“I’m just a programmer. I’ve only been brought in here to write code for this client.”
That’s the general attitude I’ve gotten from many consultants on past projects. Some consultants just seem to forget that their really outsiders.
There is a double standard. Employees have their assignments. Their employers have expectations for them. When employers bring in consultants, they usually have higher expectations for those consultants.
Consultants are expected to be experts. Consultants are usually paid at a higher rate. Never mind that consultants have overhead costs. Whether the consultant is independent or associated with a firm, there is still health insurance and vacation time buried in the rate.
All the client sees is a high rate for an expert. He or she therefore has an expectation of higher performance. As such, the consultant must adjust his behavior and approach to ensure he develops optimal client relations.
The first thing a consultant should address to develop better client relations is superior client service. Client service is more than just doing the job you were contracted to do. There are many aspects to consider.
How you communicate with the client? There is the old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” A similar parallel in the work world could be, “If you finish an assigned task and you don’t tell anyone it’s done, is it really completed?”
When I manage a project, I’ll often tell people on the team that completing a task means nothing if you don’t tell anyone. A consultant must communicate her status on assigned tasks proactively. Determine from the client how they prefer to be updated. Some prefer updates via email, some want you to come to their office for a face-to-face conversation. Whatever they prefer, make sure that it is documented in some way in case they dispute what you said.
How you communicate with the client also involves the tone you assume. Are you the know-it-all consultant that condescendingly tells the client what to do? Are you submissive to the client simply seeking marching orders to do what you are told?
Or, do you treat the client as a peer, providing advice where needed, allowing the client to make informed decisions. Developing a strong relationship with the client takes time to develop trust. Once that is achieved, that relationship becomes one of mutual benefit.
I’m a stickler for being on time. Unfortunately, I have family members who are not. When we all agree to leave at a certain time, I plan my preparation so that I’m ready to walk out the door at that time. Some of my family members see that time as the time that they begin to get ready. We’re leaving at 10:00. So at 10:00, they start to get shoes on, gather things they will need for the outing, and consider what needs to be done around the house for while we are out.
When we all agreed on the 10:00 departure time, I set myself up with an expectation of being able to leave at 10:00. When we leave at 10:20 instead, I find myself disappointed.
The client has a certain level of expectation of a consultant. It is important to do your best to meet that expectation. There are times, however, when the client’s expectation is higher than you can reasonably meet. It is the consultant’s responsibility to reset those expectations.
It may involve giving bad news, or news that the client doesn’t want to hear. But providing bad news up front is always better than letting the client’s expectation persist, only to give them bad news later on. If the client made plans with other work groups based on that expectation, it could end up being costly.
Bad news is rarely fun to give to a client. But by giving them bad news as early as possible is the best way to set the client’s expectations and develop a stronger relationship with them.
Being prompt. One of the expectations a client has for a consultant that may differ from that of an employee is the level of professionalism. For instance, while timeliness is expected of everyone, the client may let it slip with employees. As a consultant, you may see employees arrive at work late and slip into meetings after they have started.
Regardless of the expectation established by the client, it will be difficult to develop a good relationship with them if the consultant is regularly tardy. Promptness is a sign of respect. An employee that is habitually late may not notice how it stunts their career growth. A consultant will notice when they don’t win new business from a client.
Attire. Most companies have vaguely worded dress codes. Employees’ attire may run the gamut of overdressing to pushing the envelope on what is acceptable. Management may allow slight infractions or provide subtle feedback that may or may not be heeded by the employee.
Consultants should try to dress on the higher end of what is acceptable. Going above and beyond by wearing suits in a business casual environment will create an air of superiority. Pushing the envelope by wearing tattered jeans will not be appreciated, even if employees are given the same latitude.
Respect. The best way a consultant can show her professionalism is to respect the client. Follow their rules, don’t waste their time, and help them achieve their goals. Being respectful allows the client to focus on the business at hand instead of enforcing rules.
I once saw a woman on the side of the road that couldn’t get her car started. She asked me if I would mind giving her a jump-start. I was happy to help. But when she turned her key, the engine was turning over with plenty of juice. I explained it to her, but she insisted that all she needed was a jump-start. I took a look at her dashboard and saw that her tank was on empty. I suggested that she needed gas.
“No.” She insisted. “I just need a jump start. If you aren’t going to help me, I’ll get someone else.”
As diplomatically as I could, I explained how the battery works and how it would work if it were dead.
This happened about a mile from my home. So I went home and got a gas can that I use for my lawn mower. I returned with the gas and poured it into her tank. Her car started immediately. She was a little embarrassed, but grateful that I solved her problem.
This can happen in a consulting environment. The client may request that you do something to help their business grow. As a consultant, you may have experience from other clients that causes you to disagree with their approach.
It is a lesson in diplomacy to disagree with someone who is paying you. But you must remember that they are paying you to help them solve problems, not necessarily do what they tell you to do. Like the lady I met on the side of the road, if they ask you to do something that won’t solve a problem, it’s the consultant’s job to speak up.
Rather than say, “You are completely wrong about that,” it might be better to say, “Have you thought of this?” Suggesting other alternatives to help them identify a bigger problem and a better solution will develop a better relationship with the client.
Brian Williams was at one time, a trusted news anchor for NBC Nightly News. In January of 2015, he revealed that stories he told about his earlier experiences in Iraq had been exaggerated. He talked of the helicopter he was in being hit by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). In fact, it was a nearby helicopter that was hit. The revelation caused him to lose his trusted status with viewers, leaving NBC executives scrambling to figure out what to do with their top-rated news show.
A consultant must develop credibility with her clients in order for them to believe what she says and to follow her advice. The ultimate level of the client relationship is to be the client’s trusted adviser. A client turns to a trusted adviser without requiring the consultant to competitively bid for her services. The client doesn’t concern himself with the trusted adviser’s rates, because his focus is on the value of the service rather than the cost.
When developing credibility with the client, there are two questions the client will ask about a consultant.
Can you do the job? Do you have the skills, experience, and resources to complete the job at hand? The client will concern himself with capabilities first. The consultant may have to show proof by providing references. Even with stellar references, a consultant may only get a small project to begin proving her value. Once the client is convinced that the consultant can do the job, the next question is…
Will you do the job? The client expects the consultant to do the job for which she is contracted. The client may have some expectation that the consultant push back on decisions when it warrants a better approach to solving business problems. But if the consultant veers off into other areas of interest, trying to solve the problems of other departments or – worse yet – solving problems that don’t actually exist, the relationship will weaken.
The consultant must maintain a delicate balance of serving the client and providing appropriate advice without overstepping her bounds. Once that balance is struck, the consultant will begin developing credibility with the client and strengthening the relationship.
Dealing with emotions
The consultant must be able to deal with the various emotions that the client exhibits while dealing with her own emotions. Clients will take out frustrations on consultants. The client may blame the consultant for something that is the client’s own fault. The consultant must be able to deal with emotions on both sides in order to develop a strong relationship with the client.
Consultants can deal with client animosity. Consultants are usually brought in to make a company more efficient. If the company can do something in a more efficient manner, some client employees fear that those efficiencies will lead to job elimination. Their immediate fear is that their own job will be one that is eliminated. The consultant must deal with these fearful emotions while still trying to move the project along.
Regardless of the emotion the client is demonstrating, the consultant must be able to deal with the client’s emotions without trying to manipulate them. By remaining level-headed and explaining things out to clients with facts, the consultant can better prevent emotions from getting out of hand and developing a more trusting relationship with the client.
The consultant must also be able to manage her own emotions and focus only on the business issues. The consultant may face sabotage from client employees trying to kill a project or displaced anger because the consultant is an easy target.
The client who can maintain a cool head in any type of stressful situation can earn the trust of the client and develop a strong client relationship.
Conclusion – You are an outsider
Any consultant that contracts with a client generally enters the relationship as an outsider. There is a different set of standards under which she is held. As the consultant develops credibility and trust, she should raise that standard. The goal is to develop a strong relationship with the client. The ultimate goal is to become the client’s trusted adviser.
When the consultant becomes the trusted adviser, there is very little sales and marketing effort involved. The client turns to the consultant whenever he needs a problem solved.
How do you develop strong relations with your clients?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
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