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Passion, People and Principles

How Clients Can Get the Best out of Us

post # 335 — March 21, 2007 — a Client Relations post

Here’s a question from “Eric”:

I am thinking of writing an article myself about how clients of consultants can create the right relationship with their consultant so that they get more bang for the buck (i.e. more insight from an objective viewpoint then they would normally get via the usually limited “statement of work”).

If my company gets called in to help out (with anything from strategy through technical implementations), we end up learning so much about their organization, how they build processes, how things really work and I feel that in some situations, the client puts barriers up that prevent effective communication.

If clients knew how to approach their consultants and their relationship with them, they could glean a lot of “insider” information that they would not normally get. We find out SO much about the inadequacies of client organizational structures, communication breakdowns, lack of effective change management etc. that I think the client management might benefit from if only they knew. Some know how to get this out of us and some don’t.

I understand some of the barriers: they might consider their consultants just money grubbing stiffs, may not trust them, are politically boxed in, etc.). Obviously, a bigpiece of a partnering relationship is the responsibility of the consultant lead. However, it does take two to tango, doesn’t it?


I think it’s a great idea for an article, Eric. But you haven’t really got us started.

Why don’t we all try and complete the following sentence:

“To get the most out of us, our clients should…..”

(Self-serving actions like hire us some more are not allowed! The spirit of this is to avoid reinforcing the perceptions that Eric so readily identified — that if we are not careful, clients will see additional activities by us as the work of untrustworthy, money-grubbing people. Anything we suggest has to avoid reinforcing that, right?)

So, to get the most out of us/me, clients should:

  1. Help me/us understand, before we get in too deep, the real politics of what’s going on in their organization
  2. Tell us/me the truth, up-front, about what they’re really willing to change and what they are not
  3. Meet with us/me one-on-one informally, so that we/I can pass on “off the record” and informally some of the things we think we have learned.
  4. Allow for informal “what’s going well and what are you learning?” conversations on a regular basis during the work, not just at the end.
  5. Keep us/me informed if their priorities and goals have shifted, so that we/ can adapt along with them.

Anyone else want to join in? What could clients be doing (specifically) to get the most out of you and your firm?


Heidi Ehlers said:

Just….tell……me………the…………microscopic…….truth. Please.

– heidi

posted on March 21, 2007

Steve Pashley said:

Two things:

Invite me in earlier – to help them explore what the problem(s) might be ratherthan doing this first on their own and then asking me to work with them on a ‘solution’ to something that we might not both see as the problem.

THink about ways to keep me motivated. The fees are not sufficient. Personally I like to feel valued. Small things like giving me a parking slot, access to their building without having to sign in every time at reception, copies of relevant mgt team meetings etc all help.

posted on March 21, 2007

Bob Brown said:

That really is a HUGE problem. We know because that’s the area in which we specialize — helping clients deal with consultants. (Oh, the stories we could tell!)

First, assuming they’re dealing with a highly qualified and ethical consultant, we know that many clients simply do not recognize — or refuse to recognize — that the ability to deal efficiently and effectively with consultants requires either extraordinary luck or specialized knowledge, skills and competencies that are most probably not present in the client’s organization.

Instead, many organizations seem to take a somewhat “macho” view about their own ability to handle just about anything related to “their business”— including those (pick one or more of the following adjectives) fancy; recent MBA graduate; overpaid; high priced; arrogant; New York-based; know-it-all; expense account addicted; more concerned about their next gig than me; conniving; unethical; money grubbing; intellectual property stealing; consultants.

As Steve Pashley said, — and assuming some actual skills on the part of the client vis-à-vis managing consultants — one of the best thing a client can do is bring in a consultant to help define [and scope] the problem. This is something we typically recommend. And it doesn’t even have to be the same consultant the client subsequently engages to solve the problem.

Unfortunately, many clients view this as an extraordinary waste of time and money. Fortunately — for us at least — not all clients think that way.

From a consultant’s perspective, perhaps ensuring that a prospective client is knowledgeable about dealing with consultants is one of the key points to be asked and confirmed before considering doing work for them?

posted on March 21, 2007

John Labbe said:

I’d like to echo and provide a variation on Steve Pashley’s first point. Much more often than not, I have been called in to provide a training solution based on the client’s assessment of a problem. Nearly as often, the self-identified problem has root causes that will never be remedied with training. No matter how clever or well-designed my training program might be, it will not solve an inequity in a compensation plan nor will it remove barriers that prevent employees from doing the job right.

While it would be handy to have some of the perks that Steve mentioned in his second point, I’d gladly park across the street in return for being called in at the discovery stage before the client has drawn dangerously persistent wrong conclusions about his workplace.

posted on March 21, 2007

Jim McHugh said:

Regarding Bob Brown’s comment above…

“…those (pick one or more of the following adjectives) fancy; recent MBA graduate; overpaid; high priced; arrogant; New York-based; know-it-all; expense account addicted; more concerned about their next gig than me; conniving; unethical; money grubbing; intellectual property stealing; consultants.”

Bob, you’ve met one of those too!? Maybe it’s the same one I know…

posted on March 21, 2007

Cindy Tonkin said:

I’m just wondering. When we speculate what the client “should” do, couldn’t we speculate more about how we could take responsibility for getting the client the better service.

Remember a seminar David you ran in Sydney (Australia) a few years ago (when Trusted Advisor was coming out), you asked how many people were doing shit for idiots; part of the reason I love what I do, is because I haven’t done shit for idiots for years; so if we use this list of “clients shoulds” to define an ideal client then it’s useful. If we’re using it just to deplore the inadequacies of our current client base, we’re just using it as an excuse to whine.

posted on March 21, 2007

Fran said:

Truth is sometimes hard to cough up, especially if you don’t trust the person you are talking to yet. Maybe clients are thinking of considering the ones they want and doesn’t want to blurt it all out to the wrong people. It’s normal for people to be protective of their thoughts.

posted on March 22, 2007

Ken Hedberg said:

First, be clear with me what you intend to buy.

  • If you want expertise delivered in a one-time project, let me know. I can do that and plant seeds through my efforts that may lead to future similar engagements.
  • If you want a ‘product’ (e.g., a leadership program design, with delivery choices made independently), let me know. I can do that, and structure our work to meet your needs and also preserve the value of my intellectual property.
  • If you want an organic partnership, characterized by regular advice on relevant topics/issues (perhaps my preferred ‘ideal’ client relationship), let me know. I can structure our relationship in ways to maximize the opportunities and value add of such advice, and allow the relationship to be punctuated by other types of delivery over time, as needed.

It isn’t always easy for clients to envision the subtleties of these differences. I make a point of engaging in discussion about them to help the client choose how to get the best value from me.

Second, create with me a ‘safe place’, in which we can bring up virtually any topic relevant to our relationship. ‘Safe’ in my vernacular, means that we both agree to hold the discussions in suspense, separate and independent from the core of our commercial relationship. E.g., the client understands that any comments or observations by me will avoid any ‘selling’ or pressing for additional work, but are rather offered only to help. Or, I understand that any comments or observations made by the client won’t be injected by me into the ongoing work unless authorized by the client.

I find that just the act of discussing and forming such a safe place in our relationship, tends to strengthen the spirit of partnership and professional intimacy. Then, the substance of our dialog over time gets much richer, helping me to understand the organization much better, allowing me to add more value, and eventually enabling the client to bring additional issues and opportunities to me.

posted on March 22, 2007

Stuart Cross said:

I agree with Steve Pashley above, the best solutions are often developed when we are involved in framing the issue/opportunity. I also support Cindy’s view that the onus for creating this joint approach is at least as much ours as the client’s – where you can shape the issue with the client there is real team-work and shared ownership from the outset.

posted on March 22, 2007

Matthew E. Johnson, Ph.D. said:

I have posted a link to this site within my recent blog site entry titled “Charlatans”, which laments the difficulty in developing client / consultant trust. From my 25 years in the business, I have concluded that there is a percentage of clients in the general population who view consultants with inherent disdain – associating us with a number of other infamous professions. Please check out http://www.customerontheedge for that entry and others on client relations and share your thoughts.

While I believe it is difficult to overcome this consultant prejudice, it is possible. One obvious element necessary for this is demonstrating trustworthiness through sustained reliability, credibility and competence. However, this is not always sufficent. Sometimes we actually need to address this directly with our client who is having trouble allowing us into the inner circle. Under these circumstances I have had a frank conversation about my perceptions of the limitations in the relationship and why they may ultimately reduce the value the client receives.

As an outcome from these conversations I have experienced two types of result. Either we have a breakthrough and the relationship becomes very productive, or the client admits to the prejudice and chooses not to change. When the latter occurs we both know where we stand without the shroud of mystery. The result is still a limitation in the possible value to be provided through the consulting engagement, but the expectaions are clear.

So, Eric, to answer your original question directly, I propose to our clients to not be prejudiced about consultants Most of us are very hard working and decent people, with the singular objective of making you, the client, successful.


posted on March 23, 2007

Ed Kless said:

Understand that colaboration leads to the most effective implementation.

posted on March 25, 2007

Linda Julian said:

Here’s what we always tell our clients. (We think these guidlines will work extra well with best-of-breed consultants in any expert discipline.)

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§ Be open - please be frank and up-front - tell us about your concerns, problems, and past failures, as well as your strengths. We’ll always be entirely discreet and honest.

§ Tell us what you expect - until we understand what you want, we won’t know how best to help you. Try to be specific. We’ll tailor our services to meet your expectations.

§ Understand our role - we can guide you through unfamiliar waters, just as you do for your clients. We can be your “friend at court”. We can bring new ideas and suggest strategies for achieving your objectives. We can advise you on risks and pragmatic steps to avoid them. But you will always be final decisionmaker.

§ Understand our limitations - we do. We believe in setting achievable objectives. We may suggest an alternate solution or another specialist consultant whose expertise will be a better fit for your project.

  • Allow us some latitude. Trust us to use our professional expertise in your interests.

§ Regard us as an extension of your practice - we will learn lots about you through the course of a project. We will endeavour to “add value” on a continuing basis. Your interests will always be paramount in the advice and counsel we offer.

§ Give us feedback - we need to know how we’re going, what’s working, and what isn’t. We are sincerely interested in how you’re going. Your feedback will help us to do better.

posted on March 25, 2007