How to get better results from clients

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In this second of two exclusive articles for HR Zone, management consultant John Pope explains how to improve the success rate of consultancy projects.

Consultancy is a journey into the unknown
Consultancy is a journey into the unknown, with your client as your companion. You have agreed on the journey and have arrived on the client's premises with a clear brief on what you have to do. Of course, it was based on a thorough survey of the client's needs and concerns, the issues were clearly identified and prioritised. Both the client and you or your manager are agreed on the results to be achieved, the client understands what you are going to do and what he and his staff has to do to support you. There is a good outline project plan, with satisfactory estimates of work, and you have clear reporting lines.

The journey is not like that. In all my years of consulting, I have never arrived at the client in such a favourable position. The survey was too brief, or the work estimates were cut back to meet the client's budget, or there wasn't time to meet some of the top team, or test the client's views of the issues. Too often there have been misunderstandings, sometimes serious; sometimes these have been visible and cleared up at the start of the project, sometimes they have only emerged later. There have always been complications. Regardless of whose responsibility it is to set the job up right, the consultant carries the responsibility for putting it right and will certainly get the blame if the job goes wrong.

"Regardless of whose responsibility it is to set the job up right, the consultant carries the responsibility for putting it right and will certainly get the blame if the job goes wrong."

So what can the consultant do to get better results through and for the client?

Prepare beforehand
Get the background on the client's industry and market. Read up previous consultancy work done for the client whether by your own consultancy practice or others. If the client has used consultants before you may not have to explain consultancy, but if the client's previous experience of consultants has been unhappy – there is at least a 25 per cent chance of that – you will have to take likely resistance and misunderstandings into account.

Confirm the brief
Even if you did the original survey, wrote the proposal and sold the job, you will still need to confirm that the client's needs and aims remain the same, and that circumstances have not changed. If you did not do the survey then you need to check that the proposal is still 'right'. There may still be scope to 'adjust' the brief in small aspects. If there are major errors you will have to bring these up very quickly. If you are lucky, the first phase of the project will be establishing the facts and the brief will have been written accordingly.

Clarify the brief
Clarify the client's expectations of the work and the outcomes which are required. A lot will have been said in the process of selling the job. Ideas will have been floated, options will have been discussed. Although such ideas may not have been confirmed in the brief, the client will remember the discussions and may, wrongly, expect some of the ideas to be included. There may be misconceptions of the consultant's role and scope of work. There will be exclusions – work which is essential to success of the project but which the consultant is not going to do.

"A serious misunderstanding of the contribution the client's organisation has to make can lead to disaster at the time of implementation. Cleaning up data and dealing with anomalies is a common problem which delays implementation and destroys the client's and staff's confidence in the consultant and project."

A serious misunderstanding of the contribution the client's organisation has to make can lead to disaster at the time of implementation. Cleaning up data and dealing with anomalies is a common problem which delays implementation and destroys the client's and staff's confidence in the consultant and project.

Get alongside the client
Effective consultancy is a partnership between client and consultant, rather than a master – servant relationship. Involve the client and relevant senior managers in your thinking throughout the project. Manage the client's expectations. Most clients do not like surprises, even pleasant ones; most want to know what is going to happen before anyone else does. Have regular informal private discussions with the client on the progress being made and the difficulties and obstacles, good news as well as bad.

Clients can be lonely, and can be glad of a confidential advisor with whom they can discuss managerial and personal problems. This can take up much time and has to be kept under control, but can strengthen the relationship and provide valuable information for the project. Incidentally, it increases the likelihood of further work. Clients are generally very busy and some are often absent on business. Make sure that you know about client's availability and plan accordingly. Get the client's secretary to put you on the 'movements' distribution.

Get accepted by the organisation
The support you get depends upon how the client explains the issues, the work which you are going to do, the help you are going to be giving and the benefits to the organisation. It is usually better to draft this for the client to give to his senior management and probably to the workforce as well. You will want the client to explain the importance of the work, the outcome and benefits and the support which you will need. You may need to check that the client does not over-promise on your behalf.

Be seen with the client and the top team
Be seen as part of the top team and ensure that you see the accounts, management reports. Be on the senior management circulation list. Be seen with the client and senior managers.

Planning the project
If the original survey was done well and the work content was estimated there will have been a project plan in outline. But the original survey will not have been able to go into all the details. The initial steps in the consultancy project is to validate the outline and develop a clearer and more detailed plan, at least for the early stages of the project. Since most consultancy contains an element of exploration, and unexpected surprises it is not possible to produce a detailed plan from start to finish. Make this clear to the client.

"Clients can be lonely, and can be glad of a confidential advisor with whom they can discuss managerial and personal problems. This can take up much time and has to be kept under control, but can strengthen the relationship and provide valuable information for the project."

However, the overall shape must be clear and be discussed with all senior managers whose areas of responsibility will be affected. It is common to find some senior managers have not been consulted or that the amount of work expected from their teams is substantially more than they had imagined. Since client's staff input is usually crucial to success, any issue over their contributions must be resolved and implications on the overall plan resolved.

Only the client is in a position to apply the necessary pressure; only the consultant is in a position to persuade the client to apply that pressure – usually by explaining how delay will jeopardise the success of the project. If possible design the project with the objective of an early success – even small – which shows the value of your work and which the client can point to and justify his faith in you to others.

Client limitations
Only the 'owner-driver' of a business has complete freedom to act, and even this is usually constrained by the bank, senior staff views, and so on. Understand the client's position in relation to his resources or backers and those whose co-operation or respect he needs. Avoid causing the client embarrassment.

Maintain momentum and enthusiasm
A good kick-off meeting is not enough; people's memories can be short. Consultants exercise their leadership by demonstrating what has been achieved, how far the project has progressed and the benefits which are accruing and will eventually lead to success.

Informal reporting
Formal progress reports to the client are usually required to record progress and successes, explain delays and to clarify responsibilities for action needed.

Formal reports are not enough and in some organisations they can lead to a serious attack of self-protection and avoidance of responsibility. Informal, unrecorded discussions where the consultant and client or senior managers discuss concerns privately are important. They can help the client provide extra support, apply pressure in the right place and generate confidence that the consultant is working with and for the client as well as for the organisation.

"If possible design the project with the objective of an early success – even small – which shows the value of your work and which the client can point to and justify his faith in you to others."

Scope Creep
The client may want other work done, or ask you to look at other issues. Use your relationship with the client to discuss the dangers of extending the scope, and the way it could jeopardise success. Most clients will appreciate being brought gently down-to-earth when they realise that you are advising them in their own best interests to stick to the job in hand. If there are opportunities for doing extra work of high value to the client be selective and careful and do not let it distract you from the project.

Openness and honesty
Openness and honesty with the client is essential – obvious, but I have known projects where difficulties were hidden from the client until they became obvious. The client usually has enough managers who hide the bad news or gloss over problems – don't join that club. Realism is essential. Be the person he can trust to 'tell it like it is'.

Use the strength of the relationship
The client does not believe in, and does not expect, 'Superman'. There will be times when you don't know where you are, or where the project is going. Take that 'uncertainty' to the client. At these times the strength of the relationship which you have developed with the client and his team, and your evident overriding good faith will allow you to find a way forward and get the best possible results together.

To sum it up
Be the client's trusted best friend. Be part of the management team and a 100 per cent but temporary member of the organisation but still keeping you detached and independent view. Be seen to be doing work which adds real value to the organisation and is of real help to the client.

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