How To Think About Collaborative Client Relationships
July 6, 2020
If you are a service provider, how would you describe your most important client relationships? Are they collaborations, or more transactional, though iterative, interactions? What about as a client? How would you feel if a new provider proposed taking a collaborative approach when pitching for a piece of work?
With Philosophy at Work, I (Brennan Jacoby) have always leaned toward taking a collaborative approach with clients. What began perhaps in early career insecurity (‘Have I understood the brief? Better check with the client.’) has evolved into a practice that is simply more enjoyable and effective. I just like working with clients rather than for them. They’ve got great ideas, they know their people better than I ever could, and the value we can add to the business together is exponential compared to a pre-packaged, off-the-shelf offering.
But while I am a great proponent of collaborative client relationships, and have even given a number of keynote talks sharing the ‘How to’ of this relational approach to business, I’ve never really had an explicit conversation with a client about the nature of our collaboration itself. This feels like a gap that needs filling, and it seems like an opportunity to learn and share something helpful (hence this short article). So, I sat down (virtually), with one of my clients, (and, full-disclosure, one of my favourite Learning and Development professionals), to have a candid chat about collaboration from both sides: client and provider, the ups and downs, and how to do it well.
Julia Robinson is a highly experienced professional development and training manager in the legal industry. We’ve collaborated on learning and development workshops and innovation sessions, and have had the pleasure of joining forces at Julia’s current firm, Ropes & Gray, and at her previous abode, Slaughter and May. Here are some of the highlights from my chat with Julia. I hope they help us all think (and do) better when it comes to the relationships we form with clients and providers alike.
BJ:What does collaboration mean to you?
JR:I think it’s almost easier to talk about what it isn’t . When for example a provider sends me information about their offering and it’s very much one-size-fits-all, I think that’s obviously not a collaborative approach. At the other end of the spectrum, there are providers who emphasise tailoring and wanting to understand my context, but don’t actually give me much to work with and who seem to want me to do the leg work. Neither of those amount to collaboration.
BJ: Could you give us an example of collaboration that has worked?
JR: For example, what has worked so well in our collaboration is that you bring structure and your expertise, which I respect, but equally you’re respectful of the input that I bring. For me, collaboration involves someone who recognises my knowledge and expertise from a firm perspective and from the perspective of someone who delivers training herself, but then brings their expertise in a particular area and an experience of delivering that expertise, and so together we shape the session so that it is the right session for us. You’re bringing what you know that works and I’m bringing what I know from inside the business, and together, respectively, we’re working to get the best possible offering. In my experience collaboration is about competence, quality and mutual respect.
BJ: In addition to mutual respect, what else do you think is needed for collaborative client-provider relationships?
JR: Trust is also key. As a client, every time you run a session with a provider, you are taking a risk. Expectations are high in law firms, and particularly if you’re bringing in a provider the firm has not used before you are putting your reputation on the line to some degree, and not every provider seems to appreciate that. From my perspective, what I need to get comfortable with before I use someone is that we are on the same wavelength. Over time, I develop a trust in the quality of what it is that they do and their presenting skills and experience. A lot of people offer similar sessions in the market – in fact, you’re one of the rare people who I would say delivers unique content. Given that content is often the same, what I look for is that the provider understands the audience, that I have confidence that they can relate to a lawyer audience, handle questions, and have presence.
BJ: Tell me about the early stages of relationships with providers.
JR:I am a big believer in the importance of rapport between a trainer and their audience. And if a provider is good at building rapport with me, then usually that means they are likely to be someone who will be sensitive to the different reactions they’ll get in the training room. For example, I’ve had conversations with providers where they just talked at me, and I wonder if they are going to be like that in the session. Whether it’s how you interact with an audience, what your materials look like, that on a fundamental level I’m comfortable with the core elements of how you deliver. That is key to moving the collaboration forward. Mutual respect is key.
BJ: You know that, like you, I value taking a collaborative approach, but if I’m honest, I sometimes wonder if client’s view my desire to collaborate as a sign of incompetence. Almost as if a provider worth their salt should not need to collaborate. Could you say more about what it’s like from a client’s perspective when a provider proposes taking a collaborative approach?
JR:From my perspective it is the opposite of thinking someone lacks competence. If I’m having to do all the legwork, then that’s not helpful, but if, as you do when we collaborate, the provider brings drafts for us to discuss, that tells me that you are competent, but also that you are able to pivot easily. That says to me that you have a depth of knowledge, and that you have a security in your topics that it’s not just a surface offering that has to be delivered in a certain way or your lost. For example, I think one of your strengths is that your response to audience questions in session always reveals that you have more to say than is even in the session. That comes across when you collaborate with someone who really does know what they’re talking about. They’re not as precious and they are more willing to hear feedback, to make changes and respond to what you say, because actually they have a lot they can draw from – not just the maybe 90-minutes they put together as a starting point.
BJ: Thank you – that puts me at ease! Let’s take this a bit further, when it comes to proposing a collaborative approach, who do you think should make the first move – the client or the provider?
JR:I would really encourage providers to step back from the hard sell and really think about how they can build a relationship with me over the long term so that they can get a sense of me and I can get a sense of them. So, I would encourage a new provider to adopt that more exploratory relationship-building approach. Relationships take time, but in the case of you and I, the relationship we’ve built lead to quite a lot of sessions being run this year, which I wouldn’t have even considered with any other provider who I didn’t have such confidence in. In a way I went off the back of knowing you, knowing that you deliver good sessions, the freshness of your content, and the fact that you were willing to work with me to make those sessions fit with my vision. I would also say that providers should start small. As a client, until someone has successfully presented their first session, you’re not completely confident, so starting with something small is a good way to go.
BJ: Does that mean that for the sake of building positive collaborative client relationships, providers should offer free taster sessions?
JR:What I would say is that while [free tasters] are great from a budget perspective, it doesn’t decrease the risk in anyway. So, when a new provider offers a free session, it’s not a no-brainer because my credibility is still at risk even if it doesn’t cost us anything. And sometimes I find it harder to adopt a collaborative approach when someone is offering a free session because I feel uncomfortable taking their time when they’re not charging for it.
BJ: So, cost-free doesn’t mean risk-free! I like that. I think it would be nice to end by picking back up on the drivers of collaboration you mentioned earlier and the positive difference they can make. Can you please say more about the impact of trust and mutual respect in the context of collaborative client-provider relationships?
JR:The benefit of, over time, developing good relationships with providers is that when you need to do something quickly, you don’t need as much lead time to do that. This was key when it came to pivoting quickly as we did in April when we offered new sessions in response to COVID-19. If you and I hadn’t worked together before, and if you hadn’t already understood our culture and people, it would have never happened. Logistics were still tricky, but it was a manageable pivot because we had established a collaborative approach. The more as a provider you can develop that kind of relationship, the more likely you’ll be the go-to when there’s time pressure or pressure generally. As a client under pressure, you reach for things that you know will work. It’s a mixture of having confidence in the person that has developed over time but also knowing that they will be nimble and not tricky to deal with frankly.
Ultimately, trust and mutual respect are key to moving the collaboration forward. Once I am comfortable that [a provider] is not going to damage my credibility, I become less hands on, so the collaboration can lead to more autonomy for the provider.