5 Secrets to Great Client-Consultant Partnerships
Updated: Feb 18, 2020
Every consultant wants to be viewed as a partner, not a vendor. Every client wants to feel like they matter to their service providers. Here are 5 ways to make that happen:
Seems obvious, huh? You'd be surprised how often there's lack of trust between consultants and clients. Heard any of these? Said any? "They're great when the contract is up for renewal but it's like we don't matter the rest of the time." "Sometimes I'm not sure they're worth it." "They just don't listen to us." This goes both ways. Why is trust so difficult? It gets back to the concept of a partnership. You have to be willing to be vulnerable - to hear someone tell you no, to be transparent, and to cede control. It can be uncomfortable! But the payoff for clients is getting much more value from your consultant, and for consultants it's about strengthening your business.
Another no-brainer you say? Well, yes and no. What is good communication? It's not as simple as when you talk and with whom. It's about what you say and how you say it. For example, whether it's a consultant or a client who does it, withholding key information is never a good idea. Until we develop technology that lets us read minds, you have to say what needs to be said. When one party doesn't know what you're thinking, even imperceptible differences in tone of voice or choice of words can communicate the wrong message without you realizing it!
What is good communication? Set the expectations of your audience at the start, even when scheduling meetings or calls, about what you're going to discuss and what you want the outcome of the meeting to be. Do the same for emails or written materials. Provide the information required in a way that's compatible with the working style of your client.
Use the less obvious aspects of communication tools to your advantage: The "to:" line on emails should be reserved for the people who must read & see this email to get to the outcome, whereas the "cc:" line is a nice way to tell someone it's FYI. Make the title of an email reflect the topic, desired action, and urgency that your message will convey. Use the "BLUF" technique by putting your bottom line up front so that you effectively use your reader's preview pane.
Here is some shocking news: nobody's perfect. Not the consultant and not the client. And nobody has a crystal ball. So if we just accept that at the beginning, we can get down to focusing on how bringing visibility to processes and projects helps everyone in the end. If you thought trust was difficult, wait until you have to deliver bad news. Now that is seriously uncomfortable. When something goes wrong on a project or effort, whether it's due to something you could control or if you've simply been overcome by events, you're faced with a choice. You can hide it and try to compensate in the hopes you'll rectify the situation before anybody notices or it becomes a bigger problem, but this rarely works out well for anybody. Or you can accept that the situation is what it is and take constructive action to remedy it.
A rule every consultant should know is that when you present a problem to a client, you also present at least one solution. If there are multiple possible solutions, good consultants recommend one with an explanation about why... and back to the trust bit, that reason better be in the best interests of the client. Interestingly, when it's a true partnership, that solution is usually in the interest of the consultant as well.
There's a saying, "Bad news delivered early isn't necessarily bad news." What it means is that when things go off-plan, don't delay talking about it. Quick recognition increases the amount of runway you have to solve the problem. You can often turn the situation into an opportunity and make something really positive happen. A creative project manager shines in moments like these. Clients in turn should foster a culture of transparency from their consultants and teams. Don't shoot the messenger! You can feel frustrated but it helps to listen and remain constructive.
It's a classic Project Management saying, "You have to manage expectations." Sure, but what does this really mean? Why is it important? It's simple. You have to manage expectations so that people feel comfortable making decisions. We do this constantly in our personal lives - looking at labels and prices on products in stores, checking the weather forecast, even making sure we're walking into the right movie theater for the film we want to see. When it comes to consultants and clients, expectation management is HUGE and impacts not only the work being done but the relationship overall.
When expectations are misaligned, it's nearly impossible to be successful. Even when consultants are excited about having done great work, if it's not a match to the client's expectations then it's a miss. You end up with a disappointed client and a resentful consultant. Imagine how this can erode a partnership. Key points here (because this topic could take up multiple blogs): Make sure all sides understand what success looks like. Respect that this is a business for everyone. Ensure you're clear on the golden triangle or 3-legged-stool analogy where you have to balance scope/ timeline/ budget. As projects progress and changes occur to any of these legs, talk about it - the impact, the options, and the decisions that are needed. And ensure the basic operating guidelines of the relationship are well defined before starting work.
Put your money where your mouth is. It's a phrase that's been around about a hundred years and it comes down to this: Back up your position with action. As a consultant, that means it's not enough simply to do good things with regard to trust, communication, transparency, and expectation management. You need to produce the result that the client is paying you for. As a client, if your consultant is telling you that certain decisions or support are required to be successful then you have a responsibility to follow through. Most of the time, these client-consultant relationships are discretionary and either side can end it if it's not working out well.
Consultants should strive to delight their clients and that helps build a great partnership. Clients should endeavor to support their consultants in the mission, including being responsible about timely payment for services, in order to keep a great partnership going. Over time it becomes easier and more seamless for a client and consultant to do repeat business, and these great partnerships lead to synergies where both sides get back more than they put in.
Hartary Consulting strives to build great client partnerships by providing practical business operations advice to small and medium-sized companies.