I love the work that I get to do within companies.

Part of the secret sauce that makes us at IA the successful “anti-consulting consulting firm” is the time we spend getting to know our clients—both as businesses and as people. Knowing there isn’t a one-size-fits-all in transformation, we approach this work as more than business process and systems optimization; it’s also about changing how people think (you know, the behavior). To do that, you must try and understand why they think the way they do. That means getting to know them, actively listening, challenging perceptions and ultimately gaining their trust to suggest a new way forward. Nothing makes me happier than when a client tells us, “I keep forgetting you’re a consultant. You talk like you work here!”

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Since this focus on building relationships is just embedded in how we work, it’s frustrating to encounter providers in the industry who treat these relationships as transactions and are simply trying to close a sale and move on. I’ve sat in many selections where the client is stone-faced as a provider sleepwalks through a demonstration, either unprepared for or uninterested in the client’s use cases. The demonstration lacks energy, conviction and transparency, resulting in an overview that is little better than reading a blog post about what the solution can do.

Whenever we are asked to support a selection for a new provider, we try to understand why the current provider is no longer meeting the organization’s needs. Too often, the answer is that the company assumes the technology is outdated and no one from the provider has bothered to reach out and see how its solution has been meeting the company’s needs. Meanwhile, the company has fallen behind on accepting releases because it doesn’t have proper governance established to know what the business needs—and therefore can’t ask the provider whether the solution can do what they want it to do.

While there is plenty of accountability to go around in this situation, I see an opportunity for providers to step in and support their clients in a new way—as a partner rather than a vendor. Providers are in the optimal position to help their clients leverage the system or service they’re paying for to meet their objectives. I have seen successful providers demonstrate this during selections when they demo a system against the client’s use cases. The solution engineers engage in collaborative discussions about what the system can and cannot accomplish and help the potential client brainstorm ways to tackle a business need. In fact, this demonstrated ability to problem solve is often what causes a client to select a specific provider. Unfortunately, this harmonious approach often doesn’t survive the move from sales to support.

I don’t share my frustration because I want to put providers down. In fact, my goal is always to help all providers be more successful. We are truly technology-agnostic in our approach to supporting our clients; we believe there is a provider and a client match out there for everyone. So, in that spirit, I want to share some suggestions on how providers can bring their best selves to the client relationship and build a partnership that will last beyond that first sales demo.

Be interested and interesting

Imagine meeting someone new at a party. The host has introduced you to each other and then walks away to attend to other guests. Now you’re stuck staring awkwardly at one another until finally, someone thinks of a way to break the silence to start a conversation: They ask a question.

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Asking questions is a powerful way to draw people in. Questions invite participation, eliciting a response of some sort. But even more important than asking the question is the quality of the question itself. When you move away from yes/no questions toward ones that seek deeper meaning, that’s where relationships are built. Additionally, it isn’t all about getting to know the business; these initial conversations are also about getting to know those involved as individuals. Be interested in understanding them personally. You can gain a ton of knowledge of a person and their thought process/decision-making by getting to know them outside of business. By asking good questions, providers also pique the clients’ curiosity because now the client is interested in what the provider thinks and asks questions in return.

By learning more about the client, providers can tailor the solution to that client’s needs—which elevates the discussion beyond a mere demo to a true discussion about how the provider can help.

Solve the problems they have

Too often, clients do not take the time to understand their own point of view. They struggle to explain what their issues are and assume they know 100% what it is that they need a prospective system to do. They just don’t seem to know how to make the system do it.

Don’t assume you know what it is they are trying to do. I have watched providers pitch a solution that does everything except what the client is trying to do. I get it: You want to highlight the latest and greatest features and functionality of your system. But as a provider, you need to ensure you are asking the client for their specific use cases and don’t only focus on the bells and whistles of your solutions. Read the room, and ask yourself, Is this client ready for those bells and whistles, or do they need just a simple workflow?” Solve their problems, not problems you have solved elsewhere at companies with a similar size and complexity. I was recently on a selection where a provider had mentioned that our client was asking for too much in deploying position management for their size and was trying to put them into a “box.”

Clients evaluate their provider relationships based on how the provider helps them with their business. By focusing on the needs of the client, rather than simply avoiding service tickets, providers will develop trust with the client, which can lead to a long, fruitful relationship. Isn’t that what it is all about?

See also: Today’s ‘golden age of HR tech’ presents the best time for transformation

Be consultative and enable HR innovation

I am sure that your clients often don’t know what they don’t know about your solution, so it’s important to proactively work with them to help them identify their needs. You could suggest your clients deploy the business process ownership methodology—which means it isn’t just about your solution, it is about end-to-end process design that can then be enabled by your solution. We find that most providers hinder innovative thought processes by limitations in their platform. Don’t fall into that trap. If your clients had a point of view of how they want their processes to be managed, then had a conversation with their provider on the viability of that process and then were able to implement … think of the relationship you have now created. Partnership versus client/provider—less frustration on both sides.

A complaint I often hear is that once a client gets into the provider’s service organization, they feel like they don’t get that consultative approach. Why is that? I would love for a provider to explain that. For the provider, service is about opening a ticket. I understand why that must happen, but then one request can turn into multiple if the client didn’t include all the right details. Imagine how frustrating that could be. Consult with your clients, take the time to evaluate the ask appropriately, and train your Tier 1 and Tier 2 staff to get to the question behind the question. It will lead to better service response times, happier customers and better retention.

Build a lasting relationship

Clients fall in love with their providers during the sales process because a good sales team understands how to quickly build a relationship. They do their homework, research the company and the client contacts, and make themselves readily available to clear up any questions and make sure the contract gets signed. Wouldn’t it be great if that model continued after go-live?

Related: Thinking about HR tech purchase? Look beyond the technology

Good relationships take work; ask anyone who has been married for a long time. If one partner takes the other for granted, resentments build up, communication breaks down and someone is going to decide they’ve had enough and want to leave. While providers and clients may not be as close as a married couple, the concept is similar. Once the courtship of sales is over, customer account managers will sometimes take the client for granted and fail to check in to see how they can help. Even if the client is fine, a monthly call and a quarterly business-needs review can go a long way toward keeping the magic alive in the client-provider relationship.

The bottom line is that providers are in a unique position to help their clients be successful in the long-term, which ensures the provider will be successful in the long-term, too. Clients will be more likely to reinvest with a provider that takes the time to listen to their feedback, incorporate some of their requests into future releases and anticipates their needs by asking good questions. I know there are providers out there doing this today, and I applaud them for it. In time, I hope all providers are able to become true partners with their clients.

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