March 1, 2013

Forging Strong Client Connections as the Workforce and Workplace Change

Thanks to evolving technology, relationships with clients have never been easier—or more crucial—to maintain.

Today’s challenging economy, combined with a workforce that is getting younger and increasingly relies on social media, email and mobile devices to communicate, makes it difficult to connect with a client for even five minutes—let alone create the thriving relationships that are critical to business growth.

“You’ve either got to get out in front or run the risk of being trampled,” says Doug Sanderson, vice president of Gleicher Manufacturing, a corporation that creates adhesive and fastener systems in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.

Intergenerational communication skills are quickly becoming a necessity in client settings. With the last of the millennial generation (those between the ages of 18 and 34) entering the workforce, the likelihood of working with a younger client increases daily. A survey conducted by Harris Interactive and CareerBuilder in September 2012 found that of 6,000 American workers, 34% worked under a boss younger than they were. And in a Harvard Business Review study released in May 2010, writers Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd projected that “millennials will account for nearly half the employees in the world” by 2014.

Just as important, older individuals are working longer, and those with jobs, whatever their age, are more likely to stay put as long as job growth remains uninspiring. A 2011 poll by the Associated found, for example, that 73% of baby boomers plan to work past retirement.

The point is that whether you are calling on a client or being called on, age and cultural differences affect communication. “Having a basic understanding of the events that shaped an individual’s thought processes is helpful [when communicating with a client],” says Lori Ermi, a human resources executive at the Ermi Group LLC, a human capital solutions and leadership coaching firm based in Washington, D.C. “We all come to the party with a set of experiences that shaped our values, no matter what generation we’re from.”

A person’s age, most obviously, is usually an indication of their communication style since it indicates the role of technology in their upbringing, Ermi says. Baby boomers did not grow up with computers in their classrooms as did generation X and millennials, which may explain their preference for face-to-face communication over emails, texts and phone calls.

A generational difference may initially make communication with a client challenging. “It’s easier for a baby boomer to talk to another 50-year-old and find something in common than it is with a 25-year-old,” Ermi says. But the differences can also provide clues that serve as starting points for a relationship, such as how a younger client can best be reached.

“You have to know which communication tools will be most effective in your relationship, and use them,” says Francis M. Ruane, vice president of corporate purchasing and materials managing for Olympic Steel in Bedford Heights, Ohio. A 2007 study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that most baby boomers prefer phone calls and personal interactions; generation X prefers emails and voicemails; and millennials prefer instant messages, text messages and emails. Millennials have also proven to prefer frequent interaction with their supervisors and colleagues.

“We have to work harder at [relationships with younger clients] and stay in constant communication to get one success story with them,” Sanderson says. “It’s very difficult to sell to a more youthful staff until we prove a relevance. Once we’ve made their lives easier, we’ve gotten over that hurdle.”

At the same time, instead of stereotyping entire generations, Ermi recommends a straightforward approach. Ask clients how they prefer to be contacted, then use that method consistently, regardless of whether it is your first choice, she says. If the client prefers to text, for example, and your texting skills are subpar, ask them for tips. Your flexibility will help you in the long run. It can also help you distinguish a genuine desire for communication and build a relationship.


Taking Advantage of Technology and Staying Flexible

Today, technology offers benefits to which companies of previous generations did not have access. The abundance of information on the Internet, for example, empowers clients who understand how to conduct their own research. “We used to be the gatekeepers of information,” says Joseph Callaway, co-owner of Those Callaways, a real estate agency in Scottsdale, Arizona. “That’s almost the reverse of what it should be: The clients were looking to us for information. Now the client has all the information and is just looking to us for service.”

New media have also revolutionized the ways companies offer basic information and updates to clients, and how often. “Technology has expanded the ease and frequency of communication,” Ruane says. “Now, I text our suppliers who like to communicate that way because it’s convenient and quick. A lot of the communication with financial marketplaces, where we do our trading, is via instant message.”


As crucial as technological adaptations may be to the success of many client relationships, they do not eclipse the value of a company’s service, or its face-to-face capabilities. “I’m not a salesman who’s frequently making sales calls, so I don’t always have the need for the frequency of texting or instant messaging,” Ruane says. “More commonly, I’ll do in-person presentations with clients and talk to them on the phone for guidance and market information.”

Remember, too, that there is never a substitute for exceptional service, especially when difficult circumstances threaten business. “The challenges of Hurricane Sandy that befell us [in 2012] created all kinds of challenges,” Sanderson says. His team handled that particular crisis by working overtime and bearing extra shipping costs.

Goodwill, as they say, can be tough to acquire, but is very easily squandered.


Staying Connected

Satisfied clients are, of course, excellent for business in many ways. You may want to ask them to recommend you to potential new businesses. “Word-of-mouth referrals are a great way to gain new clients,” Sanderson says.

Perhaps more important, a satisfied client can offer invaluable insights into your own operations and even help develop more effective marketing strategies and product designs. “We try to be at least two things for our customers: a go-to resource and [an expert on] their processes and challenges,” Sanderson says. “We’re not just selling them something; we want to know how they use it.” For example, understanding exactly how engineers and purchasing agents locate Gleicher Manufacturing on the Internet enables his company to obtain a higher ranking through the bidding system of Google AdWords. And that in turn allows the company to purchase primary link positions on the Google results page.

Thoroughly understanding your clients’ businesses and allowing them to understand yours is a two-way mentoring process that can pay unexpected dividends. It can, for instance, help you gain insights into your business that can extend into your product lines as well.

“Mentoring is a huge help,” says Jesse DePinto, president and co-founder of 3D Creations, LLC, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, startup that sells 3-D printers.

One of DePinto’s first and most loyal customers started out as a fan of the product who wanted to incorporate a 3-D printer in his company’s office. DePinto taught the customer how to use the printer. In exchange, the customer offered advice on developing a scanner design.

Clearly, there is not a magic bullet for developing strong client relationships. But as the workforce changes and the dynamics of doing business shift with it, staying alert to the implications of those changes is more important than ever.

Bridget Gamble is a writer with Imagination Publishing, based in Chicago, Illinois.

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