5 Faux Pas that Will Sink Your Client Relationships

Overfilling their inboxes, operating in a vacuum, or pushing potential clients "off a diving board" all make the list. What else should?

When I was 9 years old, I had a crush on our swim coach. He was tall, blond, tan, and wore Foster Grant aviator glasses. I was secretly smitten. I entrusted him with my life as I braved the deep end of the pool and learned crucial safety techniques.

One morning, Coach Tall Blond Guy coaxed us to jump from the high diving board. I climbed the steps precariously as my knees shook. As I stood on the edge of the board for what seemed hours, I froze. That's when Coach TBG made a fatal mistake.

He pushed me off the board.

From that moment on, I could not trust him. It took me just a split second to lose trust in Tall Blond Guy.

In business, a lack of trust and rapport with our colleagues and clients can just as quickly destroy best-laid marketing plans, initiatives, and alliances. Here are some habits that erode trust, particularly between professional services firms and their clients:

1. Over-dependency on social media and electronic communication: I recently reached out to a financial publishing firm with a new idea to help them reach more subscribers and prospects. We have worked together for three years. The founder refused to return my call. He kept sending me emails, asking whether I could provide more details. The email banter wasted more time than if he had made a five-minute courtesy phone call.

2. Lack of a moral compass or community: I seldom trust people who live one-dimensional lives, avoid most social settings, and dedicate their time to a single activity. When I recently spoke with Andrew Sobel, author of bestsellers such as Clients for Life and Power Questions, we discussed whether people are fundamentally good, or whether they need some moral guardrails. "We need to be reined in by external structures and values—e.g., government, family, faith, etc. Why do billionaires commit crimes? Some consultants—like everyone—try and get away with what they can!"

3. Old societal stereotypes: I have advised B2B clients for nearly 18 years. Although I have met some inspiring consultants with thriving practices, I have also met consultants who must defend themselves from prospects who have a negative impression of their profession. Many companies believe that consultants are only interested in billing as many hours as possible and seeking out new assignments.

4. Lack of decorum: It pains me to attend a social gathering and watch people with advanced degrees eat and drink like toddlers. The most egregious violations include licking their fingers while dining, weak handshakes, and using their phones at the dining table. Unless your wife is about to give birth, why would you possibly need a mobile device ringing and vibrating at the table? How will a client entrust their leadership team or multi-million dollar legacy programs to a social cretin?

5. Turning self-interest into opportunism: Greg Dawson, assistant professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business, defines opportunism as "self-interest seeking with guile." He continues by saying "some opportunism is blatant (lying) and some is passive (such as withholding information that someone knows would be germane to someone.)" The latter, according to Dawson, is far more insidious. This happens when any consultant or advisor pursues new business primarily to line their pockets, not because it is what the client needs.

During his confidential interviews, one public sector CIO told him that only 4 out of 20 firms were ethical. In fact, out of the 20 firms, she categorized 10 as "always dishonest."

Sadly, the CIO's hands are tied because the four highly trustworthy firms cannot fulfill all of her IT project and talent needs.

What can leaders who hire advisors do to optimize their relationship and minimize trust issues?
•If you have hired an outside firm to help you launch a major initiative, hire an advisor to help you with project oversight.
•Know what you don't know, and what you do know. Some senior executives let their ego get in the way and will not admit they don't know something. This chips away at the peer relationship between both parties and discourages honesty.
•Tap into your informal network and community—ask them what they think of that consultant. LinkedIn can also help you research their background and review recommendations.
•Design oversight and checkpoints into every engagement agreement. The best way to ensure success and build trust, according to Sobel, "is regular, frequent, open communications. Often clients fail in this area. They give an assignment to a consultant, pay little attention afterwards, and watch expectations get further apart. A communications and feedback plan should include type and frequency of communications. An explicit discussion like this—call it 'relationship co-creation' if you want—is a key strategy for avoiding disappointments."

Finally, if you are an advisor, start with two steps. First, remind yourself why you originally got into this business: to improve your client's condition and to make a difference. Your clients can intuitively separate the opportunists from the caring advisors.

Second, invest in an etiquette course. Your parents and family will thank you for it. So will your work colleagues.

These strategies will ensure you make it through the first qualifying round of rapport and trust building.

Has anyone ever pushed you off the business diving board? Let us know in the comments.

Lisa is the Chief Energy Officer of EnergizeGrowth LLC. She has helped B2B companies grow customer mindshare and market share since 1983. Follow her on Twitter.

[Image: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

Add New Comment


  • Rmagas

    I appreciated your article. I thought it was well put together and presented excellent points regarding the client/servicer relationship. If you don't stirke that delicate balance, you could find yourself in trouble as a business owner with your clients.

  • Lisa Nirell

    Hello Ron, How true! You could say that client relationships are part art, part science...establishing clear, written expectations and trust are top priorities.

  • Willowsunstar

    Some people do have disabilities and it is easier for them to use e-mail to keep written records of a conversation.  Also, some types of businesses require written approval from vendors to do certain things.  Before judging others, you should really think about things like that.  

  • Lisa Nirell

     A written approval for a vendor is one scenario. Solving an interpersonal issue using text messaging is another. If someone is unable to speak to another person, and typing or sign language are their only solutions, then your comments make perfect sense.

  • Faisal Islam

    funny though, because my father shoved me into the pool , and that's how I learned how to swim.

  • Lisa Nirell

    Faisal, let's save the child rearing advice for another post -- I have limited knowledge in that realm!

  • Louis Gudema

    Interesting points, but I'm not sure how #1 is a faux pas - you're approaching a prospect and they're defining how they wish to communicate with you (at the beginning). That may be frustrating for you, but it's up to the prospect/client to set those rules. You're welcome to not pitch them if you don't accept those boundaries. I've had some very good business relationships start with a few qualifying emails.

  • Matt

    Nice read, great points. I cringed only a little with the first point's potential for perpetuating an excuse for avoiding social media altogether. Since your example regards email and has nothing to do with social media those words could have been dropped without impact to your point. I think few social media platforms suffer from over reliance in any extended one on one exchange since most degrade to email exchanges eventually. I don't think the emerging importance of social media is something any of us can afford to marginalize no matter our generation and excuses for non participation remain all too convenient already.

  • lisanirell


    I appreciated your input!

    1. Detailed emails are fine for exchanging information, but not for developing long term relationships.I abhor the belief that phone calls are not necessary.Even Zappos,one of the world's best online retailers, encourages customers to call any time. A live person from the USA actually answers the phone within 1-2 minutes. Simple but powerful.

    2. I see no dividing line between personal and business.I simply cannot believe that people behave radically different at work than they do at home. That's why I included that point.

    3 & 5 - we are in full agreement.

    4 - I was not clear what you were trying to convey.

    Keep your comments rolling, and keep swimming...Lisa

  • Andy Roma

    I want to make some points in each one of them:

    1 - I think if we can send in a detailed e-mail, we can avoid overall refusal on phone calls acceptance altogether.

    2 - That is essential not only in someone´s professional life, but also Personal and Academic lives.

    3 - I do too believe consultancy is the mais driver to success in any business... If you can´t provide a clear and detailed study of your business, then you must hire a good consultant...

    4 - Now, come on... This is one-a-one in socializing... in business it must be a killer attitude...

    5 - A good deal is the one that is good for you and for me...  witholding information for personal gain or advantage is some serious business killer...

  • Fishpuppy

    Lisa, habit/trait number 5 describes most salespeople in the IT industry -- especially software.  (Think of the culture at SS, for example, where we both worked for a while.)  The astonishing thing is that recruiters for these companies actually look for these types, overtly advertising for "money-motivated" individuals.  Yet clients keep spending and spending with these types of companies, in many instances wasting huge amounts of money on things they don't need or that don't perform anything close to the demo or hype.

    Good read...

  • lisanirell

     Hi! I never met you at Siebel Systems. It was a wild and fun ride. I share my Siebel experiences in my book. They may resonate with you.

    Ancient consumerist mindset and societal norms are slowly being replaced by a modest -- and often minimalist-- one. I am thrilled. I see this happening with younger people who are eschewing the "money motivated" jobs for more meaningful careers.

    I welcome your thoughts.