If we’re honest, there probably comes a moment once or twice in our careers when we think we’d be better off without our clients. We’re tempted just occasionally to think that without our clients’ demands we’d be free to do really good work.
Of course this is nonsense. After all, the customer is always right.
Well, no, that’s nonsense too. The customer is very often wrong, but what this oft-repeated dictum really means, is that we must always treat our clients with respect, even if we disagree with them.
I have friends who have worked as receptionists at hotels and I’ve heard horror stories about how guests behave, angrily demanding favours from staff who don’t have favours within their gift (upgrades mainly), furiously lambasting them about problems they are powerless to solve, behaving rudely, impatiently, insultingly.
As consultants, we’re luckier than receptionists, on the whole. In our line of work our clients are usually:
- Even fun
But the truth is that sometimes they can also be:
- Pursuing a surreptitious agenda
- Even drunk
Clients are rarely even one of these bad things, but the way you work with them must accommodate all of these from time to time.
A criminal lawyer has a hard time defending his or her client if the client doesn’t tell the truth. An architect can’t design a building if the client can’t decide how may floors are needed. A business strategist can’t present an idea to a group of drunk and angry men.
What makes the relationship sometimes additionally more troublesome, or complex at least, is that your client isn’t always a single monolithic, consistent entity. Your client is sometimes a group of individuals, each with his or her own knowledge, prejudices, fears, ambitions, and emotions.
But enough about those few BAD clients. Clients are, on the whole, wonderful. We depend on them for our livelihood, we depend on their knowledge, their ideas and their cooperation, especially if our consulting projects are to be successful. We depend on them for their approval and their recommendation. And we learn from them.
Over the course of thirty years as a consultant I’ve learned about the manufacture of televisions, of medicines, and of chocolate, about the extraction of sugar from sugar beet, about aeroplane refuelling, about the management of professional services, and about dozens of other disciplines, and in all of these fields I’ve learned not just about how these things are done technically, but about how the people who do them are managed and motivated. There is no better business education than the education a consultant is paid to acquire through contact with a multitude of industries. Better than business school any day.
As you learn about your clients you learn how to conduct your relationship with them too. You are at once a ‘supplier’, a confidant, an adviser, and an intellectual sparring partner. You must do what you’re told and you must tell your client what to do.
So clients cannot be, first and foremost, your friend. Your relationship is ‘professional’ and, of course, commercial. Clients may become your friend, but it’s not through friendship that you achieve your goal. Friendliness yes, but not friendship. Friendship can get in the way of your goal because it imposes constraints on your behaviour that undermine your impartiality.
The key to a happy relationship lies in the management of expectations. Client and consultant should both know what to expect of each other. Where instinct and experience don’t supply this, the rules must be written down.
In all circumstances the best approach is openness and honesty, enthusiasm but always a certain distance, precise documentation and communication, and a clear set of rules established from the start. To protect yourself and your project from all the bad things that clients might occasionally be:
- You will insist on detail if it’s needed and verification if you’re not sure that what you’re being told is true
- You will be honest about what you know and what you must find out. A client cannot expect you to know everything
- You will respect confidentiality
- You will be reasonable about delays but point out the inconvenience and the likely consequences, if an agreement has been infringed
- You will draw attention to contradiction
- You will accept criticism without defensiveness, but not if it is unreasonable.
- You will apologise for mistakes, accept any liability, and correct them if you can
- You will not accept anger, and will remove yourself from any situation where emotion runs too high
- You will not be a witness to unreasonable behaviour by your client towards his or her staff, and you will remove yourself from the situation if possible
- You will not be bullied into working unreasonable hours or into accepting unreasonable deadlines
A consultant is neither a hired hand nor a slave. He or she is a man or woman of independent mind.
Most clients and consultants have an instinctive understanding of the rules. But where there is even a suspicion that this is lacking I like to put forward a Consulting Charter that clarifies the terms of engagement between the two parties. This may cover topics as diverse as what may be considered reasonable use of a private mobile phone, how long a lunch break might be, and the proper procedure a client should follow when making a complaint. The rules may be hard to write down, and they are often unnecessary, but you must always have a common understanding with your client as to what is reasonable and what is not.