Unspoken Assumptions – Do we have the same understanding as our customers as to what consulting means?

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I’ve blogged extensively about how the performance of a professional services company might be measured (see PSO Posts). I identified eight different measurements. At least five of these can be affected by your customer’s perception or misperception of your business:

  • Standard Fee Variance will be affected by the willingness of a client to accept a PSO’s most profitable fee rates
  • Utilisation will be affected by the way a PSO and client work together
  • Realisation will be affected by the willingness of a client to accept that a PSO’s work is chargeable
  • WIP Days will be affected by the willingness of a client to accept an invoice
  • Debtor Days will be affected by the client’s willingness to pay

Many aspects of the relationship between you and your customer are defined by contract, but in my experience assumptions by one side or the other are often undocumented, and when it matters, it turns out that they differ.

customer supplier

It makes sense for a PSO to agree in advance the way in which both parties should work together. You might think that these understandings should be part of the Terms of Reference for a particular project, but they are often sufficiently general, and summarise the style and philosophy of a PSO so comprehensively, that there is some value in publishing these terms and agreeing them separately, even in advance of project negotiation. They can be useful during the sales process, clarifying what the buyer is buying and the seller, selling.

A Services Charter fulfils this need and might cover the following areas:

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Introduction

Principles

Client Involvement

  • Limitations
  • Client Engagement
  • Communication

Working Practices

  • Working Time

Working Conditions

  • Safety
  • Refreshments and Meals
  • Interruptions
  • Environment
  • Standards of Behaviour
  • Standards of Appearance

Commercial Issues

  • Expenses
  • Travel Time
  • Account Management
  • Cancellations
  • Commercial Issues
  • Issues Arising from Non-Payment

Project Issues

  • Projects (Scoped Fixed Price / Time and Materials / Etc.)
  • Scoped Fixed Price projects
  • Time and Materials projects
  • Time-Hire Projects
  • Outsource ‘Functional’ Work
  • Training
  • Acceptance
  • Project Management

Disputes

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Let’s start with the first three sections of such a Charter:

Introduction

This document sets out the principles and assumptions that underlie the provision of services by the PSO to a client. It is not a contractual document, but the signature of both parties indicates acceptance that this charter governs day-to-day relations between the parties.

Principles

Independence and neutrality

A client should expect honest, impartial, objective advice and guidance from professional staff, who, from the moment of engagement, must have the client’s best interests in mind, whatever the commercial implications for the PSO.

Where the PSO is represented by a team of consultants, advice must be seen as collective, and must be formed in a disciplined and methodical manner, led by a senior member of the team, a project manager or services manager responsible for the assignment or project. Any professional staff holding a different view, must have the option to express this view through the team’s spokesman, but professional staff should not express, nor should a client foster, dissident views in a manner that undermines team work, and team responsibility.

Professional advice is given in good faith in the circumstances. These circumstances will reflect:

  •  Agreed needs of the client
  • Agreed priorities of the client
  • Financial limitations of the project or assignment
  • Deadlines
  • Skills available to the PSO
  • Skills available within the client’s organisation
  • Other factors

These may change, but a complete set of agreed, documented assumptions must always be at hand.It must also be understood that staff are fallible, and that whilst they accept responsibility for mistakes and the correction of those mistakes, they cannot on occasion avoid making them.

However, staff must always identify, admit and correct errors in their work or judgement. In some cases, mistakes and their correction should be seen as part of the working process (such as, in the joint development of systems), and because they are not surprising, plans must reflect the fact that they will occur.

The client will sometimes disagree with the judgement of professional advisers, even when all assumptions are agreed and there are no disagreements as to fact. In this case, whilst registering disagreement, a professional adviser should continue to advise the client and to accept the client’s judgement, though in some extreme cases the adviser may choose to withdraw from the project or assignment, if a reasonable case can be made for doing so.

In giving advice, staff do so against a background of stated assumptions.

Limitations

By default, a professional adviser is never an executive within a client’s organisation, and should not take responsibility for the client’s staff or their work unless (as perhaps in the case of interim management) he has specific, published authority to do so.

A professional adviser is never the legal representative of the client and is not responsible for statements, verbal or financial, that have legal repercussions for the client.

A professional adviser advises, and does not act in the place of any of the client’s staff, unless this is specifically agreed.

Client Involvement

Client Engagement

Projects and assignments can go wrong if the client does not engage deeply with the project or assignment. A professional adviser does not work ‘for’ the client, but more often ‘with’, the idea being that knowledge will be transferred to the client. Where the appropriate level of engagement by the client is missing, and if this raises risks for the project or assignment, the PSO will notify the client.

At best, a PSO’s professional staff can play the role of energetic, persuasive advisers, but final responsibility for the success of a project or assignment will depend on the client.

Communication

It is essential that expectations of the project and assignment are synchronised not only between the PSO’s project team and the client’s project team, but in depth in the client’s organisation, especially when end-users’ opinions, reactions and acceptance are required.

It is particularly essential that in the case of training the client clarifies for all trainees the objectives of the project, the limits to its scope and the role of the PSO in the process of the project or assignment.

Communication should be in unambiguous written form whenever possible.

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More next week.

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2 thoughts on “Unspoken Assumptions – Do we have the same understanding as our customers as to what consulting means?

  1. Unspoken Assumptions – More on the Client / Consultant Relationship – Adam Bager

  2. Unspoken Assumptions – A Third and Last Set of Notes on the Client/Consultant Relationship – Adam Bager

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