Want a better relationship with your clients?

Then you need to improve your Service Relationship Level!

I recently published a small article on building your trustworthiness.  This is based largely on the readings and then trying to use the readings I had from several great sources.  I have been growing new skills in the areas of business development.  One of the critical ideas shared not only from Maister and Green in Trusted Advisor and Sheth and Sobel in Clients for life, but also through Bill Bartlett owner of Corporate Strategies and Solutions teaching the Sandler method, was the concept of the service relationship level.  It describes what level of service people will actually “buy” from you and how they behave towards you.

You start at a level. You build trust following the concepts like those in Improving your Personal Trustworthiness and by the way you behave and what your client needs, you can move up, or down, a scale that reflects trust and the level of interdependency with your client.  We all have clients at work.  This is not limited to business development with external clients.  I want to share some of these concepts as they are fundamental to understanding service relationships.  I contend most IT teams exist to provide services within companies or to customers, and therefore I see this as widely relevant.


Figure 1: Service Relationship Model


At the bottom of the pyramid is the vendor relationship.  You are a commodity. Here you are selection E5 right next to E4 in the snack machine.  You compete on price.  Quality must be passable, but when people evaluate your nearest competitor they are think you are the same and which service can I get cheaper.

Problem Solver

The problem solver is someone who is known for solving a specific problem.  When you have that problem you are happy to have them around, but when you don’t have that problem you don’t think about them.  Price is less of an issue than quickly making the problem go away.  Imagine you are a newly hired and talented IT professional who solves a requirements gathering problem for a new team.  You will be known as that person even though your real experience is over 10 years in resolving complex service delivery issues for CIO’s.  People will not seek you out for your other skills until you change you behavior.  More on that later.


The consultant is someone who is revered for their thinking across problems.  They tend to ask more why questions and facilitating learning and discussion rather than being the expert with the right answer all the time.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t a problem solver, but rather that they are viewed by their client as someone whose thinking across topics helps them to solve problems.  Most service groups would love to be considered consultants.  They are worth more than problem solvers or vendors.


This is a level of relationship where your client is actually concerned about your business success as well as their own.  Your mutual success is important to both of you.  They provide references, they coach you, and they fight for you internally.  Not necessarily because it’s the right thing to do, or because they have personally taken a shine to you as an individual, but because the perception and performance of you as partners is viewed by others as indivisible. Many relationships will seem like this, but few actually reach this level.

Trusted Partner

Whole books have been written about it.  My favorite example is from a friend, Bob Zimmerman, “You walk in the door and before you can say high, your partner says ‘shut the door and sit down. I have got to talk to you.’ and it doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with business”.  Maister refers to this as the pinnacle of “romance”.  In Clients for life, it is about reaching a breakthrough relationship.  At the end of the day this becomes a deeply personal and caring relationship between both parties.  The amount of trust extended, success and risks overcome are significant for the most durable Trusted Partner relationships.

Can I jump a level?

I’ve asked and I am asked, can you move up or jump a level of relationship.  Yes, up and down is the answer. But it depends on both you and the other person. On your part, you need to act differently. On their part, they need to see you differently and then accept the changes and treat you differently.  You can’t control this by yourself, because it is a relationship.

If someone who is already high on the relationship scale introduces you and speaks on your behalf, you can start at a high level.  After that it is up to you.  Ever wonder why referrals are so valuable?

So how do I grow in the relationship?

You need to change first.  You need to be able to build personal trust.  You need to overcome organizational trust dysfunctions.  You need to behave differently.  And there is a lot to this, but let’s look at just a few things and leave the in depth recount to the aforementioned published experts.

First, you need to make your interactions about the client, not about you. If you need something, you need to expose your intentions clearly. This is probably the hardest thing to think through, as it is hard to shut down our inner voices, focus and then listen actively to other people.

Second, you need to understand who you are dealing with and what they care about. From a high level, say interactions within an IT department for example, here are some concepts based on a typical hierarchical organization.  You create your own map based on who your customers are to see if it helps you to walk a little in their shoes.  This is all part of building understanding and empathy for your client’s situation, so you can behave differently by thinking differently to help build insight into their challenges.

Figure 2: Responsibilities and Concerns within a Hierarchical IT Structure

Spending time in a larger IT organization trying to convince the CIO to buy certain developer tools that offer new code check in procedures is likely to frustrate you both.  So prepare for what they care about, understand them and you will be on better footing to relate and understand the issues they are facing.

Third, you need to act like the level you wish to become.  Each level up can grow on elements of the one below.  However, if you have a partnership and then begin to argue price as the sole determinant of continuing the relationship, you can drop quickly by behaving incorrectly.

  • If you want to be a vendor worry about price and talk about features until you are blue in the face. But if that is your go to market strategy, make the most of it when you have the chance as you can win business. It will be focused mostly on a transaction at a time, unless you can get long term commitments from your bidding.
  • If you want to be a problem solver, be an expert, and offer your opinion and what you see as the obvious solution to the problem. This roles has real value in the right situations.  But balance it against where you want to be in your relationship.
  • If you want to be a consultant, ask why, again and again until you feel you get to really understand the problems.  In addition as a consultant, it is better to explore problems collaboratively, than to take the reins and try to drive the discussion like an expert.  Your insight begins to set you apart.
  • Partners are looking at the business situation together and collaboratively resolving issues with an understanding of what that means for the other.  Mutual sacrifice to preserve the partnership and help it grow is not uncommon.
  • A trusted Advisor worries as much about the person as the professional elements and has earned the right to do so.

Figure 3: Service  Relationship Level Attributes


So when you look at your customers, external and internal, can you see them differently?  I know I have and it has allowed me to focus on the value of relationships to a far greater extent.  I have become better at listening and thinking not so much about the problem as I was trained to do for years, but what the impact would be professionally and personally to my clients. It’s still up to you and me to do the work, but once you understand where your relationships are really at on the pyramid, then you can work to make the changes to improve them.

Credits and References

  • Friends, colleagues, clients and …
  • Bill Bartlett – Owner Corporate Strategies and Solutions, billb@corporatestrategies-il.com
  • Bob Zimmerman, www.gettingpredictable.com
  • Green C. H. & Howe A. P. (2012). The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley
  • Maister D., Green C.H. & Galford R.M. (2000). The Trusted Advisor. New York, NY: Free Press
  • J. Sheth & A. Sobel – (2000). Clients for Life. Evolving from an Expert for Hire to an Extraordinary Advisor. New York, NY:  Simon and Schuster