building capability + trust: the consultant-client relationship
:: enter on the human ::
We’re actually going to talk more about what the above header actually means, but for now, entering on the human means we’re checking in – top of March – to give you a clue as to what you can expect from the series this month before we dive right in. In March, we’re going to dissect the consultant-client relationship. With a few moments of brief creativity and improvisation, this idea can be extrapolated out to the company-customer relationship. It is useful for people everywhere to understand what defines success for both sides and the requirements for both parties to get what they need. Thus, a topic worthy of discussion here on CommCorner. The topics we'll cover this month include:
on building capability + trust:
on setting expectations +
the role of a consultant
on being receptive +
making informed decisions:
the ideal client
on consulting success:
mindsets + attitudes
from the outset
At Duchesne Communications, we think about the topic at hand a lot because we have clients in that consulting space and because we ourselves are consultants to our clients. Therefore, keeping our values in mind and ever-evolving to provide better and better work for our clients, we consider the ramifications that the dimensions of our relationship with our clients have on the outcome of our work together.
We hear a diverse and extensive amount about other people’s experiences with consultants. This includes their experience in the role of a consultant or as the client engaging a consultant. In 2018, most businesses are engaging a consultant in some capacity. Ergo, the subject at hand is relevant to most people. This is not simply a blog series riff on “Best Practices for Consultants.”
This blog series is intended to evoke an examination of how you interact interpersonally as a consultant or as a client. In order for a consulting relationship to be successful, commitment and work has to be put in, and ideally, that will happen on a 50/50 basis . It just won’t work unless everyone’s on board and bought in. This series is about getting to that place or being ready to potentially walk away because a lukewarm situation isn’t going to do anyone any good anyway.
building capability + trust:
the consultant-client relationship
identify the actual expectations and goals for the collaboration.
You need to know what to do to be successful and how each person is going to be involved.
Have The Talk.
The Talk is very important. As a consultant, you have the ability to control this experience through the proposal or pitch process. Design your proposal in a way that reflects and is indicative of the way working with you will be – streamlined, descriptive, and attractive. Don’t skip out on the specifics. The specifics (provided you follow through on what you say you'll do) will ensure the client feels as though they are consistently receiving what they signed up for, instead of hiring the consultant with a murky idea of what is subsequently going to happen.
After the proposal phase, actually have The Talk with The Person IRL (in real life). “This is what I am committing to do for you and these are the things I will need from you. I am committed to and believe in the work and will do what is within my power and this contract to meet your expectations every step of the way to further this venture.”
Sign off and shake on it.
It’s difficult to have too detailed of a contract, especially when it comes to itemizing expectations. Everyone is happier when they know what they’re getting. As a consultant, you’ll be the happiest if you’ve outlined the expectations you have for your clients as well as what they should expect from you. This is the rubric for the engagement and therefore will be how you measure success. Drill it down until both the consultant and the client are clear and everybody’s cool.
It is in this step that you ensure that the terms of your engagement are fixed, not fluid. The billing expectations are established and remain consistent. The work, as much as possible, is standardized. The meeting schedule is regulated. The client understands how information and updates will be communicated to them, and the consultant sets up a communication system whereby project coordination efforts can be shared. Which leads us to the next point..
establish good (read: GREAT) communication habits early on.
This is a Deal Breaker, guys, and a Deal Maker.
Take the initiative.
As the consultant, you can get ahead of the curve here. Create an email tempo – report-outs and progress updates. Establish a cadence right out of the gate. Do you want to conduct business by phone or email? Obviously, all of these things are flexible, but establish a norm. Get ahead of the expectations and put the systems in place to schedule the meetings, the follow-up correspondence, and everything in between.
The quality of the communication between a consultant and the client is one of the primary indicators of whether or not the relationship is healthy. Under-communicating is certainly a risk for [ineffective] consultants. Response lag and indecision are the two primary risks with respect to a client’s contribution; projects stall on pending decisions.
In most consulting engagements, there’s a normal path the project and the relationship follow. The beginning is a time of decision-making and groove-setting, but the most challenging time is still to come. The challenge comes, at times, when rapport has been established and the groove has been going for quite some time. The natural human tendency is to get a little lax.
Don’t let off the gas! Chances are, the stage you (as the consultant or the client) are tempted to start to let things slide (or to extend the timeline or the time to respond) is the stage when you’re actually accomplishing the goals of the collaboration. The talking and planning is over. The work is getting done and that’s when you need to make sure you’re attacking the goals with your early enthusiasm.
keep it real and keep it constructive.
Consulting in half-truths is not even 50% effective.
Share 100% of what should be shared.
This does not mean all the sausage making needs to be streamed on Facebook Live, but it does mean a layer of transparency (again, for both consultants and clients) needs to be permanently installed. As a consultant, if there are barriers to a deadline, share the ones that matter to the client, and actually make your project projections based on the details you shared. It’s trite but under-promise and over-deliver - every time.
This can be difficult. It’s not always about sharing the details and ramifications of the project you’re working on. Sometimes it can be interpersonal communication concerns. Now, we noted in the subheader that 100% of what should be shared should be shared. It takes wisdom to know what that is. Sometimes retrospect is the Great Revealer; as they say, hindsight is 20/20. But remember - the outcome of the project leans heavily on the quality of the communication of everyone's needs, wants, and opportunities.
Check in with the goals.
It’s the responsibility of the consultant to constantly draw the conversation back to the goals. Dependent upon the project, the consultant will establish a regular cadence of progress reports, so the client is consistently clued in to their exact location in the progression toward the goal. As the consultant, the area of work is your area of expertise; therefore, it’s the responsibility of the consultant to keep the project and the client on the path.
The longer a particular engagement extends, the greater the risk that the project will deviate from the initial terms. Constant check-ins with the goal ameliorate this issue some of the time. This can often lead to an opportunity to renegotiate the terms of the engagement if the client's goals have expanded. This will result in more extensive work on the part of the consultant (for additional fees, of course!)
“It’s not personal; it’s business” works until business becomes personal.
Enter and exit on the human.
When hiring consultants, the choice is very personal. What flavor do you prefer? Do you identify with their approach and style? Consulting success arises from the end product matching the original expectation of the client, and that includes delivery. The Internet allows us a myriad of opportunities to share our real selves before even meeting others professionally IRL, but this extends beyond that. Humanize yourself from the beginning and cultivate the human connection.
Every interaction with a client should be about them, and the work extends beyond the board room. Who are the clients as people? Interactions with clients should be work-centric, but be about them as people, too. You don’t have to exchange photos of the kids, but building a personal relationship simultaneously will only aid your long-term efforts in collaboration. No hugging required.
Consider the human factors influencing human opinion.
Opinions do not originate in a vacuum. Opinions are formed in the minds of clients, stemming from previously-held opinions, conversations with trusted others, and new tidbits of information. The better you know the human client, the better the results of your collaboration. Consider the intellectual baggage they’re bringing to the conversation and allow that information to shape the delivery of your consultation.
As a client, you, too, must realize that the consultant (or team of consultants) with whom you are working are also human. This is not an excuse for repeated errors but an internalization that behooves the parties who understand this fact. The consultant-client relationship is a person-to-person business arrangement – one that can be incredibly rewarding or spectacularly ineffective.
:: exit on the human ::
If you’re in the South Bay and podcasting is more your speed, we’re covering this topic all month long but with a lot more Silicon Valley flair on South Bay Social, WhatUp! Silicon Valley’s Tuesday show.
Come on over to CommCorner every Wednesday for a new CommContributor on the blog. This week we’ve got Jonathan Gottlieb, a Bay Area executive and organization consultant and leadership coach and a premier example of the subject matter of this series. Don’t miss his blog.
As always, if you are interested in becoming a CommContributor, email firstname.lastname@example.org.