By Vilis Ozols, MBA, CSP
This article appeared in the California Collectors Association monthly magazine; Collectors Ink, in the Texas Collectors Association monthly magazine and in the CRS News quarterly newsletter in 2005.(click here for information about reprinting these articles)
When you think about how to maximize the effectiveness of your collections business, it is likely that the most common areas you focus on are business related (for example, decreasing costs, increasing contact efficiency, and increasing sales, to name a few). However, one of the softest skills in the book is the one most likely to give you the largest return on investment, and there is a very likely chance that it isn’t even a part of your stated repertoire or your strategic business plan: relationship building.
Relationship building should be a comprehensive and structured part of your business plan in a number of key areas, including Customer Relationships, Employee Relationships, Peer Relationships, and Vendor Relationships. Some of these may seem obvious, but the challenge for any collection agency is to enact systems to tangibly develop and enhance these relationships with intent and not just hope that they improve or evolve on their own.
Rosabeth Moss Cantor, the former editor of the Harvard Business Review, once remarked that the goal of any business should be to make the customers “real” to the service provider. One of the goals of your business should be to create “in-person” interactions between your clients and your service providers. One way is to bring service providers on sales calls, to trade shows, or to meet clients. Another way is to organize open houses, conferences, or social events to get your clients into your location to create opportunities to interact with your employees.
One of the ways that collection industry leading software provider CR Software enhanced the relationship with their clients was to create an advisory council. In its simplest sense, the goal was to have 12 experienced clients give feedback on what was and wasn’t working from a client’s point of view. The benefits have been numerous to both the members of the council and to CR Software as more end-user information is used to enhance the software, but one of the most intangible benefits has been stronger business relationships. As a software provider, CR Software has the benefit of knowing their customers better – knowing their needs, challenges, desires, personalities and motivations. The members of the council benefit from interacting with each other to get business development ideas and process enhancement perspectives that they can bring back to their respective businesses. They also get to understand their vendor at a different level with the result of working with their software company as a “partner,” not just a “vendor.”
In today’s collection agency environment, it seems that everyone is busier and busier than ever before. The first things that suffer when we get overwhelmed are the personal and business relationships with the people we work with. The obvious solution is to work on these relationships even when “crazy busy” is the order of the day. Social endeavors, pot luck lunches, celebratory gatherings should continue in the workplace, especially when we’re busy.
From an executive team perspective, the same holds true. The busier we get, the more executive relationships suffer, and often the strategic perspective that a growing agency needs to be successful is lost. When was the last time your executive team got together without the challenge of dealing with day-to-day issues and pulled together a true strategic game plan? The question to ask is: “Is the business running the executive team, or is the executive team running the business?”
As a business leader, where do you get your new ideas and your business perspectives? If all your time is spent focusing on your business from the inside, a certain amount of myopia is sure to set in. One of the concepts that many business leaders are using to infuse their leadership with innovative ideas and concepts is a mastermind group. This is typically a group of three to seven executives either in the same business line or from different business segments. The group will typically meet monthly and exchange best practices, share challenges and issues, and give each other the benefits of their collective experience. Inevitably, these types of peer networking groups yield immense benefits to the participants. Often trade groups, such as ACA International or your local chamber of commerce, are a great resource for establishing these types of mastermind groups.
A simpler version of this concept is to seek out a mentor. Admittedly, initially it may be out of your comfort zone to ask for help, but if you ask around, you may find a couple of insights for success. Most truly successful business leaders had a mentor who helped them get where they are, and most business executives who have attained a measure of success are usually very open to sharing their expertise with someone willing and able to learn. You just need to take the initiative to ask.
In a former consulting project, I had a union executive once say, “Management tends to get the union that they deserve!” Translated, that meant that hard-nosed, aggressive, antagonistic management teams tended to get the same traits in return from their union. I believe the same holds true in business to vendor relationships. If you are always trying to take a chunk out of your vendor or if you treat them like “just a vendor,” you will tend to get the same reciprocal treatment. Honest dialogue, forthright exchange of goals, and a true partnership mentality will create a relationship that serves as a win-win in your vendor interactions
In addition to working with their clients, CR Software also renewed their commitment to enhancing and facilitating the relationship their software users have with their industry vendors who integrate with their software. They undertook a focused effort on defining integrated services, updating and enhancing integrated offerings from vendors, and improving communication with their industry vendors. Their goal was to successfully create a true win-win-win relationship between the agency, the vendor, and CR Software.
The busier we get, the more isolated we often allow ourselves to become. Additionally, as we become more successful, there is always a tendency to stray from some of the habits that made us successful in the first place. Commit to one or two things that will help you and your organization develop better relationships among clients, employees, peers, and vendors. Commit to attending a conference that you used to attend and have been too busy to go to lately. Rekindle a personal or business relationship… just because. Adopt a soft skill mentality of working to improve the business and personal relationships that have suffered as a result of growing and succeeding. It does take effort, structure and planning to build those relationships. In the words of business management author Tom Peters: “The hard stuff is easy. It’s the soft stuff that’s hard!”
Vilis Ozols, MBA, CSP, (www.ozols.com) president of the Ozols Business Group in Albany, CO, is a motivational business speaker and leadership consultant. He is the author of 3 books, he’s a former pro beach volleyball player and he has spoken to businesses in all 50 U.S. states.