Where is your relationship with your clients today? How would you define it? Perhaps more importantly, how would your clients define it? If you don't know where you are, how can you plan to get to where you want to be?

The most basic form of a business relationship is that of vendor. A vendor responds to RFPs. They provide quotes, respond to service requests and take orders. Invariably, vendors state that they provide great service. Often vendors feel that providing superior service is their key differentiator. But from the client's perspective, they expect their vendors to provide great service. A vendor is there when a client is ready to evaluate a new product or service offering. Over time, their products and services become viewed as commodities. Is this sounding familiar?

A vendor relationship is one that is more reactive. It is not strategic, but rather it is tactical. As a vendor, you are not on the "inside" as decisions are being considered or alternative options are being evaluated. Having a very solid vendor relationship is great, and most businesses, regardless of the industry they find themselves in, have this type of relationship. But is this what you aspire to? We think you can do much better than this, and in the case of some clients, you likely are already doing so.


Become indispensable

Moving up the pyramid, the next most desirable form of relationship is that of a credible or authoritative source. In this type of relationship, you have already proven yourself to be a very reliable vendor and proven commodity. You have performed consistently, and your client can count on you to be responsive. Perhaps you have even developed relationships with multiple parties at the client's business. You feel comfortable with your relationship with key decision-makers at the client. You are involved in certain tactical decisions. In fact, you may actually assist them with the selection of new products and the carriers or vendors to be utilized. You are viewed as one of their most dependable resources, and you are rewarded with a significant portion of the client's business. You, in turn, are likely to view this type of client as one that you can count on and you may even begin to see some referrals from this type of relationship. Clearly, this type of relationship is better than being a vendor, and many top-flight benefits advisers find themselves in this position.

Further up the pyramid of relationship categories is that of problem solver or counselor. Your relationship with a client is deeper and more permanent. Your client is likely to involve you in some strategic issues. Presumably, you possess pertinent knowledge about your client's business issues and perhaps you understand the current human capital management challenges they face.

In this type of relationship, you are always thinking about your client's business from a strategic perspective and you are proactive in bringing them new strategies to manage their business operations. As a result, you gain greater visibility to multiple levels in the organization, and have access to the C-suite. You are likely called upon by your client to assist with the creation of an RFP, and you may be involved in helping them to vet proposals and vendors. In this type of relationship, your client views you as a valuable business asset - but you're not at the top of the relationship pyramid just yet.

Kwicien is managing partner at Baltimore-based consulting and advisory services firm Daymark Advisors. Reach him at jkwicien@daymarkadvisors.com.

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