February 13th, 2013 | 6:00 am

Breaking the Ice with New Clients

filed under Next Level

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

“Don’t be the faceless name who’s suddenly appeared on the client’s bill.”
–Julie A. Fleming, JD

Many people, particularly in the professional services, establish long-term relationships with clients that may span years or even decades. Yet when you’re first assigned to work with new clients at the beginning of a project, you may know nothing about them.

How can you establish rapport and trust with a new client and learn how to break the ice? For answers, we asked a panel of professionals across the legal, finance, and technology industries for their experience and insights.

Break The Ice

Emily Timm, marketing project manager at digital marketing agency Vuurr, shares her strategy to establish trust with clients: finding and connecting about their personal interests. “Guaranteed there’s one thing you’ve both experienced that you can break the ice with — especially since you decided to take on the client in the first place,” says Timm.

Timm adds that although it may sound cliché, she always starts by mentioning the weather on a first meeting or conference call. “People can always talk about the weather and you also get an idea of what their day is like and what interests them,” she says. “For instance, they might say, ‘Well it snowed so that’s _____, but/and I’m going skiing this weekend so I’m ______!’” If their answer is short and boring, Timm points out this tells you something: that their trust is based on getting work done quickly and efficiently. “No small talk,” she says. “Jump into the meeting and don’t look back.”

Add a Personal Touch

Tech entrepreneur Robbin Steif, CEO and president of Luna Metrics, suggests that you should work on adding a personal touch over the long term.

“Business relationships, like all relationships, are created along the way,” says Steif.

“Breaking the ice is not as important as is cultivating the relationship as you see it starting to happen.” To that end, she recommends ideas such as taking the customer out for coffee when you are in their city, or sending them a white paper that you think they might like. “I try to see a couple of customers whenever I am in a different city, for exactly this reason,” she says.

Do the Right Thing

There’s nothing more important than integrity in building client relationships, according to Shelley Plomske, vice-president of product at the tech-driven payments company Total Merchant Services. Plomske has found that the best way to establish that trust is to always do the right thing for the business. “Sometimes that is hard when you have quotas or deadlines to meet,” she says. “But if you always choose the right thing for the business, it creates a solid, long-lasting relationship.”

Be Authentic

Attorney Patrice Perkins says when it comes to breaking the ice with clients, authenticity is key, regardless of industry or demographic. “You want your clients to know that their success matters, that this is more than a job for you,” Perkins says. “There are plenty of people that do what you do. There is no one that can duplicate you. If your clients want you, then there is no such thing as competition and the long-term relationship is yours.”

“I have always treated all clients, new and established, with the same candor and honesty with which I would want to be treated, or with which I would want my own mother to be treated,” adds Elle Kaplan, CEO and founding partner of the only 100 percent woman-owned asset management firm in the US, Lexion Capital Management. “Sticking to that very high bar has always steered me in the right direction.” Kaplan maintains that this standard of respectful honesty means that regardless of how long she has known a client, she often does not tell them what they want to hear – instead she tells them what she thinks is most helpful to hear.

Build Rapport

Anita Andrews, general manager at Delphic Digital, has spent more than 15 years in tech product management and marketing. In her opinion, establishing trust with clients is all about rapport. She notes that it can be challenging to establish your own identity and voice with a client when they already have a relationship with a senior member of your team.

Andrews has experienced both sides of the fence – being the senior person who had previously established rapport with a client and needed a team member to develop their own client relationship, and being the person coming in as the junior person, needing to quickly get up to speed and establish rapport.

“The tactics are varied, but I generally find the best way is to do the actual work and build rapport through doing work,” says Andrews. “Whether that work is simply taking the time to really get an understanding, or even more valuable: doing some work that is uniquely identified with what you bring to the team. This way, the client gets to know you as you, not just as a new company X team member.”

Add Value

Julie A. Fleming, JD, author of The Reluctant Rainmaker: A Guide for Lawyers Who Hate Selling, recommends that professional services providers know their client’s industry so that they can add value right away. “Be prepared to subtly demonstrate that knowledge with thoughtful questions and insights,” advises Fleming. “It can also be effective to use your knowledge to offer resources – information, contacts, opportunities – that are appropriate in the context of the engagement and relationships.”

Demonstrating industry-focused knowledge can help set a newer client at ease so you can get to work in establishing a long-lasting relationship.

2 comments

  1. Tanvi

    Very interesting blog ! The only thing I would add is give others and yourself a second chance at relationship building. sometimes things can get off to a strange start but being open to seeing where it goes and not making up your mind prematurely does help.

  2. Beth Buelow

    These are all great strategies for getting a client relationship off on the right foot. I especially appreciate Emily’s suggestion to pay special attention to the other person’s style – do they want to be chatted up, or cut to the chase? It’s about what makes the client comfortable, not you.

    And to dovetail on Julie’s excellent point, I think the most powerful thing service providers can do is come to a meeting with a spirit of curiosity and service. Do just enough research on the client’s situation, industry, challenges and opportunities that you can ask on-target questions. Follow that up with thoughtful listening, and you’ll go a long way toward earning the client’s trust.