Last updated: 06.09.22

Relationship management: the VC way

At Virtual College, we know that creating successful learning design solutions heavily depends on the people involved. The customer, their stakeholders, the learners, as well as our VC team – the relationship manager, project manager and creative team. The relationships between everyone are key to the success of the project, so they must be developed, nurtured and understood.

We caught up with Sarah Cooksedge, one of our relationship managers at Virtual College, to get the lowdown on how we approach the development of these relationships. We talked relationship management principles, skills involved, and the most important things she does to ensure a relationship is a success and that we deliver the project the customer wants.

With many years of building relationships with customers behind her, Sarah was the perfect person to turn to. Her calm, thoughtful responses perfectly capture the spirit of how we build relationships at Virtual College.

How would you define your role as a relationship manager?

To be that key Virtual College connection for the customer, to always be available and prompt with my responses, and to be trusted. I am the go-between between the customers and their needs and requirements, and VC and our needs and requirements. So, yes, that trusted person – that’s how I’d define it.

Which is the hardest of your responsibilities?

Salespeople are generally the ‘can do’ type, so we say ‘yes, we can do that! Yes, we can do that!’. But sometimes you have to stop and think ‘yes, but is that right for my company? It might be right for the customer but is it right for us?’ and that’s a really important thing to think about.

What skills, or secret weapons must a relationship manager have in order to build a successful relationship?

It’s about putting the customer at the heart of everything, and it’s about making time to build that relationship as well as understanding how to build the relationship too. It’s what helps build trust.

So, if possible, I always try and build a relationship on a personal level as well as a business level. I always start my conversations by trying to get to know the customer a little, with comments or questions like ‘Oh I like that wallpaper’, or ‘How was your holiday? Where did you go?’ It’s about being comfortable with each other essentially. Because if you do that, if you build a relationship on a personal level, you’ve got a more personable relationship with somebody and you become more approachable. They then feel they can come to you with question. And I’d say I can do that with about 99% of people. Very occasionally I can’t, but, usually, the majority of people are open to building a relationship on multiple levels.

It’s also important to build the trust early on in a relationship, and that’s about being available for your customer. You prioritise their emails and phone calls so they know they’re in safe hands. Normally they’re handing over a large sum of money, so they need to feel that it’s going to the right place and will be treated in the right way.

How do you make the time if you’ve got lots of different projects on?

I always schedule in the next meeting. Most projects have a regular catch-up meeting between the relationship manager and all the component parts of the project, such as the project manager, maybe someone from the design team and the customer and their stakeholders. So, you have to make sure these meetings are in your calendar and that you prioritise them.

What are your relationship management principles?  

Again, making a personal connection with people. But also, absolutely taking ownership of any problems or issues that arise – that is absolutely crucial. So, that means taking ownership of the situation and doing your damndest to solve it for the good of both parties.

When it comes to this – it’s almost as if the buck stops with you. You are the main contact for the company. The customer will work with different teams but when it boils down to it, you’re like the golden thread that runs through the project. Other people from different teams will come in and out, and obviously you don’t do the work that they do, but you are the consistent presence.

It’s also crucial to understand the project. You need to take the time to do that. It’ll also help you to articulate any issues and problems between teams or the companies concerned, which is something else you need to be able to do well as a relationship manager.

How does a relationship manager go about working with the other VC teams?

The team is absolutely crucial. It is all about teamwork and understanding what everyone has to do, and that works really well at VC. We’re very good at working cross function. We’ve got to be seen to be singing from the same hymn sheet, so collaboration is essential.

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You are the main contact for the company. The customer will work with different teams but when it boils down to it, you’re like the golden thread that runs through the project.
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Sarah Cooksedge

How do you approach taking over someone else’s project? For example, how does it work if a colleague has left and you’re taking over as relationship manager?

You need to put the time in to fully understand the project and engage with all the stakeholders, both from VC and the customer’s side. Whether there is one main person or many, it’s about finding out who are their main stakeholders and making yourself visible to them. For example, I don’t need to go to all the meetings, but I do, to make sure that I have met them and they’ve seen me. And, again, you need to be available for them.

How do you build trust?

I build trust by building good relationships with people. I’m all about building relationships! By being available, at the end of the phone say, it gives them the confidence to pick up the phone or send an email and ask me to do something because they’ll trust that I’ll do something about it.

Customers also need to know that you’re going to own their problems and issues. And when there are issues – which there naturally are in every single project – it’s an opportunity to build greater trust. Because they’ll see you going out of your way to solve something. Linked to that, if you see a problem coming then you need to take the initiative, own that problem and deal with it. All these things build trust, and, importantly, I make sure that all this is apparent from the beginning of the relationship.

What makes VC stand out as relationship managers?

It’s what we do, it’s the team that we have – a relationship manager, a project manager, and the people that are involved in the writing. We’re great at liaising and collaborating between the teams, and I think that definitely helps us stand out.

Which brings me on to my next question: does relationship management come down to one person or is it a team effort?

It’s absolutely a team effort, but the customer still needs to know where the line is drawn. So, even if someone has had a problem with one of the other teams, I would hope that they would come to me first so I could go and help solve the problem. Hopefully they would because they’ve seen me regularly at these ‘keep in touch’ calls and recognise that I’m that consistent presence.

Let’s reflect on your career a little. How long have you been a relationship manager in your career?

I have been looking after accounts closely for a very long time, since about 2009.

What lessons have you learnt from your career?

That the role is quite similar whatever sector you’re in. The customer has needs that must be met, and no matter who you’re working for, there is always a structure for how the project is going to work. So, even though I’ve worked in hospitality, City & Guilds and ILM and here – which are all quite different in what they do – the role of relationship manager is quite similar. It’s pan-sector.

Have you improved or changed your approach over time?

Yes, I probably have changed. My approach has been made much, much easier by using Teams or Zoom.

In the past, I’d go off and see customers quite frequently and be on the phone for quick calls. Or I’d go and see them and have a very formal presentation followed by a five-minute meeting and then I’m back on the train, and I’ll see them again in six months. But now we can build these relationships virtually – I can see them, they can see me, and we get to see the whites of each other’s eyes. We can get to know each other a little better, and I feel that relationships are much, much easier to build as a result.

Everyone has become much more human, haven’t they? Cats walk in front of the screens, or children appear, or we have to go and answer the door. But it’s all fine! In the past, it was terribly unprofessional if that happened but now we don’t mind. And I think all this has made a massive difference and made us better at building relationships.

I’m not saying I hide behind a screen, because I’m happy to go and meet customers, but I would much rather have a Teams call than speak to them on the phone, for example. It’s about putting faces to names, I guess. Not to mention that it helps in other ways too. For example, you can be much more productive because you don’t have to get on the train all the time or drive places. So yes, I think the ability to build relationships virtually has been a real step forward in relationship management.

It sounds like you need an interest in people: a willingness to take the time to get to know the person and find out about their interests and so on – meet them on a personal level. Would you agree?

Yes. It’s about taking the time, or making the effort, to get to know a contact you might be working with for six months. And I think that comes with time, experience and the confidence those bring. I do it out of interest really. I always make a point of finding a topic to talk about, connect over. It comes naturally to me – I’m probably a bit nosy really! But It’s who I am. You have to be comfortable in what you do. But going back to my point earlier, I think this is harder to do over the phone. But now we’re in our customers’ environment. We’re in each other’s rooms! It makes a big difference and it’s definitely enhanced our relationships.

What’s the most important thing about relationship management?

Trust and a connection with the customer and stakeholders. And you build that trust by being available and letting the customer know, as well as showing them, that you have their wishes at heart. That you’re going to put them first and that you understand the project completely.

What words would you use to sum up a relationship manager?

Trust, ownership, logical thinking, and trusted advisor. Oh, and integrity. You absolutely need to act with integrity at all times.

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