Intelligent Supplier – Client Engagement Function (Series: 7 of 9)

By Allan Watton on November 21, 2017

Welcome to this, the seventh of nine articles in our in-depth series looking into the make-up, indicators and behaviours of an intelligent supplier – the practically innovative partner for your complex service delivery relationships.

On reflection, I recognise that client engagement could have been included earlier in this series. The collaboration between an intelligent client and an intelligent supplier is such a fundamental feature of many of the core elements we have discussed so far, and the client engagement function is an integral part of this. However, it could also be argued that all that has gone before this article will help to give the importance of client engagement more substance, more practical reasoning in our journey into the mindset of an intelligent supplier.

To recap on what we have covered so far in this series: we have analysed how an intelligent supplier acts when faced with, and with regard to, ‘Business and Operating Strategy’, ‘Changing and Challenging Business Objectives’, ‘Commercial Trust’, their role as a ‘Constructive Critical Friend’, ‘Management of the Innovation Process’ and ‘Ensuring Contract Terms remain aligned with your changing objectives’. This article will focus on the relationship your supplier should foster with you, and their commitment to collaboration.

What is the Client Engagement Function?

Often misunderstood as ‘account management’ or ‘strategic account management’, the ‘Client Engagement Function’, for intelligent suppliers, is a strategic peer of its operational team.

These individuals will be tasked with engaging the client’s intelligent client function (ICF) team to help reshape service delivery, when required, to ensure it remains aligned with the client’s business outcomes. But more than this, the client engagement function should also look to leverage their close relationship with client-side colleagues to build a thorough enough understanding of the project and their combined capacities to identify problems before they arise so they can be avoided or appropriately and efficiently dealt with. And it is both this insight and foresight that will give the client engagement function its important purpose and enable the team to support client-initiated and supplier-side innovations to improve service delivery.

Change is inevitable, and no matter whether it is the environment, economics, technology, finances, tastes and trends, or the demands of the end user that shifts throughout the lifecycle of your partnership, there must be someone leading the adaptation of the relationship to flex with these changes so service delivery and outcomes are not compromised by rigidity.

Any time that a client questions the value they are receiving, the direction the relationship is heading, or the delivery of tasks and milestones along the way, or any time that change which could impacts the relationship is recognised or predicted, it is the client engagement team that should jump into collaborative action.

For a typical common-or-garden supplier, client management is seen as a ‘necessary evil’, something that the supplier does to ‘keep the client happy’. While it is true that clients want to feel respected, listened to, and the recipient of quantifiable value, because account management is often carried out as an afterthought, the result is that they may feel none of those things. Client management is all too often considered an inadequate relation to the sales team, with poor remits for client engagement. Sometimes the only measure here is whether the client engagement (or account management) team has managed to convince the client to pay its outstanding invoice despite any ongoing dispute about the perceived value they are receiving. This is, of course, what we would consider being poor supplier behaviour.

Innovation, the leveller and the enhancer

Innovation is a further vital role of the client engagement function. Often, to maintain delivery expectations against an ever-changing service model and business outcomes, new and innovative solutions must be found and implemented. And even where such background change is minimal, a measure of the quality of your supplier can be argued to be related to their commitment to innovations that will enhance the efficiency and productivity. The client engagement function team are, therefore, responsible for encouraging from its own delivery and sales team both the behaviours and the creation of the environment that will support and guide the innovations that will enhance service delivery.

Innovation, though, not only means helping to identify those areas of service delivery that should be reshaped for the long term. It includes inputs as part of the innovation delivery team to bring new ideas, shape outline business cases, pilot service and experimentation, and eventually to assist in the implementation of those most closely aligned to the client’s business outcomes.

In the most effective and profitable strategic relationships, we have found that before any innovation or service widening can legitimately take place, a supplier’s client engagement function team will work pragmatically to eradicate any poor performance issues in its own service delivery team. They will hold themselves accountable to make sure delivery by their team is achieved. Where it is not, they will work actively with the client’s intelligent client team to put pressure on their own supplier senior management team to provide the resources to (a) have the delivery issues remedied quickly and (b) ensure appropriate resources stay attached to the delivery team to assure delivery levels on a sustainable basis.

The supplier client engagement team should not act as first line ‘supplier defenders’ to ‘bat away’ client concerns about delivery in an attempt to undermine them. They should be seen as taking client concerns about service delivery very seriously and immediately put in place appropriate resources to legitimately review the client’s evidence of the perceived poor delivery. From that, they should instigate a process of daily and weekly service performance reviews covering the affected areas. These reviews should gradually decrease in frequency where it can be shown that expected service levels have been consistently achieved.

Conclusion

Client engagement, that deeper understanding of, smoother, swifter communication with, and collaborative commitment to, a client and their outcome expectations is what separates an ordinary supplier from an intelligent supplier. Which means that the supplier’s client engagement function team are the frontline in this ‘perception’ goal – constantly working on their relationship, actively involved in innovation governance to improve service delivery and bring new ideas to the fore.

How engaged is your supplier? How much time and effort is spent identifying potential issues or changes that might impact on service delivery and formulating a collaborative plan of action to counter them, or improve productivity? How ‘intelligent’ is your supplier?

The next article in this series will be focusing on ‘Service Area Domain Expertise’.

If you wish to recap on the articles we have already published in this series, click on the links below:

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