Adding value Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

Mark Rutter says that business comes down to a simple equation: If you help your clients be successful, you’ll be successful.

The president and CEO of GROUP360 Inc. led his company to post $40 million in revenue for fiscal 2009, an 18 percent increase from 2008. The marketing communications firm’s growth in recent years is linked to the fact it listened to customers’ needs and restructured into a single-source provider of creative services. The new value proposition has clients like Anheuser-Busch Inc. and Johnson & Johnson saving money and getting products to market faster.

“Helping an organization or an individual achieve their goals is probably one of the most important things that anybody can do,” Rutter says. “You can’t do that unless of course you do understand what the clients’ needs are, and you can’t understand those clients’ needs unless you can build some relationships with people so they can openly and honestly tell you what they think their organizations need.”

Smart Business spoke with Rutter about how to build customer relationships.

Get to know your client. Without question, you can’t really understand what someone else needs or some other organization needs unless you know about them, you know about their history, you know about their problems, you know about their success, you know why they do what they do. In order to do that, you really have to get to know the individuals that run the organization.

You would do that through a variety of different relationship-building processes ranging from just communication, lunch, seeing them in their environment. You can even do that on a golf course. Any way that it would be useful to listen to them and see what their needs are would build that relationship.

I think the best way is face to face. It’s interesting that in our business we have a variety of ways to communicate for our clients, ranging from the advertising, design, photography, building point-of-scale displays or trade shows or events, all those are ways that we use to help our clients go to market and become more successful. But when it comes to building a relationship the ideal way — if you were a big company selling, let’s say, soap powder, you would still be talking to the user of that soap and making sure you understood their needs.

The same thing holds true with us talking to our clients. As long as we can talk to them directly and have two-way communication and make sure that we listened to what they say, that’s the best way to build that relationship.

Ask clients about their past and future to better understand their needs. You can just ask a question like, ‘Where do you think your organization is going? What are the obstacles that keep you from getting where you want to go? How will you know once you get there that you’ve arrived, and then what will you do?’ Those are all open questions.

First of all, you would just ask open questions that will elicit a response that will be having the client, in essence, tell us their story. If they can tell us their story … we learn all about them, and we also learn that their story is different from somebody else’s story.

There’s a desire in business to quantify people into groups and say the demographics of this group are this or that. I think that sometimes is misleading because people are really uniquely different and organizations are also very uniquely different.

So the better you know them and understand who they are and what they stand for and where they want to go, the better off you can serve them.

Put work into maintaining the relationship. That’s the hard part. We have to continually (review) that relationship by making sure we’re giving the client what they need and what they can see is of value to them.

We have a variety of different ways we work with clients. One of the ways we work with some of our major clients is called a steering committee, and we have people that interact with each other, both from the client as well as from our company, on a regular basis. It’s a very good form for resolving issues or for discussing future opportunities, as well. But because it’s interactive, it’s a whole lot more effective than us just (assuming) we know what the client needs.

The steering committee really is a pretty old model of people just collaborating together, and rather it (comin) just one way, it puts people together for a common goal of making sure that their clients’ needs are met. They can be run in a lot of different ways, but basically, they meet on a regular basis, they have an agenda and then they have an open forum part, which (is) very good for issue resolutions.

In a steering committee model, there’s more than one company representative there and more from just one category, not just from the account service but also from, for example, client solutions or creative or whatever category best fits the client’s needs. So when you have them all together it’s an easier model to talk about things that go well beyond the day’s business activity. And also it’s an opportunity for future growth for both because there you can talk about things that they might like to do down the road that no one had thought of.

Any relationship goes back to understanding what someone wants, what they wanted to begin with and what the evolution of that relationship changes that in terms of their needs. Once you’ve satisfied some of the basic needs, they expect other things to happen, as well, and so our ability to continually evolve and increase our level of service to them is very important.

If we were going to measure our success in a way that was meaningful to the client, it would be, did the client actually sell more of their products, and if they did, were we responsible or partially responsible for that activity? So those are the things we’ll continue to look at to help our clients grow.

If you’re going to have a long-term relationship, then you have to continually add value to that relationship.

How to reach: GROUP360 Inc., (314) 260-6360 or www.group360.com