A few years ago I had a chance to interact with Jeremy Stover, an amazing life and business coach, and to train in Co-active coaching. One of the concepts that Jeremy modeled with me from the Co-active toolbox was "designing the relationship." In our interactions this was everything from when we met, how we proceeded in each session, what I wanted to accomplish and even dealing with relationship collisions such as lateness, not doing tasks or being mad at the other person.
As a designer myself, I find the idea of taking design thinking and expanding it to all my relationships to be deeply appealing. I love taking the ideas and learning from one context and seeing how it fits in others. In Aikido we call that "taking it off the mat." For me, designing the relationship with my clients means an investment of time and attention that are well worth the effort.
So, what goes into designing a relationship? In my practice, I include paying attention to how you begin the relationship, how and what you negotiate in the contractual stage and how we communicate and manage throughout the project. From the UX perspective, I consider this to be the way that I develop and tweak the communication strategy for my business.
It's really quite simple to begin designing your client relationships - old or new. Start by slowing down. Quietly begin observing your interactions - not as right or wrong - but as to whether they grow the relationship or slow it down.
Over time move into more active research:
- Ask a lot of questions and take a lot of notes
- Look at your current and past clients. What worked and what didn't?
- Start conversations that ask for other people's ideas on how to deal with specific high-stress situations
- Collect other people's successful communication strategies - tweets, business practices, writing styles, etc.
- Develop a library of templates for anything relating to your communication with clients including: contracts, non-disclosure agreements, change orders, project management docs, briefs, proposals, follow-ups, cold and warm contacts, effective newsletters, blog posts, tweets, etc.
- Ask clients to do a post-project review with you. Have them tell you what worked and what didn't and then design the relationship with them. What would they like changed, what you could offer to solve an issue that came up.
Use design thinking - be strategic
How do they respond to your questions? Do they have a preferred style of communication? Is that different for different tasks? Do you know what a successful relationship with you would look like - to them?
Do you notice any patterns emerging? Are they always late? Do they consistently go off topic? Are they resistant to your efforts to define the relationship?
What happens if something goes wrong? If you haven't talked about that at the beginning of the relationship and come up with ways to communicate - even in traffic - you're in for some bumpy projects. Educational, but bumpy.
Designing a relationship has a lot to do with bringing up unspoken assumptions/behaviors and finding ways to deal with them so that you can have a low drama landscape to work in. If patterns emerge in your initial or on-going contact with a client then it is your responsibility to creatively come up with ways to not only deal with those issues - consciously and in multiple communication styles (email, spoken, contractual) - but to make them into strengths moving forward.
We'll expand on this notion in future posts but for now, how do you design your business relationships with clients? What are you working on paying attention to as you develop or work with your clients?