Balancing firm standards with the client’s

    Consultants are brought in by a client for many reasons and one of the key reasons is their expertise and methodology.  Most firms have Consultance need to maintain balance to best serve their clientstheir own standards and the consultant needs to develop a balance between following the client’s standards and the firm’s standards that the client may want to adapt.

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    1. What are the types of standards where you run into conflict with the client?
      1. It often depends on your role in the project.  I work in IT consulting, so we do custom software development.
      2. We have a certain set of coding standards that we follow, but when we go to a client to develop software for them, they may have a different set.  We need to reconcile that with them and determine which standards we’re going to follow on the project.
      3. We may feel that we have a better set of standards, but the client needs to deal with the lack of consistency of having one of their applications developed under a different standard.
      4. We also deal with it for documentation.  Some clients have standards for how documents are created such as templates for business requirements or technical designs.  It may be as simple as the template used, but they may also require specific sections with other details.
      5. Most consulting firms have their own standards for all of these documentation formats and the type of content that is provided.
      6. So there is often a gap with those types of standards
      7. Project management consultants my have their own standards for their methodology. I’m a project manager myself, and I tend to run into a lot of standards differences between things like status reporting and how we structure meetings at the client.
    2. How do you reconcile these types of differences in standards?
      1. It generally varies based on how strong the client’s preference is.  It can also depend on why the client brought the firm in.
      2. For instance with the coding standards issue I just mentioned.  The client may agree 100% that the consulting firm’s coding standards are better and more efficient, but they just don’t want to deal with the inconsistency after they take on the responsibility of their staff maintaining the code after the consultants leave.
      3. Consistency is really the whole reason for having coding standards.  They have maintenance programmers that support all of their applications.
      4. If they can count on a certain amount of uniformity in their coding and naming standards across all of their applications, they can more efficiently maintain them.
      5. I’ve always heard it said that a bad standard is better than no standard at all.
      6. So consultants going into a client need to find out what can you do and what can’t you do that you might be used to including in your code.
      7. Now if the difference has to do with documentation standards, it’s a little similar to the coding standards.  If the client’s executives are used to seeing business requirements or design documents in a certain way, they may be more stringent about you doing it their way
      8. I’ve seen situations where the firm and the client have different standards and we’ll sit down and reconcile them.  We’ll maybe use their template, but add sections from our document to make sure we cover all of the critical aspects.
      9. As a project manager, I have my company’s standard status report that I’m used to using.  I’ve had clients that have a standard status report that they want me to use.  But I’ve had others that have no standard and look to us to provide the standard.
      10. There are times where we treat it like the documentation and create a combined hybrid of their standard and ours to make sure we report all the pertinent information.
      11. It’s a matter of sitting down with them up front and decided on a project standard together.
      12. At my last client, I would submit our standard status report to them each week and they would cut and paste all of the information into their web-based standard reporting tool.  It seemed a little bit redundant to me, but that worked well for them.
    3. What are the situations where a client doesn’t want the firm to use their own standards?
      1. Sometimes, top consulting firms are brought in specifically for their methodology and standards.  In that case, part of what they want is for the firm to help them establish standards.
      2. In the example of the coding standards, they may have no standards at all and everyone is doing stuff all over the board.
      3. They may ask the firm to come in and establish a set of coding standards that they can start following moving forward.
      4. Some clients are start-up companies or just new enough that they haven’t even established a standard for any type of documentation or reporting.
      5. They’re really looking to the consulting firm to provide that for them so that they can use our templates and establish a tool kit for future use.
      6. When it comes to project management, a firm is often brought in specifically for their methodology.  The client often hopes to use that methodology as a template for their own standards on projects after the firm leaves.
      7. The thing we often warn clients about is that a formal methodology is not just about the documentation templates.  Most formal methodologies are much more complex and involve a lot of defined processes
      8. Some of that, the firm will share with the client and some of it is proprietary.  But our clients aren’t always just trying to copy our methodology.
      9. They usually just admit that they don’t have a mature project management methodology and are leaning on the firm to provide it for that project.
      10. They may learn a few things about the methodology and adapt a few of the best practices, but essentially they’re deferring to the consultants to provide the standards.
    4. In addition to coding and documentation approaches, what other standards should a consultant be aware of.
      1. Well they should also make sure they understand the client’s cultural standards.  One aspect of that is their work-day hours.
      2. I’ve been to client sites where they’re very flexible with their employees’ work hours.  In the Chicago area, traffic is always an issue, so they allow their staff to come in late, and leave late, or come in early to beat the traffic and leave early in the afternoon.
      3. When they do that, they generally offer the same flexibility to the client.  In those cases, we always try to establish a set of core hours when everyone will be at the office.
      4. We may set 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM so that we have a period where we know we can schedule meetings and get ahold of people.
      5. But some clients have a strict 8:00 to 5:00 schedule.  And they expect consultants to live by those rules too.  So back at your consulting firm’s office, maybe they allowed you to come in and leave later in the day, at the client, you need to work under their work day hours.
      6. This is particularly difficult for consultants when they work later into the night.  They may work until 9 or 10 o’clock at night and think they can come in later in the morning.
      7. But the client doesn’t see how late you stayed and worked, they only see that you rolled in at 9 or 10 in the morning.
    5. How strict are client about these kinds of rules.
      1. This is probably a worst case scenario.  It really depends on the client. Most clients are pretty flexible.  But I did have a client that was this inflexible once and we had to learn to live with it.
      2. This client had their weekly status meeting on Tuesdays at 8:00 AM.  It was a long, traffic-filled commute for me and there were times when I was running into the building at 7:59, but we knew they were strict time keepers and we lived under their rules.
      3. Another area outside of documentation and coding is the dress code.  I know we’ve discussed dress codes in the past, but I think it bears taking another look at.
      4. When you’re at your own firm’s offices, they may have one standard.  Some firms allow you to wear jeans and t-shirts or even shorts.  But the client may have another standard.
      5. We’ve evolved from the day where everyone wore suits wherever they went, to a full gamut of environments.
      6. One client may allow business casual, where you need to wear dress pants or khakis with collared shirts, or they may allow ‘anything goes’ with jeans, t-shirts and sneakers.
      7. Regardless of what your firm allows in their offices, you need to comply with what the client wants when you’re at their site.
      8. I had a client that required suits and ties every day – including the traditional casual Friday.  The only thing worse than wearing a tie is wearing one after getting used to the open collar.
      9. But the point is that the client may have a stricter policy than your firm or the last client you worked at, and you need to be aware of that and comply with it.
      10. If you’re in Healthcare consulting, each client may have different policies and standards to help them comply with HIPAA regulations.  They’ll probably be very strict with those policies. Financial consulting firms may be strict with client confidentiality and security standards as well.
    6. Let’s get back to the documentation and coding standards for a moment.  Are there ever times when you try to sell them over to your standard?
      1. At times.  When it comes to coding standards, if the client has a very poor standard, or more likely no standard – or maybe they have one but no one there follows it – the consulting firm can suggest a list of standards that they recommend.
      2. It’s something that you might ease into.  If you’ve got a complex set of standards and their team is used to being a bunch of rebels, the likelihood of them adapting your standards is slim.
      3. But if you suggest some high-level ones, maybe just some naming convention standards, that might get them started on the right foot and you can begin expanding it from there.
      4. As far as documentation standards, if I’m at a client that doesn’t have any standards, I’ll suggest our own.  Some clients may not have a corporate standard, but each group or each manager uses their own.
      5. If they prefer that standard, I’m fine with it, as long as it includes all of the information that I want to make sure I report.
      6. For things like business requirements, I’m amazed at how many companies don’t have a standard.  Each person kinds of submits whatever they want to submit.  In that case, they welcome our standard and it’s one of the reasons that they asked our firm to come there in the first place.
      7. I think the real challenge is when they have a bad standard that they want to use.  We can suggest our document formats and if they push back, we can’t force it upon them.
      8. In that case, I usually try to use their standard and then add sections to it to accommodate for the information we want to include.
      9. I’ve found most clients are open to a consulting firm’s standard because that’s what we do for a living.  They assume that consultants are bound to have better document formats for them to use.
      10. We have a lot better luck with methodologies.  That’s often what they hired us for and it gives us some leverage. I’ve been on projects where that was our primary objective – to use our methodology and get their employees used to working within its principals.
      11. And if that’s the case, I’ve found that we’re more successful suggesting standards for coding, documentation and other areas because they’re turning to us as the experts.
    7. Any final thoughts?
      1. I’ve always recommended a ‘when in Rome’ approach to working on a client site.  If they have certain standards that are different from those of your firm, it’s okay to test the waters and see if they’re open to switching to the ones the firm has.
      2. There are some where you just accept them and do it their way.
      3. It’s something of a skill to see where they have flexibility and where they’re more firm.
      4. A consultant should always remember that they’re a guest at the client and should conform to their standards if the client feels strongly about them, while at the same time, being bold enough to offer suggestions.  Flexibility will always be beneficial for your consulting career.

    Next week’s topic: Dining with the client

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