In my seven years at Command Prompt I've helped many clients, often several of them at the same time. After a project is completed, I know that it was a job well done when that client calls on Command Prompt months and maybe years later for additional help. Often, they call for me by name, creating long lasting and mutually beneficial relationships, which are key to Command Prompt's success. How do I help keep the fire alive?
I work directly with clients, with my hands inside their database systems. Though the work is technical, I find that it's also personal: I need their trust. After the first client project or emergency is resolved and we say our good-byes, it's the foundation of trust that survives over the following months when the client needs us again.
The First 60 Seconds
Building trust starts immediately on first contact. It's a fact of human nature that people establish persistent judgements of each other within seconds of first meeting. Therefore, before that first meeting, be trustworthy and get yourself in a proper state of mind: the next year could depend on it.
As a DBA, I always meet clients after my business development team has already initiated a relationship, and my first meetings nominally focus on technical content. In reality, I usually feel that little technical information is conveyed in that first meeting, and that the core of the meeting is about sizing each other up.
When a client is new they may be tentative about letting me into a very delicate and important part of their system. It's like someone handing me their infant: I try to show steady confidence and deep caring, as well as competence. It helps to start with small, clearly defined goals that I know that I can achieve, and then build up to bigger ones. I listen to the client and let their feelings - usually anxiety about certain problems - guide me. Trust builds when the client feels that I understand and am addressing their needs and their urgency. When I sense that the client feels relaxed at the end of the meeting, I know that I've done my job and that the client will allow technical work to begin in earnest.
Make it Personal
Did you ever notice when someone asked for a meeting with you even when there was little business to discuss? Or did you ever notice on a video call how happy the other person looked after you enabled your camera for the first time?
Even in professional and technical contexts, everyone wants to connect personally to some degree. Even though I provide remote technical service and I never see many of my clients' faces, I enjoy fostering a friendly feeling with clients and I think most of them enjoy it as well. When I listen to a client share their weekend fishing story, or I joke about my inlaws, it adds energy and a new bond to the business relationship. If you rely solely on email to communicate, a relationship will tend to fade. Instead, I try to make it personal, and as a result clients continue to reach out to me.
Managers and Gatekeepers: Different Allies
A long-term business relationship with another company partly depends on keeping the right relationship with the right people at that company. It only works when both parties have a long term stake in success; on the client side, managers have such a stake. The manager/director/CTO - more than a developer, for example - is likely to need my alliance for their own success and survival at the company. As the saying goes, "It's lonely at the top" and managers often look to me as a peer and confidant. I try to foster that feeling.
On the other hand, developers, sysadmins, and devops staff have their own immediate concerns that often don't overlap greatly with mine or even with their own departmental concerns. Sometimes they initially see me as a competitive threat to their position of technical authority. Yet these are the people that I work with directly, and they have ways to block or facilitate my access to their systems, and even to their superiors. And they may remain employed in their position longer than their superiors! Alliance with these gatekeepers is one key to the long-term client relationship. I try to tread lightly on their turf and take any opportunity to be helpful; this often takes the form of openly recognizing their valuable contributions to the project. In short, I try to keep the "gate" open to their superiors.
In the Desert
Like green grass in the desert, client work can be fleeting, often simply because projects are completed. When I've done my job well, the client relationship continues. My project manager, Amanda Nystrom, will call on them occasionally. Rather than attempting to drum up new business, we try to leave the client with the sense of checking on their welfare. We remind them that we’re still available for them and we remind them of how we can help them again. I show empathy for whatever is keeping them away. Clients are often very busy, and they can easily forget us simply because they are overwhelmed. I try to be a light in the darkness for them, or an ally to reach out to, and time has shown that well-established relationships bring them back.