By Ken Simpson

One of Strong-­Bridge Consulting’s core values as a service provider is “Clients First.” But what does this really mean, and how does Strong-­Bridge attempt to differentiate itself in this regard? This is our firm’s take on what it really means to put clients first.

First, let’s establish some common definitions. “Clients” are the organizations we support and ultimately the specific people who engage our firm to help solve their business challenges. In other words, clients are the human beings we help. “First” means being top priority, front of the line, and being most important in terms of needs, priorities, focus, activities, and outcomes. “Clients First” then means we strive to put the people we serve above ourselves in every way.

The Strong­-Bridge approach to putting clients first has four foundational principles, which we believe are applicable to just about any type of business.

1. Customer Centric Leadership

An organization can only become and remain client centric when its leaders reinforce this approach through both words and actions. Posters on the wall that espouse messages like “Clients First” but don’t guide decision­making actually damage an organization’s culture and breed cynicism. Team members know if leaders make decisions to maximize short­-term top and bottom lines, or if they focus on long­term client value. Here is a real world example.

As a firm, we strive for perfection, but we are not perfect. We once erroneously positioned a senior IT consultant to lead an SaaS solution deployment for a client. He performed adequately, but not to the level of excellence we expect. One day our VP client mentioned in passing she was not thrilled with the previous week’s work. We rapidly reviewed the project and decided to replace the consultant at our cost. We also proactively credited six weeks’ worth of billable fees. The client was pleasantly surprised. Short­-term revenue and margin do not drive decisions that impact our clients. And, as a side benefit, our other project consultants noticed we take our “Clients First” value seriously and echoed pride in representing the brand.

2. Really Listening & Probing for Understanding

The Greek philosopher Epictetus wisely remarked, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Nowhere is adhering to this principle more important than in client relations. How can we truly understand a client’s goals, concerns, and challenges unless we intently listen? Sure, asking probing questions is critical also, but only after truly listening first. In our experience, issues and misunderstandings are almost always caused by lack of listening and probing for understanding.

A client executive once asked us to field a high­-powered team to respond to a request for proposal (RFP) on their behalf. This was a massive deal that would propel international expansion. As the Strong­-Bridge team delved into the RFP, it became obvious our client company was not ready to provide a competitive solution. After candidly expressing this opinion, the client executive said to carry onward which was confusing to our team. A few days later, during a deeper and more private conversation, the environment became clearer. The client executive was under intense pressure from the Board of Directors to respond to the RFP. The Board wanted to see growth and wanted to take a shot even if the probability of success was low. It’s always critical to listen closely and dig deeper into client dynamics.

3. Intense Focus on Delivering Results

Upon understanding a client’s situation, intense focus on developing and executing a plan is necessary. Is this basic and obvious? Yes. Is this always executed well? No. So, the obvious question is why not? This answer is that many service providers quickly become more focused on their own goals than intensely and solely focused on their clients’ goals.

At a major retail client, we saw a consulting firm get one person in the door to work on a project. Within the first week, this firm was parading sales people through the building solely to try to meet additional potential buyers and to drop unsolicited proposals on desks. They even used the client’s email system to have their firm recruiters contact Strong-­Bridge consultants in an effort to lure them away. This was all during their first week. These types of actions are the opposite of intense focus on the client and are incompatible with delivering the highest possible quality results.

4. Checking Our Egos

Listening, focusing, and delivering are key to putting clients first. But there’s more — being happy to act as the quiet advisor and not expecting or seeking praise. Egos need to be checked at the door. A service provider looking for a metaphorical parade for a job well done, or a project successfully delivered, is in the wrong business. We exist to propel our clients into the spotlight, not to take or share it. Our satisfaction is derived from seeing a client excel, receive recognition, be awarded a bonus, or the like, because their business problem is solved.

A Strong­-Bridge consultant once received an award in a large client forum with hundreds of client personnel present. It was presented by “C” level executives and was a total surprise; otherwise we would have talked the client out of doing it. It was the first time this particular award had ever been given to a non­employee. While flattering, this award actually caused tension with some more junior managers who appeared resentful of the award going to a consultant. The message was clear: service providers are best working quietly in the background.

Final Thoughts

Maya Angelou stated, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This quote aptly applies to client and service provider relationships. Clients of an organization that exhibits a “Client-First” mentality will be remembered for helping make the client feel heard, understood and, ultimately, successful. When we achieve these outcomes, and clients are placed first, our own success will follow.

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