What the heck to baby ducks have to do with business? As a biology major I focused on vertebrate zoology and animal behavior. I got to learn about how animals, particularly baby birds, imprint on a stable, recurring presence in their environment. Usually in nature it is their mothers and siblings, but in an experimental environment it can be anything: a person, another species of animal, even a toy car or rubber ball. What is really fascinating is that I see similar behavioral patterns in adult humans in business all the time. To get all fancy and scientific about it, I’m going to call it Client Imprinting. On the day-to-day, my business partner, Vanessa, and I like to call it the Baby Duck Effect.
What is Client Imprinting?
Client Imprinting is the phenomenon in which a client feels particularly attached to a particular member of your team. Like a baby duck feels a particular affinity towards it’s mama duck, these clients have created an emotional bond that makes them feel more secure in the business relationship with a particular individual.
Client Imprinting shows itself in a variety of ways. Despite the fact that any number of people on a team can answer the client’s question, the client always requests to speak to the same person. What if that team member isn’t available and isn’t going to be available for a lengthy amount of time? Often the client will want to wait to speak only with that team member, regardless of the inconvenience. The client will often put themselves through an amazing amount of difficulty or delay to connect exclusively with their mama duck. Most outstanding of all, when perfectly good information, advice, or answers come from any other team member to the imprinted client, the client will often feel the need to verify it through their chosen team member. The baby duck doesn’t want to talk to strangers and doesn’t trust information from any source except the mama duck.
Is Client Imprinting Healthy?
Many businesses make client imprinting a solid part of how they do business. Often, each member of a firm has their personal list of clients or book of business. Other team members can offer support if someone is sick or on vacation, but it is well known to everyone at the firm which clients are imprinted on each team member. For a fun example, Acme Hardware is Daffy Duck’s client.
That works pretty well until Daffy is out of the office for a well-deserved 2-week vacation with his family. Suddenly Acme needs something unexpected for that big deal they are working, and no one but Daffy will ever be able to do the trick the way that Daffy does it. Daffy knows all the history. He knows how to communicate with the client. Acme feels lost without Daffy to help them on this issue.
Meanwhile, Daffy’s partner, Donald, has the whole scoop from Daffy (who knew something like this was likely to happen). Donald is ready and willing to bend over backward to give Acme the best customer experience of their lives. Acme is a baby duck, and Daffy has become the mama duck through client imprinting. Suddenly Daffy and Donald find themselves in an uncomfortable situation where they can either choose to disappoint the client or interrupt Daffy’s vacation.
What About the Mama Ducks?
To be fair, to a very big extent Daffy created this situation. It can be very satisfying to be in the position of mama duck. We develop these deep relationships with our clients, enabling them to depend on us and encouraging them to see us as a resource. Who doesn’t like to be the hero saving the day once in awhile? Our relationships are built upon a complex series of chemical responses created by our brains. (Romantic thought, right? Remember I’m a scientist.) When those chemicals are suddenly not present in the ways that we have learned to anticipate them, we can experience withdrawal. It’s addictive.
Daffy was getting just as much positive reinforcement from his interactions with Acme as they were getting from him. He loves the role of mama duck with Acme. The rest of the team at the office will often refer to that client as “his baby”. They all understand, though. After all, they all have their pet clients, as well.
Those patterns and habits can be great when they are useful and serving a purpose, but they stop being effective when we lose sight of the bigger picture business goals. Unfortunately, we don’t often notice when client imprinting has reached an unhealthy level until we need a little space. This can leave the client feeling abandoned and betrayed by us. It is then that the enabling, co-dependent behaviors make themselves more apparent. Sometimes that realization comes too late. It’s important to be aware of these patterns and plan for them in advance.
Strategies for Effective Client Imprinting Boundaries
It is important to have open discussions with your team about client relationships to ensure ongoing healthy communication for all parties. Over the years, Vanessa and I have built some great strategies to help us ensure that our client relationships at Polymath are maintained in a way that we can really support one another and the rest of our team. Here are just a few ideas that you might find helpful.
Switch up the person who handles the initial touch-points with the client.
Whether the first contact is made by phone, email, or in person, we like to make sure that whomever the client spoke to first is not the same person that they speak with the next time around, especially if they ask for that same person again. We like to dazzle them with how well our whole team knows their needs and their story from that initial conversation. A Client Relationship Management (CRM) software can greatly assist with this. These processes always need to be open to ongoing evolution.
Have more than one person present at the initial meeting.
When we do an initial consultation meeting, we make sure to have multiple team members present. We make it clear that the client is getting a team, not just one individual. Each of our team members lead different parts of that meeting. No one person on our team is seen as the only solution or contact for the client.
Have clear roles for your team members.
At Polymath, we really enjoy the Predictable Success model for determining which of our team members have strengths in different areas. We make it clear to our clients that different members of our team will be able to answer different needs of theirs most effectively. Vanessa, as a strong Operator, loves walking clients through their day-to-day tasks and questions. She ensures that their books are always clean, correct, up to date, and make sense to the client. As a strong Visionary, I really enjoy the future-focused strategy conversations. Vanessa and I back each other up, and we still play to our strengths. We don’t hesitate to hand off a client’s question when we know that the other will be more effective.
Maintain good boundaries.
We keep a close eye on “pet clients”. It is important to maintain a healthy balance between allowing our team members to take ownership in their work vs. getting too attached. We may notice that a client is always requesting the same person. It may even be that one of our team is often making excuses for a client’s behavior. When that happens, we take a step back and make a deliberate effort to switch things up. Sometimes we do this by having a different team member answer that client’s emails and phone calls. Other times we will bring another team member in on the client’s next meeting. Then we may have that team member lead the following meeting on their own, depending on the individual client situation. The main essential ingredient is good communication between our team members.
All the Cute Little Baby Ducks!
Client Imprinting can be both rewarding and damaging, especially when our favorite client relationships are deep, long-term, trusting connections we love. By being more aware of these tendencies in ourselves and our clients, we can develop much healthier and effective partnerships. This ensures greater business success over the years.