would absolutely start with the engagement manager first. There is no other position that can positively impact a client more. They are the lynch pin for a long term relationship because they speak the same language as the client’s leadership. They help the client craft creative solutions to the biggest issues.
9. Executive Focus and Commitment
It is hard to build a long term client relationship if the executive team is not vested in the relationship, if it is not actively monitoring the health of the relationship, or enabling the teams with the tools and training needed to serve the client. For long term client relationships to form, there needs to be ongoing and regular communication between the executive teams. The executive team needs to plan, mandate and monitor communication at all levels of the organization. The executive team needs to be actively engaged. If the team sees the importance of the relationship at the executive level, it will encourage them to pay attention to it as well.
The executive team should have a quarterly meeting with the client as well. This should cover overall performance, upcoming needs, new ideas or innovations, and issues. This regular meeting will show the commitment of the whole organization to the client. As you look to build new client relationships, plan regular executive meetings both internally and externally.
Nothing helps a relationship more than longevity. The longer you can work with a client, the more you learn about their needs and preferences. You also get to know all of the team, including supporting personnel. This can help you get things done faster and more effectively which in turn increases your value to the client. The client gets more value for their dollar because they do not have to teach you, or show you how to get things done, or make introductions. You just become more efficient at getting the job done.
It is not just client organizational knowledge that is gained with longevity, but there is also technical domain knowledge. As a team, you are able to understand the systems, how they were deployed, and the overall architecture. This knowledge is key when bringing on new consultants or starting new projects. In a lot of ways, it actually is an asset to the client because as they lose people, the consultant can fill in gaps and train new people.
The trust that is developed over time, also plays a big part in developing an award winning relationship. After years of delivery, the client will trust you more. They will listen to advice or ideas, and they will rely more on you. This usually results in the consulting teams working on higher value projects. It is hard for a client to give a new partner a critical project to complete. But with time, the client is much more likely to assign critical, high value projects to a proven vendor. So trust, gained through longevity, does play a critical role in continuing to build client value and strengthening the relationship.
So, whether you already have long term clients or you are just starting to build client relationships, by focusing on these 10 factors (and any not mentioned here) can help you build award winning client relationships. I hope this blog helps you with your business. Please let me now if you have any CSFs that you would like add. Or if you just have a comment, please shoot me an email. As always, I hope you have a safe, healthy, happy and prosperous week.