In this series Calvert Markham, former Director of the Centre, is providing basic guidance in developing your consultancy business.
Contractually the consulting relationship may be between a consulting firm and a business, but as these are simply intellectual constructs, the reality is that the relationship is between people. And people prefer to do business with those whom they trust and respect and with whom they have a friendly relationship.
Contact with clients between projects may be intermittent; it is the intensity of a project, while working together, that significantly affects the development and state of a relationship. A consultant’s demeanour and actions while working on a project should should be aimed at building trust and respect. Here are some basic guidelines that should help to build good relationships.
Look the part. Make sure that you look like the professional that your clients might expect; first impressions do count. One buyer said that he looked at consultants’ shoes when meeting them for the first time; dirty shoes counted against them. Consider how much thought a manufacturer gives to the packaging of a product on a supermarket shelf costing only a few pounds; a consultant’s appearance is their packaging.
Aim for quick successes in a project. Clients will have a reservoir of trust in you at the start of a project, otherwise they would not have appointed you in the first place. But that trust can be quickly eroded so make sure that you over - rather than under - deliver in the early stages of a project. And if anything, overcommunicate with the client about project progress early on to reassure them that things are going well.
And following from this, continue to manage expectations carefully. As emphasised in previous articles, consultancy is an intangible product and, as a result, opportunities for misunderstandings abound. Remember that your direct client contacts have commitments to their colleagues and so they need to be clear about what has been promised and when it is to be delivered.
Surveys show some pet dislikes that clients have of consultants working on their premises, including numerous personal telephone calls, poor timekeeping, reading the paper / books / eating at desk, disappearing off-site without explanation and a superior attitude with client staff. (I remember being told in my early training that, when walking around on client premises, I should do so quickly and always carry a folder to show great industry!)
Ideally, when problems arise on a project – and they will, if possible, try to sort them out without recourse to the client. But remember that projects are joint ventures between consultancy and client, and therefore both of you have a vested interest in their success so, if needed, engage the client in joint problem solving. Many professionals have noted that relationships have been strengthened by successfully solving problems together with their clients.
Consultants spend more time working with clients than clients spend working with consultants, so the balance of expertise lies with the consultant. For this reason, help your clients become good clients. Client capability will vary, so you should assess this during the sales process and allow for any investment of time needed to support a weak client. In any case, it’s worth giving a few minutes every week to considering how the relationship is going and what you might do to improve it. Remember that most business is repeat business in professional practices, so any time invested in building a relationship with a client while working with them can lead to future sales.
Alas, however, there will be individual clients with whom despite your best efforts you don’t get on. If you are an account manager in a consulting firm, the best thing may be to hand this client on to a colleague who has a greater affinity. As a sole practitioner it may be best to fire them as a client, to avoid the pain of working with them.
For more on this and other related topics, see Calvert’s book Mastering management consultancy.