Being a Guest at the Client Site

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    The nature of consulting and professional services generally requires consultants to work at the client’s Always act like a guest at the client siteoffices.  Even if it is not a full time commitment, meetings and part-time work often require the consultant to be at the client site.  When a consultant is on-site, it’s important to act with respect as though you are a guest.  In this week’s podcast we’ll discuss the recommended ways to act while at the client’s offices.

    1. Why is it important for a consultant to act as though they are a guest at the client?
      1. Mainly because they are guests.  The client has hired them to perform a job on a temporary basis.  They hire their employees on a long-term basis and that creates kind of a family environment with their employees.
      2. Employees are insiders and consultants are more like outsiders.  Some clients do a better job of including consultants and that’s nice, but consultants need to be careful not to include themselves on things that should be for employees and that they’re not invited to by the client.
      3. For example, I’ve hired maintenance people to come into my house to fix something or to do some clean.  And I always appreciate the workers who take off their shoes at the door before they walk though my house.
      4. I don’t always take my shoes off or make my kids take them off, but I appreciate the workers who show that respect when they work in my house to avoid tracking dirt all over.
      5. In the client situation, they’re usually paying a premium rate for the expert consultant and expect them to be a little more dedicated to the project than their own employees.
    2. What are some examples of consultants not acting as guests at the client site?
      1. It normally happens when the consultant starts taking advantage of perks the employees enjoy but that a consultant should not.
      2. For instance, employees are often afforded luxuries like doing personal work at their desk like paying bills or checking their Facebook status.
      3. It’s usually not that the employees are allowed to do it as much as it’s just overlooked by their management.
      4. Consultants should do that kind of stuff on their personal time rather than while they’re at the client site.  Some clients are more lenient than others, but the point is that consultants don’t have the same leeway that an employee is given with those kinds of activities.
      5. Another situation is when there is an employee picnic or party of some kind.  I’ve been at client sites where they have a huge summer picnic in the parking lot with food and games and all kinds of fun activities.
      6. First, if the consulting team is invited to that, it’s a nice gesture to attend.  But they need to make it clear to the client that they aren’t billing them for those hours.
      7. Additionally, if there are door prizes, consultants should not enter their name in the drawing.  And if, for some reason their names are included and they get called, they should decline the award.
      8. I was at a client a couple of years ago in that situation and they told me to put a ticket in the drawing for door prized.  I refused and explained that it wasn’t right for consultants to be involved.
      9. So our team attended the picnic and enjoyed the games and food.  After they drew names for door prizes, they started handing out hats and t-shirts.  I was still a little reluctant to take one.  Finally, one of the executives came up and offered one to me and said there were plenty to go around.
      10. I finally took one because it would have actually been rude and kind of aloof not to.  So you have to balance not making yourself too comfortable with being part of their team.
    3. What other situations have you witnessed where consultants actually made themselves a little too much at home?
      1. One situation I experienced was a situation where the clients generally left work around 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon, while the consultants worked later into the night.  At some point they would end up ordering some dinner which nine times out of ten was pizza.  But whatever they ordered, when they finished and did their clean up, it was after the maintenance people had already taken the garbage out.
      2. So their late night garbage – pizza boxes or Chinese take-out – was stacked up by the garbage cans the next morning along with the stale smell of whatever food they had.
      3. Some consultants kind of wear that as a badge of courage.  It kind of showed the client ‘look how late we were working while you were at home relaxing’.
      4. In reality, most clients could care less about that.  It’s almost expected behavior.  So we had a client ask us to walk the garbage down to the cafeteria garbage cans so that it didn’t smell up the office area.
      5. Some clients just have an expectation that their internal services should be available to them but not to the outsiders.  I once worked for a retail client who had a sample store at their corporate headquarters.
      6. This was just a store where some of their display items or ites that had damaged boxes and couldn’t be sold to customers were made available to their employees for cost or even below, just to get rid of them.
      7. Some of our consultants went to the store and bought some items and the client complained to our management that that was for employees only.
      8. Quite often, it’s standard behavior that they allow their employees to do that they don’t allow consultants to do.
      9. You can call it a double standard and that’s really what it is.  Consultants are often treated differently than client employees and that’s just how it is.  It’s a different relationship altogether.
    4. How can this affect the consulting firm’s relationship with the client?
      1. It can tend to erode the firm’s credibility.  The professional services firm is expected to maintain a level of professionalism.
      2. If they start to push the envelope and make themselves too much at home, the client may begin to see them as unprofessional, which eventually erodes their credibility.
      3. This can cause the client to stop contracting with them or at least making it more difficult to get business.
      4. Top consulting firms want to get to a point where they’re the client’s trusted advisor.  To the point where the client goes directly to them with questions and for advice.  When you get to that point, they often don’t even have you compete for the work.  They know you’ll be fair and give them excellent advice and service.
      5. But that’s predicated on the firm having the client’s trust and having credibility.  If they erode that credibility, the client may continue to make each bid for every project competitive.  When that happens, they have to work harder to get each project and they may have to reduce their billing rates as a result.
      6. The firm just becomes an also-ran, just like all of the other consultants competing for projects.
    5. How do clients generally react when this happens?
      1. It’s often on an individual basis. They realize that a particular individual has gotten a little too comfortable and is overstepping the unmarked boundaries and just making the client a little too uncomfortable.
      2. Sometimes they talk to the individual and say ‘you really shouldn’t do that here’.  But sometimes they don’t want to have that personal confrontation.
      3. Since it might be part of that double standard, they might be uncomfortable telling an individual that what he’s doing is okay for their employees, but not for you as a consultant.
      4. So they more often than not will go to the consultant’s manager and tell them they need to talk to them.
      5. But it’s been my experience that if they don’t want the confrontation with the individual, they don’t want it with the consultant’s manager either.
      6. So sometimes they’ll just go on letting it bother them.  It hurts the relationship and they might not do business with the firm after that.
      7. If the consultant makes the client angry for a big mistake, the client will be sure to speak up.  Crossing the line on things like getting too comfortable at the client, the client realizes that it’s fairly petty.  But it bothers them all the same.  They may be less likely to speak up, but may also be less likely to do business with you again.
      8. So the consulting firm can lose business without ever knowing what the problem was or what they did wrong.
    6. What should a consultant do make sure they don’t cross the line?
      1. The first thing is to make sure they only work on client work while they’re there.  No working on personal work or checking out anything on the internet that doesn’t have anything to do with client work.
      2. And that’s easy enough.  But you also have to be able to balance working only on client work and not getting involved in their activities.
      3. When they do have a picnic or a golf outing and they invite you, they generally expect you to participate.  They’ve made the effort to include you and do some team building.
      4. So while you want to make sure you’re not including yourself on an uninvited basis, you also want to include yourself when the client wants you to and expects you to.
      5. Now, when you do get included in some of these things, I’ll use the golf outing as an example, there may be some alcohol involved either during the outing or at the dinner afterwards.
      6. I’m not opposed to a consultant having a drink or two with the client – if the client is also drinking.  But that’s about all they should have.  I generally don’t think clients make good drinking buddies.
      7. For one thing, overindulging can hurt your credibility.  But even if the client has a culture of big parties and drinking after the golf outing – or whatever outing you happen to be at – it doesn’t look good to join in the party and try too hard to fit in.
      8. I’ve found that the more people drink, the stupider the things are that they say.  You’re inhibitions are reduced and you’re liable to say things you never would have said in their office.
      9. So what a consultant should do is stop and ask themselves whether what they’re about to do will be appropriate for a professional guest in the client’s facilities.
      10. And if there is any question whatsoever, they should just resist.  It’s not worth being seen by the client as one who oversteps their bounds.
      11. Just one other point about that.  If you see other consultants doing the kind of stuff that you don’t think is right, don’t assume it’s OK at that client.  It may actually be pissing the client off.
      12. If you start doing it you’ll be in the same boat as the offending consultant.
    7. What should the firm do avoid causing a bad PR situation with the client?
      1. One of the biggest things they can do is education.  Teach their new consultants that it’s a different environment at the client for consultants than it is for the client’s employees.
      2. They should also give examples like the ones we’ve discussed.  Actually give them some case studies to see how they handle it.
      3. But it’s the kind of thing that requires a constant reminder.  Every time a consultant, particularly a newer one, starts a new project at a client site, sit down with them and give the whole team a reminder of the expected behavior at the client.
      4. While at the client, I think it’s OK for consultants to keep each other in check.  Just let someone know ‘hey, I say you doing some personal stuff at your desk the other day and you might want to watch that in case the client say you doing it.
      5. I mentioned that sometimes firms are reluctant of mentioning these types of violations because they can come off as petty.  Management within the consulting firm can just bring it up for them.  They can tell them ‘listen, if anyone at our firm seems to get too comfortable and start to feel like an employee rather than a consultant, I’d rather you told us than just let it fester’.
      6. If you open the door to something like that, they’ll e more likely to tell you.
      7. This will allow you to take measures to control it and not lose business with the client.  It’s a much better way to become their trusted advisor.
    8. Any final thoughts on being a guest at the client site?
      1. It’s really a matter of keeping it in mind at all times.  Remember that you’re not an employee but a visitor and an outsider.
      2. Some consultants are uncomfortable with that.  They don’t like being an outsider and being treated at a lower level than the client.
      3. But that’s part of being a consultant.  I actually like the outsider situation.  We’re treated a little bit differently, but we’re also not part of their internal politics.
      4. So a consultants needs to determine their comfort level with that and learn to live with it.

    Next week’s topic: Balancing firm standards with the client’s

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    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101 provides you with 101 useful tips to optimize your professional performance and jump-start your consulting career with success.


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