More than two decades ago Fred Reichheld, among others, began working on a conversation and a system that helped organizations — particularly professional service firms — rethink the issue of client relationships.

In his book, The Ultimate Question (now available in an updated version), the discussion zeroes in on what the author defines as the ultimate measure of loyalty — whether a client would recommend you / your work / your firm to a friend.

The discussion of how to quantify loyalty precipitated important conversations.

Satisfaction, while critical, should not be mistaken for enduring relationship. Appreciation and allegiance do not necessarily equate to advocacy or evangelism.

The Covid-19 Factor

Even while Covid reframes many business development related conversations, Reichheld’s work remains a must-read for anyone serious about gauging the client experience.

As virtually every service enterprise rethinks what can be done to maintain or deepen, never mind create new relationships, there is another question.

The ultimate business development question is rooted in a different value system – the economics of listening – or, as Bob Garfield termed it, Listenomics.

But a word of warning: while it has enormous potential, the question has consequences.

The Question

Specific articulation will vary depending on the situation; but here is the essence.

What do you wish a firm / a company (like ours) would do that we’re not currently doing? What should we be focusing on? If you could design it, what would our working relationship look like — today, and a year from now?

It is a simple question; but the response can be disruptive. Eliminating the nonsensical – “cut your rates by 70%” or “give away your product, portfolio or expertise” – and suggestions will likely center on the need to innovate…to meet the realities of a market hit hard by a global pandemic.

There are plenty of reasons to resist: my plate is overflowing with my own set of challenges…clients don’t always know what best serves them…expectations of today’s market are unrealistic…and what about unforeseen risks.

On the upside, there are little things like differentiation and loyalty. And trusted advisor status.

If you are wrestling with how to engage your targets or clients in the midst of today’s disruptions, ask the question. But be prepared. Asking implies an interest in the ensuing conversation.