Business blogs and talks are so often filled with sports metaphors and allegories of conflict and triumph, and while these can be helpful ways to illustrate the importance of grit and perseverance, they miss one fundamental point: business should not be conducted against others. Instead of opponents, we can consider worthy rivals; instead of winning, we can consider growing and bettering. This change in perspective, however, can be easier described than done.
One of the places where we can observe a particularly misplaced adversarial relationship is between the business and the client. Not only does this perspective add unnecessary friction to the situation, but it isn’t conducive to particularly optimal outcomes in the business relationship at all. It limits our ability to be agile and collaborate with the client to produce a better outcome and environment for everybody involved.
The Myth of the Adversary
One of the biggest sins of building a client relationship is viewing the relationship as purely transactional. There is an important transaction being made, to be sure, but this fact should not dictate the entire nature of the relationship, nor should it shape how either entity behaves moving forward. This is never a healthy perspective, but taking it to the extreme can quickly turn adversarial. If you see the client as an abstract set of requests, then they turn into an obstacle standing between you and payment—or delivery, more specifically. This obscures the fact that the client is a person or a team made not only of real human people, but with useful insights into the project.
Much of the literature on client relationships, while very useful, does not move past this transactional relationship perspective. It’s important and healthy to build a positive rapport, but it should go further than just building confidence and extending professional engagement. More than just a partner or a colleague, your client should be part of the team.
Teamwork and Collaboration
Stepping away from the client relationship, consider a successful workplace. What sounds more productive, a team of talented individuals that keep to their own work, or collaborative group of co-workers that complement each-other’s strengths? The truth is that the adage holds water: teamwork makes the dreamwork. Hiring talented individuals is important, but if they don’t work well with the team, it’s like the talent cancels itself out. On the other hand, a healthy team environment is a place where team members not only work together, but help each other grow.
Now, let’s step back to the client relationship. The traditional transactional relationship where communication almost starts and ends at the contract negotiation is like hiring talented individuals. Great points may be made while the project is pitched, and the negotiation might go great, but both parts lose out if they go their own ways after this conversation. Instead, the business and the client would benefit from collaborating throughout the project. As the team works towards deliverables, they are bound to learn more about the process and about how certain changes might be more optimal. Likewise, further insight from the client can shape the process, especially if expectations and understanding of the project and purpose evolve along the way. If either or both entities learn more information, there’s no reason that the next creative conversation should happen upon completion of the project, or even just during a simple update. The relationship would be more fruitful as an ongoing conversation.
An Agile Approach
This collaborative approach to client relationships is an important part of an agile methodology, which is a philosophy that values agility as a fundamental precursor to success. Valuing customer collaboration over contract negotiation reflects agility, because it allows the creative process to adapt to new information and new needs. A collaborative and conversational relationship with the client allows the deliverable to evolve into what it needs to be, rather than to simply be what was thought to be needed at first glance. The work informs itself, and the workers should be able to react to that.
Agility, more broadly, is an incredibly useful trait that can and should be implemented at every turn of business. These ideas come from the Agile Manifesto which looks to develop better software specifically, but the values ring true across all fields. Agility, and the ability to acclimate, are overwhelmingly healthy traits to have.
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