Building Effective Client Relationships: Reflections on a 30-Year Consulting Career
In the August edition of Consulting Magazine, Bridgepoint Principal Michael Johnson shares helpful insights about how to cultivate effective, long-lasting client-consultant relationships. Here is a copy of the article as printed in the publication.
I have spent the last 30 years of my career in the consulting business; twenty of those at KPMG and the last ten at a regional consultancy, Bridgepoint Consulting. I felt this was the perfect time to shed some light around some of the lessons I have learned around effective client-consultant relationships. My hope is that this information will provide guidance to other consultants so they avoid common mistakes, build strong relationships with their clients and improve their overall performance.
As I reflect on my consulting career, these five key attributes stand out in my mind as paramount to building effective client-consultant relationships:
- Relationship management
- Clear communication
- Culture fit
- Good consultants
Trust is Paramount
All good relationships are based on trust. I cannot emphasize this enough. Without trust we cannot even start the relationship.
Your relationship as a consulting partner is a substantially different type of relationship than a commodity purchase. In many cases, consultants are involved in the most intimate parts of the business. If clients do not trust us to focus on their interests, we cannot have a long-term relationship that is built on trust.
Client-consultant relationships are also based on transformation. When you are engaged in a transformational initiative, there will be natural conflict. There will be times when the consultant does not perform and times when the client fails to meet expectations. Some of the most difficult conversations that I have had with clients concerned a lack of performance of their team. You cannot have that type of conversation and honest dialogue until both parties trust each other. Mutual trust allows both parties to bring their most effective selves in a range of situations—good or bad. Trust also helps you to navigate through any clashes in approach or philosophy, to ensure continued success.
Managing the Relationship is a Long-Term Commitment
Once you’ve established that strong foundation of trust, both parties need to manage the relationship, and continue to evolve the relationship as needs change.
Being a great consultant is all about helping clients achieve their business objectives. If a consultant only calls when they are seeking additional business, or a business leader only calls the consultant when they have a new project, neither one is building a foundation for a good, strong long-term relationship.
A strong client-consultant relationship enables a business leader to feel comfortable calling the consultant when they are faced with an issue that may not be related to a current project—simply because they trust you as a partner.
Clear Communication Leads to Mutual Success
Many of Bridgepoint’s clients live in a world that’s 24/7 and run global operations. To be a trusted advisor and an effective consultant, there needs to be synergy in the client-consultant relationship. Disparate business operation modes or objectives do not foster an optimum relationship. Engaging in upfront and honest dialogues with your clients will help you get these answers more quickly.
Another strength of an effective client-consultant relationship is consistency. As a consultant, it is important to engage with your client regularly. Keeping these lines of communication open will help you gain a better understanding of their business, dig deeper into the underlying issues and develop a greater understanding of their strategy.
As an independent advisor, we often see situations that may not be evident to someone in our clients’ company. For instance, we may see cases where staff are underperforming, or where a business strategy will not achieve its goals. We cannot deliver that news effectively unless we already have a solid relationship with our client.
We were recently called in to help a leading web hosting company with a large-scale transformation. The company was experiencing the inefficiencies of using disparate systems, while also facing the challenge of growing rapidly. We encountered significant conflict during that relationship, including differences of opinion on major decisions. We navigated the situation effectively, because our working dynamic was based on trust. Not all conflict is bad: There is positive and negative conflict. If you have a good, trusting relationship, a certain degree of positive conflict can help both parties be successful.
Culture Fit is Critical
I often get the question, “Who should I hire? Who is the best consultant?” The truth is there is no one best consultant. A key attribute of a successful client-consultant relationship is culture fit. The first step is to understand your clients’ corporate culture. You must find team members that fit the client culture.
For instance, if your clients’ culture is based on collaboration and consensus, identify a consultant who fits this style and will integrate easily into that environment. However, if their culture is more command and control, select a consultant that matches that culture.
Good Consultants Make a Big Difference
Lastly, a major realization I can share, is that the give-and-take of a client-consultant dynamic is truly a choice. As top-notch professionals, we want to work for organizations where we will be successful and where we can build long-term trusting relationships. The importance of partnering well with our clients cannot be understated. If you find a good client, focus on building a long-term relationship. That will ultimately result in mutual success for both parties.
Sometimes the best decision a consultant can make is not to engage. One potential client, a housing authority, believed a project could be completed within a year. We explored the situation and advised that it would be unlikely to successfully execute that level of transformation in that timeline. Due to these factors, we decided not to pursue the engagement further. Later, we discovered that the project duration extended more than two years, and that the consultants who took the assignment had taken more than a million-dollar write-off.
Ultimately, what a consultant wants from a client is to gain satisfaction by helping their organization. In addition, we are looking for good references so we can continue to perform similarly satisfying work for clients. These motivating desires are important. In fact, they are often a guarantee that we will engage appropriately with our clients.
As I reflect on my career, I can point out distinct times when a strong client-consultant relationship enabled me to better serve my clients. I can also point to times when those relationships did so much more. Not only have they enabled my clients to provide me feedback, they helped me increase my value to them. Treat those relationships with care and they will bear fruit!