One of the first questions Helen Vollmer asks a new client is how much time he or she has to devote to the relationship.
“You shouldn’t go into a relationship without first realizing that it is going to take time, it is going to take commitment, and that commitment needs to be from both directions,” says Vollmer, founder and CEO of Vollmer Public Relations Inc.
To build strong customer relationships, you have to effectively communicate, she says. That means using an open and honest dialogue and encouraging your customers to be just as open with you. You must discuss tough issues with clients and develop the relationship further than work-related conversation.
Those ideas helped Vollmer grow her business to $9.8 million in revenue in 2008. Since starting the public relations firm in 1981, Vollmer has expanded the company to four offices and the client list to names like Travelocity.
Smart Business spoke with Vollmer about how to build and maintain customer relationships through communication.
Form an open dialogue upfront. First of all, you have to realize that as a counselor you are there to not just say, ‘OK, that’s what you want to do, that’s just fine.’ Really how you build relationships with them are to just have open conversations, open dialogue.
I think that’s really critical that from the get-go when you first get a client and you sit down with them and say, ‘OK, lets talk about managing expectations, lets talk about what’s realistic based on your budget, based on your services, based on our staffing, based on what we want to accomplish, and lets figure that out together.’
Bring up the hard questions when needed. Ask things that may not always be comfortable, but that push them a bit. Maybe you have recommended a certain strategy and, all of a sudden, you realize it’s not working, then you need to call them and say, ‘You know, this isn’t working; we need to do something else.’
There are times in any client relationship where it could be as simple as there is no chemistry between the person working on your account and you. Another tough issue right now is no one really knows what the economy is going to bring. Instead of just kind of hiding and sticking our head in the sand, I think we need to keep saying, ‘You know, we don’t know. We’re going to do this, and then let’s see what happens.’
And that’s just fine.
Oftentimes you have to be the one to bring things up. There are times where you go, ‘God, I just don’t want to have this conversation.’ But when you don’t have the hard conversations, those issues just get bigger and bigger until sometimes they can’t be fixed.
Call them and say, ‘Hey, we need to talk, or we haven’t heard from you in awhile, it’s pretty quiet, what’s going on.’ Or you see something that you go, ‘We need to fix something.’
I would really honestly say, don’t do that via e-mail. Those things need to be done in person or at least get started on the telephone and you can move to a face-to-face meeting.
Push your clients to communicate back. They need to be as responsive as you are. That’s one of the things you need to encourage in a client. Boy, if you get your bill and you’re not quite sure or you don’t like it, don’t let it sit on your desk for 30 to 60 days and then not call anybody and let them know. Call and say, ‘OK what’s this about,’ and have a dialogue.
It’s true in all industries. Certainly, in our industry, we work on deadlines. If we can’t get information back from them, we can’t do our job for them. Again, it needs to be a partnership.
Even in a new business phase, I would encourage people to just ask the questions: How much time do you have? When are you accessible? What is the best way for you to be reached? How do you want us to communicate with you?
Look for ways in helping them be responsive. You say, ‘Here are things we can do.’ No. 1, we can commit — and it’s different for every client — to X number of phone calls a month. Even in our contracts we write in there we want a minimum of one face-to-face meeting per month. If you need us to come to you and sit in your offices to get the information, we are happy to do that.
We always give them all of our phone numbers — home, cell, office — but we ask them to give us theirs, as well.
Remember business doesn’t always have to be business. One of the (ways) you nurture any relationship that’s professional or personal [is] you have to always keep asking, ‘OK, I know what I would like out of this relationship, but what is it that I can offer to someone else that might help them. What information do I have that will help them do a better job?’
Scanning articles and e-mailing them that may or may not have anything to do with the work you’re doing, but you (think) this person would like this information.
Again, just face-to-face casual conversations, whether it’s just, ‘Let’s go to lunch or let’s go play golf; let me take you to the opera.’ Just so that you get out of the office and realize that we’re all people.
Even if it’s business to build and nurture relationships, it’s not always about business. It goes back to the core values that you share.
How to reach: Vollmer Public Relations Inc., (713) 970-2100 or www.vollmerpr.com