Four Dimensions of Relationship Management – Part 2

This is the third in a series of twelve blogs that provide insight and tips on managing client relationships.  In this blog, we’ll discuss issues and solutions associated with the Four Dimensions of Relationship Management.

Dimension One: Intrapersonal Awareness

This dimension is the degree that you appreciate your personal style and preferences.  This is the first step in understanding how your personality affects how you work, relate to others on the team, and enjoy your work.

Intrapersonal awareness is not about assessing individual beliefs or core values.  It is about understanding how your beliefs and values affect your behavior, and how your behavior impacts others.

A popular way to develop a picture of your personality preferences is the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  Such tools don’t suggest that some personality types are more successful than others; just that awareness of differences can improve results.

For example, if you rank high as an extrovert, you enjoy social events with a lot of people.  Don’t take your introverted client to a loud club full of strangers.

Or, if you are a visual learner, don’t assume that your client will get the most information from your PowerPoint demo.  A simple verbal description may be far more effective.

Behavioral Styles: Influence and Conflict Management

A key element of the relationship management process is your ability to manage differences.  During any project, it is inevitable that differences and conflict will surface between you and the client, as well as between team members.  In both cases, understanding the various styles used for managing differences and conflict will help you to exert positive influence without alienating the client and/or team members.

Individuals bring their strengths, weaknesses, assumptions, attitudes and beliefs to bear in the management of influence and conflict.  These elements of personal behavior are reflected in the way we act and react to others in conflict situations.

A useful way to observe and describe conflict management styles is to consider the two dimensions that contribute most to our observable behavior.

  1. Task/activity orientation – This represents our concern for the activity at hand and how we strive to accomplish our goals in the most effective, productive and efficient manner.  In its various forms, it represents the bottom line, results, profit, total service rendered, etc.
  2. People/relationship orientation – Regardless of the task involved, the people asked to accomplish it can be expected to have unique individual needs and desires.  Their motivation to accomplish the task in an excellent manner will hinge in part, on the level of concern that others, particularly those that lead them, show for their individual needs.

We can represent the most typical conflict management styles as follows:

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Description of Influence and Conflict Management Styles:

Dominating individuals view differences or conflict as a threat to their authority and control, thus it is important to cut it off as quickly as possible.  This frequently involves the use of intimidation, threats and personal attacks.  Dominating individuals will usually take a fixed position and refuse to deviate.  Their win-lose perception of situations makes it difficult for them to back down after a conflict has emerged.

Accommodating individuals view differences or conflict as a potentially devastating blow to the warmth and friendly atmosphere that they strive to maintain and thus, it is actively avoided.  Accommodating individuals will quickly yield in most confrontations and if conflict is unavoidable, they will attempt to smooth over the issues so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

When avoiding individuals sense the emergence of differences or conflict, they will quickly withdraw in an attempt to avoid the situation altogether.  When confronted, vague generalizations are   used in an effort to avoid taking a position that might stimulate further conflict.

Depending on the situation, compromising individuals will deal with differences or conflict in a variety of ways.  If unsure of the party line, conflict will generally be avoided or smoothed over.  If majority thinking and opinion is clear, confrontation will be more readily accepted and at times, even sought out.  Conflict resolution comes primarily from negotiation and majority rule.

Collaborating individuals view differences or conflict as a tool that, when properly managed, can encourage new and better ideas to emerge.  They also realize that conflict can be dysfunctional.  They use communication as a useful tool to manage conflict by getting issues out in the open.  They seek to resolve underlying causes by confronting the situation in its early stages.

Each of these approaches represents a functioning style that can be observed to varying degrees in every organization.  Each is associated with an approach to behavior and interaction that has predictable results.

Receiving Feedback

Whenever communication takes place, various factors are present.  Besides logic and rational thought, people have emotions that enter into communication transactions.  We try to take this feeling factor into account when preparing and giving feedback.  It is also important in a team environment to anticipate our responses when we are the recipients of feedback.  Consider the general responses to feedback in relation to the conflict manage­ment styles:

Dominating: Since this style needs to have a strong sense of control, it is often difficult for a dominating style to receive feedback without responding defen­sively.

Accommodating: This style may produce a silent or acquiescent response to receiving feedback.  An accom­modating style may take on more responsibility for project problems or issues than is warranted instead of engaging in dialogue during a feedback session.

Avoiding: A person with an avoiding style may also avoid receiving feedback.  When confronted this per­son will often acknowledge the feedback and then quickly try to move the conversation along to other topics.  This can make it more difficult to partner on finding workable solutions.

Compromising: A compromising style will usually hear feedback, accept some level of responsibility, and look for a middle ground to move the project along.  The danger here is that you may not seek the most creative or effective solution.

Collaborating: This style generally seeks to listen carefully to feedback, attempts to determine the valid­ity and the appropriate responsibility level and pushes forward to effective resolution.  As with giving feed­back, a collaborative style and attitude lend them­selves to making the best use of feedback when it is offered.

Receiving Feedback Guidelines and Suggestions

Generally speaking, careful listening is the key to making the best use of feedback when offered.  The most effective response to feedback is always the one that helps clarify the issue in such a way that it is able to be resolved quickly and successfully.

Some receiving responses to feedback that can help clarify and resolve include:

Silence – Listening quietly, observing and trying to un­derstand the full message in the feedback.

Acknowledgement – Giving verbal indications of under­standing and validation for the feedback.

Inviting non-verbals (as opposed to the “are you crazy?” facial expression) – Using expressions that invite addi­tional information and feedback.

Paraphrasing – Restating the message as you understand it to check accuracy of the communication.

Active listening – Expressing understanding of the importance of the message, as well as your feelings about it.

Perhaps the most important guideline for receiving feed­back is to keep in mind the overall objective of the team and the project.  If all parties keep mutual success in the forefront of communication, both the giving and receiving of feedback serves a vital purpose.

Dimension Two: Interpersonal Relationship Management

All of your internal and external clients need to be assured that you:

  • Take a genuine interest in them
  • Know and respect their preferences
  • Will address their needs in a way that is familiar and comfortable to them.

Whereas the Golden Rule suggests you should treat others the way YOU would like to be treated, a more accurate piece of advice is to treat others the way THEY want to be treated.  It is a natural tendency to assume that what is good enough for us will be good enough for our clients.

How can you determine your client’s preferences and comfort zones?

Observation of Behavior

  • Be mindful of how your client chooses to communicate with you, and reciprocate whenever possible.
    • Do they send more e-mails or make more phone calls?
    • Do they like face-to-face meetings or do they defer to more efficient exchanges?

Check Out the Client’s Workplace

  • If the client’s office is full of family pictures, it’s a pretty safe bet they enjoy a question or two about home life.  If the office is all files and flowcharts, better stick to business.
  • Draw clues from the surroundings the person has chosen to live with for 40 hours each week, and use those clues to pick a communication style.

Ask Questions

  • It is perfectly appropriate to ask the client a set of focused questions to plan and implement a strategy for servicing them.  This is the basis for the “Service Plan” which follows.

Request Feedback

  • Periodically, ask the client to discuss the things you have done that they really enjoyed, and the things they wish you had done differently.  Make adjustments accordingly.
  • Ask questions like:
    • “Was the delivery of the report after lunch okay, or would you prefer the next one in the morning?”
    • “I assumed you would like invitations to all review meetings?  Is that correct?  How will I learn of your plan to attend?”

Seek Input from Others

  • Chances are you know other people who have a deeper experience with the client than you do, or perhaps with the client’s department or company.  Collect as much information as you can on what has or hasn’t worked.  There is no substitute for lessons learned.

One vital aspect of your response to any of the issues above is that the behavior you exhibit to the client is natural and authentic.  If the client feels you are mimicking them, or making artificial and patronizing gestures, they will resent your efforts.

Do things With, Not To or For, Your Client

Another aspect of your behavior that contributes to successful relationship management is remembering that you are doing things WITH the client, not TO or FOR them.  Sometimes we can view the task of making a delivery, returning a call, or editing a report as an imposed requirement or obligation.  In fact, you are entering an interaction (responding to a client need) and you must demonstrate your willingness to actively participate in the solution.

Consider an example.  Your client asks you for eight more copies of a lengthy proposal so she can distribute them to her department.

One option is to begrudgingly make the copies and deliver them to her office.  Your feelings of being treated like a copy clerk will likely come through and taint the exchange.

Another option is to call the client and offer assistance in the distribution.  Perhaps you can send the proposal by e-mail to her staff or provide an electronic copy on a common server for convenient, shared access.

If you still end up making the copies, you will have demonstrated a spirit of cooperation and desire to serve.

Dimension Three: Team Dynamics

As soon as one more person joins your team, you have entered the more complicated world of team dynamics.  Where there was only one relationship to manage (between you and the client), now there are three (you and the client, you and your team member, and the other team member and the client).

All the Rules of Relationship Management Still Apply

Even though you are now a member of a team, most of your interactions will be with one other person at any given time.  Therefore, keep all the suggestions above in mind for every other person in the team, all the time.  When you are interacting with any one of them as your client, they are the most important person in the project at that moment.

Define and Acknowledge Interdependencies

Teams have a common goal, and interdependent relationships must develop in order to efficiently attain that goal.  Everyone will perform better if these aspects of team dynamics are addressed:

  • Individual roles are clearly defined and communicated
  • Hand-offs are defined, scheduled, and documented
  • Communications are thorough and consistent among team members
  • Review meetings involve the right people and are efficiently conducted
  • Supplier/Client relationships are acknowledged
  • Conflicts are surfaced and resolved

Dimension Four: Cultural/Operational Considerations

In order to develop and maintain positive interactions with your clients, you need to be aware of the influence the culture can have on those interactions.

Cultures can impact client interactions in several ways:

  • Explicit and implicit codes of conduct (e.g., How does the culture view gifts to clients?  What level of confidentiality must be maintained?)
  • Communication protocols – formal and informal (e.g., Are all communications documented?  Do certain types of communication require approval?  When are clients copied on team communication?)
  • Image management (e.g., Is there a dress code when meeting with clients?  Is there a standard format and package for delivery of reports or other client communications?)

When the project is directed at an external client, you will be dealing with all the issues above times two.  It is equally important to be familiar with the cultural issues of your organization and that of your client.

The culture of a business is evident in how it operates in addition to issues related to conduct, image, and communication.  Standards or cultural norms established by an organization’s operations can have a direct impact on relationships and client interactions.

Administration:  Does the client culture call for centralized or decentralized administration?  Do administrative functions influence or simply respond to the activities of the business’s core functions?  Your awareness of the role administration plays in your client’s culture can help you relate to administrative stakeholders as well as better manage the role administration plays in the project.

Policies:  How traditional is the client culture?  Do they allow flex-time?  How do they handle maternity leave (for mothers and fathers)?  Is the organization chart more vertical or horizontal?  Awareness of policy platforms like these will give you valuable clues on how to relate to your clients work habits and expectations.  It is not your place to take a position regarding client policies, but to build your knowledge of them into your service plan for the client.

Infrastructure:  Infrastructure can include everything from an on-site cafeteria to voice mail technology to the number of office locations involved in your project.  Your awareness of each infrastructure issue can be an opportunity for you to cater to your client.  If voicemail is awkward or unreliable, make a concerted effort to use more e-mail or fax deliveries.  If team members are located in multiple offices, establish a system for conference calls or electronic conferencing.  Make the infrastructure a known and defined asset or constraint, and adjust your relationship strategies accordingly.

Capacity:  Capacity issues for project execution usually refer to the number of person-hours that can be applied to the project.  Capacity limits can be a shortage of people or a build-up of projects.  In either case, your role is to be sensitive to the outlay of time your clients (and stakeholders) can realistically afford, and then set a schedule that reflects attainable goals.  As a relationship manager, you want people meeting their objectives more often than not.  Working towards a well-balanced allocation of resources will make the project experience more enjoyable for everyone and more likely to result in a satisfied client.

Keep in mind that most of the ways cultures impact relationships are through the implementation of unwritten rules.  It is important that you request clarification of a cultural issue if you are not certain what is expected of you.  Most clients will be quite comfortable explaining the ropes to you in advance, to avoid getting all tangled up in them.

For example, it may be considered disrespectful to show up unannounced in some offices, whereas in others, it is a sign of open and proactive team participation.  A simple question before the first visit will let you know whether to call ahead to your client.  And, just asking the question is further confirmation that you are genuinely interested in understanding and serving their needs, a key element in solidifying your developing relationship.

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