It’s easy to think of clients like we think of the weather: A mysterious force over which we have no influence or control.
If that’s your take, you’re probably more a vendor than a strategic advisor, no matter what you’re billing. True customer engagement means helping to guide strategy, not just helping with tactical execution.
It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true: if you’re always doing exactly what your client asks, you’re not doing your job as a strategic account manager. Good key account managers know when, how, and why to step up and steer their clients in a new or different direction.
In this post, we’ll look at three pathways to growth that are grounded in pushing back —and pushing your customers towards better work.
- Accommodate, then educate. Make sure your clients understand what you and your team need in order to do exceptional work.
- Options, options, options. Deliver what they’ve asked—then present your recommended solution.
- The power of a POV. Show them what you know to add lasting value.
Why the Customer is Not Always Right
Before we dive into the strategies outlined above, it’s important to set the stage. Everyone in client service has faced a situation where the customer asks for a deliverable or an approach that isn’t the best path forward.
When that happens, you have a choice: Defer, or push back. There’s a time for both—and when you decide to push back, there’s a real opportunity for you to demonstrate your value as a trusted strategic partner who adds perspective and expertise, instead of just a vendor who adds capacity.
So why is it so difficult, when the customer is wrong, to push back?
- We have all been raised in a business culture that says “the customer is always right.” After all, the customer pays the bills. It takes confidence and clear-sightedness to see the long game: What they’re actually paying for is help achieving their goals—not someone to agree with them every step of the way. If you fall into the trap of always saying “yes” because it seems easier and less risky in the moment, you’ll slowly dilute your value—especially if you put long-term outcomes at stake.
- Defensiveness is the human condition. We are all hard-wired to feel defensive when someone tells us our brilliant idea maybe isn’t so brilliant. Unless you have strong communication skills and good judgement, it’s intimidating to enter what feels like a confrontation with your client. To be clear, we’re not recommending you burst in, guns blazing, and commence to calling them names; rather, we’re recommending you find a way to open a productive dialogue about new ideas.
The strategies below are all ways of navigating defensiveness on the part of your clients—especially if they also believe, as customers, that they are always right.
A final note about tone before we dive in: You have to use your own judgement about when it’s time to push back and introduce an alternate idea, and when it’s time to just to do what they’ve said. To use a soccer analogy: you have to go for the ball, not the player. If it’s clear you’re acting in the interest of the best possible work, and never attacking anyone personally, you’re less likely to incur a foul. And finally, you have to understand your customer inside and out. The more you know about the challenges they face, and the objectives they’re trying to meet, the more you can ground your conversation in long-term outcomes—which everyone will appreciate.
1) Accommodate, Then Educate
One common situation is that clients ask for something on an unreasonable timeline, or within some other unreasonable constraint. This can cause tremendous stress for your internal team.
It may be tempting, as the key account manager, to shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, the client asked for it, so we’re working all weekend to deliver it. My hands are tied.” But if you do that consistently, you’ll work every weekend. You’ll also degrade your relationship with the internal team and risk the quality of your finished product. “Rush makes mush,” as they say.
This is an opportunity to step back and teach your client what goes into your deliverables, so you can plan for a better process next time—and show them just how valuable your work is.
Remember the good/fast/cheap paradox: Your customers can have 2, but not 3. If you roll over completely to get them all 3, you’ll set a dangerous precedent that, while it seems less risky in the moment, actually threatens the quality of your work (and the strength of their outcomes) down the line. And while you might feel you’re outperforming your competition by delivering the impossible, you’re actually degrading the value of your work by implying it’s quick and easy (when it’s not). You may also be reducing the profitability of the account.
So, accommodate: Do what’s possible to meet the request. Then educate: Make sure you’re better set up for success next time. When the stressful moment has passed, have a check in with your client and explain what you need moving forward to do even better work—that helps them be even more effective in their own goals.
2) Options, Options, Options
When your customer asks for something that you know is not the best solution to their problem, a very low-risk way to introduce new ideas is simply by delivering options.
- Option 1: The thing they asked for, the way they asked for it.
- Option 2: Your recommended path forward.
If you go this route, don’t just send both options to them via email. Get on the phone. Show them their options and talk through your rationale for taking a different approach. By delivering what they ask for, you buy credibility and trust—if they don’t like it, you haven’t lost any time off the project timeline by not following their directions. But if they do like it, you’ve over-delivered, and you’ve hopefully shown them that next time, they should involve you even earlier in the decision-making process. (And they’ll usually value the thinking and ingenuity, even if they don’t choose your option this time.)
Presenting options creates opportunities not only to do better work in the moment, but also to drive organic growth with your customer. The farther upstream you are in their process, the more chances you’ll have to grow your business with them—and the more influence you’ll have over the outcomes that make you both look good.
3) The Power of your POV
It’s not enough to present options—you need to present a recommendation. There’s something very comforting to clients in knowing that you (a) understand their business; (b) understand your business; and (c) have a clear idea for how to move forward. At the end of the day, what many customers are looking for is confidence.
After all, navigating a complex marketplace (which many B2B customers do) and weathering a recession (which we’re all doing right now) take an emotional toll on even the most experienced professionals. So while you may not be able to offer certainty, you can offer confidence—and when you do, you’re addressing a fundamental emotional need of your client, even if it’s not one they express out loud when they assign you a task.
As you’ve probably picked up by now, a common thread through all these strategies is that they speak to your customers’ underlying (and potentially unspoken) needs, rather than focusing only on the task at hand. To reiterate: The only way to push back well is to understand your customers’ underlying needs—personal and professional; functional and emotional. (Last week’s post about mining customer insights might be helpful here.)
Ultimately, the reason you push back on clients is not to put your ego or your needs first. You push back to better address their needs, whether it’s by giving your own team the space they need to do great work, or by presenting new and different solutions that will help your customers meet their goals.
When you do this well, you build true customer engagement. You rise above “just another vendor” to a trusted advisor. You generate confidence, respect, and a greater understanding of and appreciation for what you bring to the table. You grow your value by keeping your eyes on the long game.
So when your client says “jump,” don’t always ask “how high?” Build the credibility and confidence to say, “Let’s try flying instead. Here, I’ll show you how.”
To see how Kapta can help you be a more confident key account manager, schedule a personal demo today.