by David Alves (@TheDavidAlves) In an age where partnering through empathy is becoming more relevant than ever before, how does one strike a balance between being a paid-for-resource and a trusted supplier and business partner?

It’s difficult taking time out of our busy schedules to actively manage the emotional effort and engagement psychology this requires. “Being professional” is supposed to govern all engagements on either side of the table but professionalism isn’t an emotion — it’s a state of play — and managing emotions in the workplace between a supplier and a client is becoming trickier than ever before.

Having been on both sides of the table, here are a few key engagement methodologies and tactics that will help you as an agency or supplier to nurture relationships with multiple clients while allowing yourself to be human.

I need… something

Everyone who’s sat on a client side of the table is guilty of at least one of the following actions: lazy briefs, changes over WhatsApp, one-hour turnarounds and telephonic conversations that contradict status-meeting notes from the previous day.

Are people allowed to change their minds? Certainly. Are they allowed to communicate by any means necessary? Maybe. Part of being able to manage a client’s emotional needs is being able to understand what motivates them beyond their day-to-day work.

The belief that all clients of a certain company all think and act the same is a dangerous mindset to have. From previous experience, each and every individual in the client environment is motivated by something completely different to the next. You might ask, “Surely, they’re aligned on vision?” Absolutely; that’s a given. But vision isn’t the same as emotion.

Help me, know you

When did suppliers stop getting to know their clients? You could argue that much shoulder-rubbing-and-golfing happens at a C-suite level, which is sometimes true, but this rung in an organisation is removed from the day-to-day activities that filter into an individual’s KPIs for a fiscal. Again, you might argue that your client isn’t the “let’s catch a beer and get to know each another” type. But, over time, you should be able to uncover what your clients are interested in and figure out how to engage with them via a mechanism they can relate to.

More often than not, simply asking what you can do for them goes a long way outside of the professional engagement matrix we all love to hate. No one is saying break your neck and pick up their laundry but remembering what kind of coffee your client drinks goes a long way to show you listen and care. Caring is often, and surprisingly, where the buck stops.

Can’t touch this

There’s no scarier sound in the world of a supplier than hearing nothing at all. Radio silence is a killer on both sides of the table. You might ask, “Well, my client is never in the office and they don’t reply to email so what am I supposed to do?” It’s a good question.

If the inability to communicate with your client is impacting deliverables, then escalate. There’s nothing wrong with surfacing non-communication, if done respectfully. If you’re unable to pin down your client for a face-to-face meeting, request a video call. Technology has evolved to the point where even psychotherapy is done online. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to communicate with your client, no matter where they are in the world.

If you feel as though the manner in which you’re having to communicate with your client is impeding your ability to do the work, then perhaps you need to reassess your ways of working. Some people have a personal problem with talking on the phone and prefer email or text and, more often than not, you’re going to find a client who likes to do the exact opposite of what you prefer. Should you bend and break to accommodate? No. Rather discuss your needs, as well as theirs, and agree on an environment in which you can both communicate most effectively.

Too much, too soon, TMI

The challenge with people is that no two are alike. So, what happens when it completely swings the other way and a client is overly communicative? First, count your blessings because it’s rare, but also manage the line between effective communication and waffle.

Overly communicative clients have the makings of both the best and worst kind of relationship. Managing an overly communicative client typically looks like this: client sends email, client sends WhatsApp regarding email, client phones to discuss email, client emails notes as per telephonic conversation. So, how do you communicate with an over-communicator? It all goes back to managing emotion.

Perhaps clients feel insecure about their day-to-day activities and isn’t receiving the support they need internally so they look elsewhere for reinforcement and approval. Perhaps they overstep the boundary about personal information; sometimes it’s acceptable, sometimes it isn’t. You’re not a punching bag. You’re not the school nurse. Remember your role and find active ways to reinforce your part of the relationship when things become too much.

Crouching tiger, hidden agenda

Being a supplier and business partner provides you with a limited lens through which to view and engage with your client. What you may not be aware of is the continuous political requirements and navigations that a client is making internally to appease, squash, manoeuvre and protect their own professional career.

Even if an environment isn’t political, some people bring that type of energy into a situation. If you’re faced with one of these political players, here are a few short ways to make their ways of working work for you.

  • Don’t allow yourself to become their confidant: Clients that mental load on their suppliers do so to unburden themselves and, at the same time, share their agenda, which more often than not is an unhealthy one. It might seem like harmless over-sharing at first but this can quickly become an entangled mess.
  • Be forthright and ask about their career agenda: You would be surprised how many people, especially in a highly charged environment, will respect radical candor. If you haven’t heard of this philosophy before, radical candor is not brutal honesty; it’s about challenging directly while caring personally. Download the book by Kim Scott on Kindle here or listen to it on Audible here. Eliminating the waffle and getting straight to someone’s end goal can solve many issues.
  • Being political doesn’t get the work done: The problem with a political client is that they always seem to be trading off one action for another gain. This may affect your delivery because they’re never 100% with you in the room or on the project. The best way to navigate this is to simply address the deliverables and actively avoid discussing anything outside of these. If all else fails, request support from seniors in your business. The engagement of senior members often dampens the politburo in even the most politically charged individuals.

We all have jobs to do. We all have our own agendas. But that doesn’t mean they should be the same thing. As a supplier, you should really be considering mapping an engagement strategy with your existing clients: define who they are, what motivates them, what opportunities can they unlock for your business, what are their individual nuances, what interests them and how they like their coffee. All of this gives you a framework in which to approach, engage and get the most out of your clients without having to sacrifice the human side of yourself.

The time to see and treat each other as occasionally fallible — and sometimes irrational — human beings is now more important than ever before.


David AlvesDavid Alves (@TheDavidAlves) is a business director and consultant at Acceleration South Africa, a Wunderman Thompson company, and an accomplished digital marketing specialist with over 12 years of entrepreneurial, digital agency and corporate experience, ranging from multinationals to bespoke SMEs. With specialities within the consumer and customer experience, relationship management environment and technical experience across multiple CRM suites, David’s blended experience is bedded in digital strategy, campaign planning and business development.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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