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Can You Keep a Secret? How to Have Off-the-Record Conversations with Clients

Don't let careless communication put your business at risk! Our guide will give you the tools and techniques to ensure that sensitive information stays private.
Can You Keep A Secret

I know, that you know, that building trust with our clients is pivotal for long-term success. It’s like the secret sauce that keeps our business relationships healthy.

But there’s one more powerful ingredient we can add to the mix. Confidential, off-the-record conversations.

Confidential conversations give your clients a safe place to express their deepest needs or real concerns. They provide a unique chance to learn more about your clients’ world. You’ll learn things that will change how you manage the relationship and add value.

Let’s find out how to make the most of “Off the Record” conversations.

Table of Contents

What is "Off the Record"?

When someone mentions “Off the Record,” they’re saying, “Hey, let’s keep this between us.” It’s like having a secret code or safe word for trustworthy discussions.

So, why are these “off the record” conversations so valuable?

They serve a few key purposes.

  • Creating a safe space. They create a space where people can talk about things they might awkward discussing in public. It’s like having a vault where you safely store secrets.
  • Build trust. When you’re willing to talk off the record, it shows that you value honesty and open communication. You’re letting your guard down and, for a moment anyway, being vulnerable.
  • Gathering information. Off the record talks are a great way to get information that helps you work with your clients without giving away the source. When a client says, “you didn’t hear it from me, but…” it’s like having an anonymous tip that could lead to a ground-breaking news story.

There are times when privacy between key account managers and their clients is vital. For example:

  • Exploring potential challenges or concerns. You may have “off the record” chats to talk about challenges or concerns your clients face. This helps to gain a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.
  • Sharing confidential business strategies. You may share confidential business strategies with clients during “Off the Record” talks. This might include future product launches, marketing campaigns, or other plans that are not yet public.
  • Discussing competitive insights. You may have “off the record” conversations to share competitive insights and market intelligence. These discussions help clients stay up-to-date on industry trends, competitor activities, and potential growth opportunities.
  • Seeking feedback on products or services. You may start “Off the Record” conversations with clients to get honest feedback about your products or services. Clients can provide valuable insights without worrying their feedback will be against them.
  • Personal career advice. You and your clients may exchange personal career advice and mentorship. You can safely ask for help with professional growth, career development, and dealing with problems in your roles.

The next time a client wants to talk about something private, let them, but keep their secrets safe.

(more on that later.)

Understand the risks of speaking "Off the Record"

Before discussing how to talk off the record, let’s examine the associated risks.

Misinterpretation

Without witnesses, meeting minutes, or records, clients may misinterpret what you say. Misunderstandings are confusing and put a strain on relationships you’ve worked hard to build.

To reduce this risk, focus on clarity in your off-the-record conversations. Choose your words and be mindful of how other people might perceive them.

Re-cap what you’ve heard so you know you have understood things accurately. Address potential misinterpretations to maintain clear lines of communication and prevent unnecessary friction.

Breach of trust

When you have off-the-record conversations, trust is the most important thing. So don’t betray it. If your conversation isn’t kept private, it may hurt your relationship with the client and your professional image.

To avoid such risks:

  • Be transparent about the purpose and boundaries of the off-the-record conversation. Ensure everyone understands why it needs to be private.
  • Use your best judgement and think long and hard about who you talk to off the record. Only let down your guard with clients who have proven you can trust them.

Conversations not on the record lack the same accountability level as official, written communications. This can make it hard to understand who said what or keep promises made during those talks.

Here are some steps to ensure accountability and bridge the gap between casual talks and real results.

  • Seek confirmation. When talking behind closed doors, make it a priority to go over the important points and decisions. Even if you can’t write down specifics, you can usually send an email or write down a summary of what you agreed to.
  • Set timelines. Set clear deadlines for actions or decisions that come out of off-the-record talks. Set clear goals so people feel responsible and ensure they’re making progress..
  • Regular check-ins. Set up regular meetings or check-ins to discuss how things are going. This gives you a chance to talk about any problems or issues that have come up and to make sure that everyone is doing what they agreed.

Legal and ethical concerns

Please, please, please be aware of the legal and moral consequences of talks that are not on the record. Depending on what you’re discussing, and the business you’re in, you might not be able to share certain things without permission or legal help.

It’s essential to exercise caution and consider the following points:

  • Confidentiality agreements. Review any existing confidentiality agreements or non-disclosure agreements in place. These agreements outline what kind of information should remain confidential. They may also have specific requirements for off-the-record conversations. Understand the terms, limitations and penalties before engaging in such discussions.
  • Legal obligations. Be aware of any legal or regulatory requirements that apply to your industry. Some information, like customer data or trade secrets, may be illegal to share. Be familiar with applicable laws and reach out to your legal team with any concerns or questions.
  • Ethical considerations. Even if something may not be illegal, you should still think about how it affects your reputation. Sharing certain information should sync with your personal and professional values. It needs to abide by your company’s ethical standards too. If you’re a global account manager, then you must also be familiar with business practices in the countries you lead.
  • Consult with legal. Talking to a lawyer is always a good idea if you’re concerned that an off-the-record conversation might not be legal or ethical. They can give you specific advice based on your situation.

It’s better to ask questions and make sure you’re following the rules than to face possible legal or ethical problems later.

Strong business partnerships are build on trust. Honesty, dependability, reliability and open collaboration are what inspire confidence in your abilities and earn the respect of those who value integrity.

How to Start an "Off the Record" Conversation

When having “Off the Record” discussions, there are a few things to keep in mind so that everyone is on the same page.

Set the tone and context

The success of an “Off the Record” begins with setting the right tone and context from the beginning. This will help the other person understand the importance of the conversation.

  1. Choose the right time and place. Find a private place to have the conversation, free from distractions. That way you can focus and feel comfortable sharing sensitive information without disruptions. This could be a meeting room, a private office, or even a coffee shop (as long as it’s not too loud). Allow enough enough time for the conversation. Turn off your phone and any other devices that might distract you.
  2. Communicate the purpose. Let the other person know why you want to have an “Off the Record” conversation and what you hope to achieve. This will help them understand the importance of discretion and why it’s needed.
  3. Emphasize the importance of trust. Tell the other person that you appreciate their trust and that you will keep the talk private. This will make them more likely to tell you sensitive information.

How to ask for confidentiality

Once you’ve set the tone and context for the conversation, it’s important to ask for privacy. Here are some useful tips to guide you in requesting confidentiality.

  1. Be direct. Don’t beat around the bush. By being straightforward, you ensure that there is no room for confusion. For example, you could say, “I’d like to have a “Off the Record” chat with you, and I want to make sure that everything we talk about stays between us.”
  2. Explain why confidentiality is needed. Tell the other person why you need to keep things secret and how it will help both of you. For instance, you could say, “I’d like to talk to you in confidence without worrying about the effects. I’m sure you do too.”
  3. Define “Off the Record”. Also, you should explain what you mean by “Off the Record.” Make sure your client knows this means you won’t use any of the information they give you in any formal capacity.
  4. Give the other person an out. Let the other person know it’s OK to decline an “Off the Record” conversation, if they don’t feel comfortable. For example, you could say, “I’d like to talk to you about this in private. It’s fine if you’d prefer not to.

What to Say (and What Not to Say)

Choose your words carefully. Even “Off the Record” conversations can have consequences if the information gets out. Don’t say anything that could be damaging or controversial (even if you think you’re speaking in confidence.)

Let’s explore some dos and don’ts of confidential discussions to help keep the conversation on the right track.

Topics that are appropriate for “Off the Record” conversations

The point of “Off the Record” conversations is to have an open and honest discussion without worrying about what might happen. Here are a few areas that are usually appropriate for “Off the Record” conversations:

  • Personal information. Conversations that are “Off the Record” can be a way to share personal information that you might not want made public. My clients have often shared their personal goals or the problems they’re having at work.
  • Opinions and feedback.  “Off the Record” conversations are also useful to share honest opinions about a particular situation or person. You can provide constructive feedback without worrying about any negative consequences.
  • Sensitive information. If you’re discussing a sensitive topic, an “Off the Record” conversation can be a good option. This could be anything from discussing confidential business information to personal issues.

Topics to avoid during “Off the Record” conversations

While “Off the Record” conversations can be a useful tool, there are some topics you should steer clear of. These include:

  • Illegal activities. It’s important to know that talks that are “off the record” do not protect people from prosecution. If you talk about illegal things in a “Off the Record” chat, you could still get into trouble with the law.
  • Slander. While “Off the Record” conversations are private, you should refrain from talking badly about others. Slander is a serious offense, and you could face legal action if the word gets out about your comments.
  • Offensive language. Bad language or behaviour is never acceptable, even in “Off the Record” conversations. No matter what, you should always treat people with care. You might think that swearing makes you more relatable, but it only makes you look unprofessional.
  • Know when to say “No”. There may be times when someone asks you to share sensitive information, but you’re not comfortable doing so. If you aren’t sure if you should share the information or not, say “No.” It’s always better to err on the side of caution and keep the information confidential.

Strategies to keep the conversation on track

Sometimes an “Off the Record” conversation can open up the floodgates. Once, a client was giving me tips on how to get the contract renewed, but then it turned into a rant about how much they hated their boss.

Keep the conversation on track so it’s productive and achieves its intended purpose. Here are some ways to keep your mind on the objectives.

  • Set the agenda. Before the conversation begins, outline what you want to talk about. This will help you keep focused and make sure you cover everything (and now when to wrap things up).
  • Avoid distractions. Don’t do things like check your phone or email during the conversation. Concentrate on what is they are saying.
  • Watch your body language. Your body language conveys a lot about how you’re feeling. Don’t do things like pointing your finger at your client or rolling your eyes. Movements like that can come off as defensive or aggressive.
  • Be honest and transparent. Don’t hide anything or try to manipulate the conversation to your advantage. Be upfront and honest about your intentions.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Encourage your client to share their thoughts and feelings. Avoid asking yes or no questions, as these won’t give you much insight into their perspective. Instead, try asking questions like:
    • What are your biggest concerns when it comes to our product/service?
    • How do you think we could improve our offerings?
    • What do you think sets us apart from our competitors?
  • Pay close attention. Don’t try to finish their sentences or cut them off. Instead, give them your full attention and let them speak without interruption.
  • If you need to, make notes. You might want to write down your ideas, but your first priority is listening to what your client says. Make eye contact with them and show you’re engaged in what they are saying.

Need more help with "Off the Record" conversations?

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and the same holds true for “Off the Record” conversations. How you end these confidential discussions is as important as how you started them.

When you and your client have a successful off-the-record talk, you both learn more about each other. But if you don’t end the conversation well, it can undo all the progress you made.

Tips on how to end confidential conversations

When the conversation is over, wrap things up in a ways that makes everyone feel good.

  • Recap the conversation. Make a quick summary of the important points discussed. This will make sure you’re both on the same page and help clear up any misunderstandings.
  • Address any awkward moments.  Even in “Off the Record” conversations, there can get sticky. It this happens to you, respond with kindness and understanding. Acknowledge any discomfort and address it. Emphasize the importance of open communication and understanding. This will help ease the tension and make your relationship stronger.
  • Express appreciation. Thank your client for taking the time to talk and for being open and honest with you. It’s a small gesture, but it shows them how much you appreciated their help.
  • Describe next steps. If there are any actions or follow-up tasks, explain them before you leave. Setting up a clear plan of action makes sure progress continues beyond the discussion and keeps the ball rolling.
  • Reiterate discretion and trust. As the conversation comes to a close, stress again how important it is to keep things private. Remind your client that everything said will not be repeated. It’ll stop your client from feeling bad about saying too much.

How to keep the relationship going after the conversation

The conversation has come to and end. What next?

Focus on keeping a positive relationship with your client, and continue to build trust and rapport.

You want to invitations to more confidential conversations, don’t you?

  • Reflect on the conversation. Take a moment to think about the valuable insights and new information shared. How can this knowledge can improve your ongoing relationship?
  • Follow up. Send a thoughtful follow-up email or message. Ensure that whatever you agreed to during the discussion happens. Thank your client for their honesty and let them know you’re always there to help.
  • Be respectful. Regardless of how the conversation turned out, keep it respectful and professional. Don’t attack the other person or say things that could harm the relationship. That includes with your colleagues. Not only is negativity contagious, but the walls have ears.
  • Seek opportunities to collaborate. Look things in common that can serve as a foundation for future collaboration. Shared interests, goals, or values strengthen your relationship and make it easier to work together.

Respecting confidentiality is an act of professional integrity. When you’re in an ‘Off the Record’ conversation, handle the trust placed in you with care and discretion.

Need more help with "Off the Record" conversations?

  • The KAM Club Podcast. A weekly show dedicated to helping busy key account managers get results. Listen to past episodes and subscribe to the newsletter for actionable tips that grow client revenue and retention. No spam, just high quality career, business trends and productivity insights from across the web – direct to your inbox.
  • Account Manager Tips on YouTube. Dozens of videos on key account management best practices for newbies, experts and everyone in between. Subscribe and click the bell icon to get notified when new content is published.
  • Career Power Hour. You can book an hour with me to help with your interview preparation or role-play interviews and any other advice you may need.
  • The KAM Club. The world’s most amazing community of key account managers. Inside you’ll find all the training, tools, templates and coaching you need for a successful career in key account management.
  • 9 Sure Fire Ways to Build Trust and Credibility with Customers. As a key account manager you must establish trust and credibility with your customers. Otherwise you’ll struggle to get them to listen to your advice, accept your recommendations and make the changes they need to make to get results. This article has some useful tips to get you started.
  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler: This book offers insights into how to handle high-stakes conversations, disagreements, and high-emotion situations.

FAQ

When you have agreed to an off the record conversation, it means that the information shared must be kept confidential, and the other person expects that you will not share it with anyone else. Breaking this trust can lead to serious legal, ethical, and reputational consequences for you and your organization.

Moreover, even if you’re not under any legal obligation to keep information confidential, it’s still essential to consider the ethical implications of sharing off the record conversations. If you break someone’s trust, you may damage your future relationship with them and stunt future opportunities.

Before sharing any information, consider the original intention and expectations of confidentiality. If in doubt, it is advisable to seek clarification or get permission from the person who shared the information before sharing it with others.

However, if there’s an urgent public safety concern or legal obligation that requires you to disclose the information from the off the record conversation, you must weigh your ethical obligations against legal requirements carefully.

An “off the record,” means that whatever you discuss in the conversation will remain private, and neither you or the other person will share it with anyone else. The only way to know is to ask the other person. If you’re unsure if a conversation is confidential, ask, “Is this discussion off the record?” If they say, “Yes,” then you must either agree to it or decline.

If you proceed, write down what you talked about in a way that only you can understand what you meant. However, remember that some topics cannot be kept private, and you must disclose them by law. For example, if someone is being hurt or harmed, or if you know of any illegal activity happening, you must tell the authorities.

Yes, certain industries and professions are more prone to off the record conversations and may carry greater risks because of the nature of their work. For example, lawyers, politicians, journalists, and high-level executives in businesses are more likely to have off the record conversations due to the sensitive nature of their work. However, it’s essential to ensure that any off the record conversations are legal and ethical, and it’s important to understand the potential risks and consequences of such conversations.

It’s always better to err on the side of caution and maintain transparency and honesty in communication.

In some industries, such as finance or healthcare, off the record conversations may also carry significant legal and professional implications. For example, in finance, insider trading and other illegal activities can result from off the record conversations, leading to criminal charges and significant reputational harm. In healthcare, patient confidentiality laws can be violated, which can have serious legal and ethical consequences.

It’s important to note that while off the record conversations may sometimes be necessary or advantageous, it’s crucial to proceed with caution and only engage in them when absolutely necessary. It’s also important to ensure that everyone involved understands the boundaries and risks of such conversations, and that no laws or ethical standards are being violated.

If a client asks for an off the record conversation, but you’re uncomfortable with the potential risks involved, it’s essential to handle the situation carefully and professionally.

Firstly, it’s vital to make sure that you understand the client’s reasons for requesting an off the record conversation. If the client is merely trying to hide sensitive or confidential information, it may be appropriate to address their concerns in a different way rather than agreeing to an off the record conversation.

You should also consider your own boundaries and ethical obligations. If you’re a lawyer, for example, you may have strict confidentiality requirements that prevent you from having an off the record conversation without explicit permission.

If you’re uncomfortable with the proposed off the record conversation, you should communicate this respectfully to the client and explain your concerns. It’s essential to be clear and firm in your communication and suggest alternative ways to address the client’s concerns that align with your ethical standards.

In some instances, you may need to politely decline the request for an off the record conversation altogether. It’s important to ensure that your decision is based solely on ethical considerations and follows the relevant laws and regulations.

Examples of how to politely decline an “Off the Record” conversation

  • “I know you want to talk in private, but our company policy says that we have to keep a record of our conversations so that everything is transparent.”
  • “We should talk about this through our usual channels so we can keep track of it and make sure there are no misunderstandings.
  • “I want to make sure we follow the rules and do things the right way, so before we chat it might be a good idea to get guidance from our legal team.”
  • “Our relationship is important to me, and I want to handle any private information in a way that protects us and follows the rules.”
  • “I think the best way to handle your request is to bring in a neutral person, like a mediator or lawyer. They can help us talk in private and make sure everything is fair.”
  • “I want to make sure we both understand what we can expect and what the limits are. Let’s figure out how to address your concerns in a way that works for both of us and follows the rules.”
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