Having started my own marketing services firm about two years ago after a successful career on the corporate side, the goal of creating value for customers and clients has taken on even more importance for me. At the end of the day in the B2B world, creating value is why clients choose to do business with you. It’s what they are paying you to provide. But how do you REALLY know you’re generating value for your clients?

The concept of creating value can be fairly subjective, like forming an opinion about a piece of art. You and your team may truly believe you’re doing all the right things—like achieving deliverables outlined in your business plan, meeting deadlines, staying on budget and publishing regular status reports to keep clients informed. You’re proud of the work you’re doing and know in your gut you’re delivering real value. And based on the communications you have with client contacts, you ASSUME (a very dangerous word) your client feels the same way. Can you really afford not to know for sure?

With a career spanning marketing and communication leadership positions at Coca-Cola, Newell Rubbermaid, Charles Schwab and PR, advertising and event marketing agencies, I’ve learned that B2B organizations hire professional service providers based on two key factors: your company’s value proposition (Why should I do business with you?) and your brand (What will an affiliation with you do for my business?). Delivering on these components every day and having a process in place to report on your performance, enhance your business relationships and facilitate productive, honest dialog with clients can help confirm—rather than assume–you are a value-creating enterprise.

There is no denying that one of the most important assets of your business is your clients and customers. They have chosen to do business with you, and in the ultra-competitive environment we find ourselves in today, your clients can choose to do business with a competitor in the future. Or maybe sooner than you think.

The Concept of Stewardship

During my tenure at Coca-Cola, working in a variety of marketing, communications and customer-facing leadership roles, I learned and applied an extremely effective account management concept called stewardship. If you look up stewardship online, the classic definition you will find is this:

“the conducting, supervising or managing of something… the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.”

Beyond this definition, stewardship is a much more powerful concept than “managing something.” Stewardship in the context of a B2B relationship between you and your clients is the process by which you communicate the value you are creating to establish a competitive advantage, insulate your client relationships and grow you business.

Stewardship, when practiced effectively, will allow you to:

* Review your strategies and performance with your customers
* Uncover “red flags” early and avoid surprises
* Gain a deeper understanding of your client’s business goals and objectives
* Achieve a partnership with your clients, and be perceived as more than a service provider
* Identify mutually beneficial opportunities to grow the business

Following are elements I believe a successful stewardship plan entails:

* The importance of having a coverage plan for client contacts
* An overview of the components of stewardship
* Communication opportunities for stewardship
* Keys to Success

Now, let’s get down to how you can achieve these.

The Importance of a Client Coverage Plan

The core idea of a coverage plan is developing a strategic approach to managing all the relationships within your client’s organization that directly or indirectly impact your business. The strategy, just like an election campaign, is to manage the relationships with your client’s “constituents” so these individuals have positive things to say about your firm and the work you are doing.

For example, let’s say your primary client contact is the VP of Marketing. While he/she works most closely with you, think about other members of your client’s management team who influence your business relationship — e.g. the CFO, the head of purchasing, the operations VP and members of the marketing team. While not an exhaustive list, this hopefully gets you asking yourself a key question: “Are we communicating with EVERYONE that works for our client that can influence our business relationship?” If the answer is “no,” then put a plan together at your next staff meeting. And remember, this is not just an account management/sales function. Everyone in your organization who works with this client should have a role in an effective coverage plan.

I recently completed a project for a client that works with over 100 trade associations. They asked me to help leverage my relationships with several of these associations to broaden their engagement with additional leadership team members. While my client had excellent primary point-of-contact relationships within these associations, there was a definite lack of awareness among key members of the associations’ leadership teams around my client’s capabilities and products and how they could create more value. These senior managers were not being effectively communicated to by my client. By putting together a thorough coverage plan to engage with these senior managers, my client not only will be able to build awareness, but also–in the spirit of stewardship–uncover any “red flags” that may exist with the relationship and identify business opportunities where they can position themselves as a “way to win.”

Components of A Stewardship Plan

There are two components of an effective stewardship plan that everyone in your client coverage plan should be aware of: ongoing activities and formal meetings. Ongoing activities include whatever cadence you have in place for meeting with your client–be it monthly business updates, weekly project update calls, quarterly face-to-face meetings, etc. As noted above, each of these interactions presents an opportunity to not only update your client on ways that you are delivering value to their business, but also to ask a few open-ended questions to see how he/she is feeling about your performance and address any “red flags” you might not be aware of.

These client meetings also present opportunities for you to ask about your client’s business–e.g. how the quarterly results are trending, any pending product launches or new initiatives coming up, etc. If done in a thoughtful way, this dialog will help expand your understanding of your client’s business and what’s keeping them up at night, and your clients will appreciate your genuine interest in their business.

The formal component of an effective stewardship plan is establishing a biannual or annual top-to-top meeting with your client’s senior management. This type of session is usually positioned as a “business review,” but can be one of the most important interactions you will have with your client each year. For example, you may not interact with your client’s CEO on a regular basis, and this may be the one time each year when he/she will give you their undivided attention on the topic of your business relationship. The planning you put into these sessions and the personnel you involve from your team can significantly impact how your client perceives the value you are providing, helps to insulate this relationship from competitive pressures and can be a catalyst to identify opportunities for mutual growth.

A related point here is the important role your senior leadership can play in these top-to-top meetings. An example I will never forget was back in my Coca-Cola days. I was one of the marketing leads for the account team calling on a national restaurant chain. Our relationship with the franchisee community was a bit tenuous and several initiatives we were trying to advance were stuck in the approval process with the franchisee’s marketing advisory committee. We requested a top-to-top session at their annual convention and our division president flew in specifically for this meeting. He was well prepped with all the data and metrics required to conduct an effective business conversation, but the reason why this session was successful was due to three basic questions he asked our customer after our presentation:

“How are we doing?”
“What could we be doing better to support your business?”
“What is one thing you would like to change in this relationship?”

Three very simple questions. But, because they were being asked by our senior leader to the franchisee leadership of this restaurant chain, the responses were powerful…and powerfully candid. We surfaced “red flags” and basic issues we never knew existed, worked to address them with a purposeful plan-of-action and ended the meeting in a better place with the franchisee leadership. Looking back on this session, it was a milestone moment in our team’s efforts to build a robust relationship with the franchisee community. And amazingly, our initiatives moved forward and were implemented across the entire restaurant chain within the next 18 months.

Never underestimate the power of a few open-ended questions asked of your client by your senior leadership.

I also want to share an example of how you can change a “red flag” into a business opportunity. I had the opportunity some years back to work with the account team responsible for managing the relationship with a national casino chain, one that had a predominant presence on the Las Vegas strip and in other areas of the U.S. and Asia. During the course of a regularly scheduled business review, the account team was informed that the customer was going to exercise a clause in the existing contract and put their business up for bid. Needless to say, this was the worst possible “red flag” an account team wants to hear. Thanks to some quick thinking on the part of the senior leader in the room, some well-phrased, open-ended questions surfaced the real basic issue: the customer had placed a priority on developing promotional programs to drive consumer traffic to their properties outside of Las Vegas and did not feel they were getting the level of support from the account team they expected. As the conversation continued, it turned out that during some personnel transitions on the account team over the past six months, this request had fallen through the cracks and the perception on the customer’s part was that the account team was being “unresponsive.”

The good news is, this “red flag” was surfaced and the team acted deliberately to develop a number of promotional concepts for several of the customer’s properties. The customer did proceed with opening up their business for competitive bids, but the account team won the day and kept the business. One of the reasons why was because the customer was quite impressed with the professionalism displayed during the business review when the “red flag” was surfaced—meaning, there was no emotion displayed or a sense of “being defensive.” More importantly, the customer was also impressed with the proactive, timely response the account team showed in putting a marketing recommendation together and investing the time to visit the properties, talk to the onsite management, assess the unique challenges and opportunities at each property and deliver marketing solutions tailored to each property back to the customer.

As you can see, the stewardship process is much more than delivering a business review or summarizing the work you’ve completed on behalf of your customer. It is a powerful forum for reinforcing the value you are delivering, surfacing information, exchanging ideas and having a deeply productive conversation with your customer. Successful stewardship requires planning and preparation and including the most appropriate members of your team and your management to achieve the best possible outcome: satisfied customers that acknowledge the value you are delivering to their business and express a desire to continue doing business together.

How and When to Communicate

While the annual or biannual “top-to-top” meeting is a focal point of the stewardship process, there are a number of opportunities over the course of a year when your team can embrace the concept of stewardship in their communications with customer contacts. Again, the core idea of stewardship is to review strategies and performance, ask some thoughtful, open-ended questions to identify any potential “red flags” or opportunities, and leave your customer with positive perceptions about your company, the value you are delivering and your genuine interest in their business and helping them “win.”

These communications can occur during regularly scheduled meetings, sales calls and even telephone conversations (yes, some people still conduct business by phone!). Two wonderful opportunities I’ve found that you should always seek to leverage are around industry events and entertainment. Some of the most productive, insightful conversations I’ve had with clients over the years did not take place in their office or a conference room, but occurred over a meal, on an airplane, on a golf course or at a ballgame. While entertaining clients can be fun, it is also an incredible opportunity to make a personal connection and gain a better understanding of their priorities and “personal wins.”

The second opportunity that is not as fully leveraged as it could be is industry events, such as trade shows or conferences. There is so much planning and investment of resources for companies that attend or exhibit at these events, and everyone is seeking to maximize their time productively over a two- to three-day period. But are they spending their time as effectively as they could when it comes to client interaction?

When I was running Industry Communications at Coca-Cola, a number of us attended a learning forum presented by the Food Marketing Institute, the voice of the food retail industry. The conference attracted thousands of attendees and offered a comprehensive schedule of education sessions, but the best learning for me at this conference was observing how one of our sales leaders leveraged this event in a meaningful way. He knew that the CEO with the national grocery chain he called on was going to be attending, but rather than asking the CEO for 15 minutes of his time to discuss business, or if he could take the CEO to dinner one evening, our sales lead asked the CEO which sessions he was planning to attend and if he could join him. They wound up sitting together at a session and exchanged notes and comments. Afterwards, our sales lead said to me:

“I just spent 45 minutes with (the CEO) at this session. It usually takes me about six months to get a 20 minute meeting with him! More importantly, the topic and the speaker really resonated with him, and during our chat I must have taken three pages of notes. I never would have had this quality time or gained these insights if I did not ask to attend this session with him!”

Getting to know your clients and finding opportunities to spend time with them to learn more about them and their business is a great way to deepen your relationships. You may also find that by doing so, you will leave these interactions with new ideas and insights that will enable you to create even more value for your clients.

Keys to Success

Regardless of the size of your business or what business you’re in, any organization operating in the B2B space calling on clients and customers can benefit from the concept of stewardship. While the planning and execution may look a little different from firm to firm, here are a few keys to success you may want to keep in mind as you begin to implement a stewardship plan in your organization:

  1. Steward to all levels within your client’s organization. Everyone at your company who works on a particular piece of client business has a role to play in executing an effective stewardship plan.
  2. Steward formally and informally. If you don’t have an annual “top-to-top” meeting on your calendar already, ask for one. And prepare for it like it is the most important meeting of the year.
  3. Ask several open-ended, thoughtful questions. Get your customer talking.
  4. Actively involve your senior leaders in your stewardship efforts.

I tell friends and those in my professional network, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that the greatest validation from clients that the services you are providing are of value to them is when they pay your invoices…on time. But I believe the strongest confirmation that you are truly delivering value to your customers is when they hire you again, or renew your existing agreement for the next project.

Just like the NFL head coach who is one bad season or two away from being fired, all of us in the professional services business need to do all we can to have “winning seasons” with our clients. The concept of stewardship is a powerful tool to reinforce the value you deliver, insulate your relationships, create a true business partnership, and help position your business as a “way to win” with your clients.