We talk a lot about putting customers first, and that’s because we truly believe in customer-centricity as the path forward for B2B (and B2C) organizations. True customer engagement—knowing your clients, understanding their needs, and placing those needs ahead of your own—is the means by which B2B companies move from vendor to strategic partner.
The benefits of this for the provider are certainly clear: More revenue. More organic growth. A profitable and resilient business model. But the idea is that the relationship is, indeed, mutually beneficial; in a high functioning customer-vendor relationship, both parties succeed.
On this blog and elsewhere you’ll find a wealth of information on how to be a good B2B provider—but it’s less often you see people exploring how to be a good B2B customer. And that’s actually really, incredibly important, because at the end of the day, it takes two to build the kind of relationship that elevates both organizations. (And we hate to break it to you, but you aren’t always right.)
So this week we pause to take a look from the other side: What does it take to be a great customer?
The big picture goal is to build a powerful team, and inspire the absolute best work possible from all your partners. And while those partners certainly have their fair share of work to do, clients must also do their part. Here are 5 ways to be a great client:
- Share what you do know.
- Know what you don’t know.
- Be descriptive, not prescriptive.
- Be curious.
- Mind the social contract.
1) Share What You Do Know
Your partners can do better work when they know the full picture, period. They should be asking; you should be sharing.
Culturally, it’s about transparency and collaboration. Once your partner signs the NDA, expect them to dig in and ask questions about not only the specific task at hand, but also the overall picture of what your organization is trying to do. They can complete even the smallest task more effectively when they understand what it’s all leading up to.
Logistically, it’s about setting aside time for partner education. This will be a big lift in the onboarding period. Make sure you plan on a few in-depth sessions to answer questions, and set up SME downloads from people in different capacities and departments in your organization. If you plan for an intensive onboarding, you won’t feel the burden as much, and trust us: It’s worth it in the end.
Once onboarding is over, you’ll still want to keep your partners appraised of changes in your organization or landscape, including personnel changes, new product or service offerings, new competitive threats, changes in regulation, changes in internal strategy, and more. Expect your partner to be watching the landscape, too, but don’t engage in trick questions: If you know the answer, share it.
2) Know What You Don’t Know
As a writer, I’m often jealous of my art director and web designer friends. Everyone knows they don’t know how to code a website or build an app. But people are generally less aware of their limitations as writers. They think, “Here I am, writing right now. All I need is a keyboard and the word ‘utilize.’”
So let me just tell you the truth since this is a relatively anonymous space: You probably are a functional writer. And you’re probably not as good as a professional writer. (In fact, if you’ve used the word ‘utilize’ more than once already today, stop what you’re doing and go find a copywriter.) There are lots of things you aren’t for a living, and that’s okay—that’s why you hired people who are. No matter what service or product you’re buying from your partners, it’s good to remember the reason you hired a vendor in the first place is for their added expertise and/or capacity. So once they’re on board, let them do their job.
The major risk here isn’t that you’ll annoy a copywriter. (It’s actually kind of fun to annoy a copywriter.) The main risk is you’ll compromise the quality of the work and you’ll miss out on some of the major value-add of bringing on a 3rd party teammate in the first place.
Consider this analogy: If you go to a nice restaurant, you should expect good food. You should expect to order what you want, make special requests, and get what you asked for. It should be better than you could have made it yourself, and you shouldn’t have to do dishes. But you shouldn’t expect to walk back into the kitchen with your server and tell the Sous Chef, “I actually cook a little at home, so I’ll do the sauce and you can take it from there”—and then expect them to produce a delicious plate of food.
Choose a nice restaurant. Keep your expectations high. And stay out of the kitchen.
3) Be Descriptive, Not Prescriptive
Piggybacking on the idea above, you don’t have to solve every problem for your partners—that’s why they’re there. But you do need to make it clear what problem you’re trying to solve, how it fits into the big picture, and what the parameters are so they can apply their thinking.
Description vs prescription is key in 2 ways: Project kickoff and periodic feedback. It helps to have a clear brief when you engage with your partners, outlining: The big picture goal, the immediate objective, mandatories (do’s and don’ts), timing, and budget. Aside from the parameters you know to be immovable, leave the brief open ended enough for people to think creatively about how to meet your needs. If you can resist the temptation to be prescriptive, you may be pleasantly surprised at what comes back. That said, if you know exactly what you want, obviously it’s okay to say so (again, no trick questions!), but know that the more prescriptive you are up front, the less you should reasonably expect to be surprised-in-a-good-way by what comes back.
Feedback is also a place to balance prescription and description. I often tell junior writers that if someone tells you it’s not working, they’re definitely right. When they tell you how to fix it, they might be wrong. In other words, you can and should say if you aren’t happy with the first round of a deliverable from any provider, whether it’s a product, a software configuration, a marketing campaign, or any other bespoke service. But try as much as possible to stick to why it’s not working, i.e why it’s not achieving the intended objective from the brief; avoid diving too far into how to fix it.
You should also ask yourself, when you see something unexpected: Is this actually not fulfilling the objective? Or is it just not what I expected to see? Again, this is all about leaving space for other people to bring their expertise to the table so you get the most from the partnership.
4) Be Curious
Remember, you’re entrenched in your job and your organization, and that’s how it should be. Part of the value of outsourcing work isn’t just capacity—it’s perspective. So if your 3rd party partners are telling you something you’re finding hard to hear, that’s exactly when you should listen most closely.
At the end of the day, partners who push back diplomatically and constructively are more valuable than those who just say yes to you all the time. You should never feel attacked. But if you feel uncomfortable, that’s probably a good thing.
And in general, if you find yourself struggling with any decision or action internally, ask yourself whether a 3rd party partner—especially one who understands your business deeply and works hard on your behalf—might have an opinion to share. Sometimes being just 2 steps removed makes all the difference in perspective.
5) Preserve the Social Contract
This is just a friendly reminder that your partners are people, too. Sure, the business contract makes you more important. But the social contract says you are both professionals working towards the same goal. Too often, clients forget that—and the relationship gets toxic.
Another way to think of it is that it seems on the surface from the way money flows that you are on DIFFERENT teams. And technically, that’s true. But in reality your partners are on your team, and you should strive to manage, lead, and inspire them just as you would an internal team. If you set it up as a rivalrous or resentful environment, you simply won’t get the best work possible. Not because your partners are being punitive, but because nobody works as well as they could if they’re not working in a supportive, mutually respectful environment.
At the end of the day, the most successful B2B partnerships are those driven by true customer engagement. That means your 3rd party providers are taking the time and making the effort to understand what you need; they’re defining clear action plans to meet those needs; they’re checking in regularly to track metrics and refine their approach as needed. They are courteous, sincere, and professional. They do great work.
We encourage customers to maintain high expectations of their providers—and we also occasionally encourage them to step back and examine their own contribution to the relationship. Generally speaking, the more you make space for your partners to bring their expertise and thinking to the table, the better work you’ll get from them, and the more value you’ll get from the relationship.
If you’re a client service provider and this resonated with you, stay tuned for more content on how to educate your clients—how to help them help you. And to see how Kapta helps you hold up your end of the bargain, schedule a personal demo today.