What are the core differentiators between a successful business and an unsuccessful business? There are the obvious metrics of sales, number of products, and the extent of product reach. In the service industry, the differentiators can be much more intangible. When you think of quality differentiation and service, it is hard to make qualitative leaping distinctions between what one service provider gives you and what another could provide. I have a doctor, and I think he is exquisite, but is his knowledge deeper or better than that of another doctor? I have similar great faith in my accountant and my lawyer. I am a repeat customer. The argument could be made that this a case of inertia, that I am stuck with embedded transaction costs, or that I am used to the same service providers, or that I'm too lazy to look for alternatives. I beg to differ. These relationships, while having an element of inertia are embedded because my service providers have normatively engaged me through a process of deep understanding and aligning their skills with my needs.

Client engagement is different than run-of-the-mill customer sales. In commodity sales, the challenge is having products that serve a particular end where issues of cost and efficiency are quantifiable and where rational comparative shopping is relatively easy. In the service sector, we are talking about something much more deeply normative. Clearly, the litmus test is competence, but there is more to the equation.

Assuming that all service providers have some degree of comparable competency, what is necessary to establish a sticky relationship with clients? Let me suggest a few prerequisites:

1. Focus on the problem. In the service industry, traction is often created by the capacity of the provider to show a deep understanding of the problem the client faces. A common understanding of the problem allows for the joint pursuit of the solution and avoids the cookie-cutter mentality of overly-focused solution-driven providers.

2. Have a mastery of the client's business. Service providers who have successful client engagement have mastered their client's business. This means that service providers need to do their homework and examine not only the client's immediate problems, but the total context from which these problems emerge.

3. Show mastery of a resource network. Client engagement is enhanced when the provider makes it clear that he or she (or their organization) is not the only resources available to the client. Service providers give the client a sense of robust support when they make it clear that they can draw on their network for resources and assistance.

4. Committed to the long term. Service providers who make it clear that they are ready and willing to travel the road of their relationship with their client is of untold importance. It is one thing to visit a doctor for some medicine to clear up an ear infection, but it is another thing to have real, substantial long-term care relationship from a provider who knows and remembers your medical history, and is willing to be in your corner.

5. Are willing to invest. Service providers who see themselves as investing in clients for the long term sometimes have to take a short-term loss. That is, they may enter the relationship on a trial or ad hoc basis, but only as a building block for the potential of greater gains down the road.

6. Partner for execution. Having worked with clients to understand problems and solutions, client engagement is enhanced when the service provider continuously gauges the client throughout the process of execution. Not disappearing, but checking in, making appropriate adjustments, staying on top of the shifting situation are essential in maintain an engaged relationship.

To achieve each one of these, the service provider must master the art of focused dialogue, critical questioning, and creative conversation. Yet just as important, the service provider must have a degree of empathy and political savvy. In the final analysis, the successful partnership is a coalition that implies moving ahead in pursuit of a common cause. Successful service providers may find that their mastery of interpersonal micro-skills may trump expertise as a key to sustaining a long-term relationship.