Last month, several of Smith’s partners gathered to discuss how we do our work. We landed on three qualities that we believe are key to good client relationships.
Participating in the discussion:
Trey Wood CEO, Managing Partner
Glen Gonzalez Senior Consultant, Partner
Jennifer Needham Senior Consultant, Partner
Dea McKenzie Senior Consultant, Partner
Michael Garcia Senior Consultant, Partner
Rick Cole Moderating
RC: We’ve agreed that a consultant needs to be relatable, capable and reliable to earn the confidence of our clients. Let’s dig a little deeper into how each of those qualities comes into play.
Relatability: Connecting with the client and providing reassurance that you understand the demands on them and the larger enterprise and that you are genuinely interested in accomplishing important work with them.
TW: After almost 30 years in this field, I believe there are usually two aspects of relatability that the prospective client looks for before they will hire a consultant.
First, experience. They need a consultant to be experienced enough in a given area to be understood as a reasonable risk for the conduct of a project.
Second, an interesting and engaging person. Consciously or unconsciously, clients ask themselves, “Would I want to have lunch with this person?” For the clients to answer “yes,” sometimes requires the consultant to show an ability to relate to the buyer on issues beyond the immediate business issue at hand. “Oh! I, love classic movies too!” Or, “Yoga has changed my life.”
GG: I’ve been working with a great client for 12 years, as she has worked in senior leadership at two different organizations. The other day, she said to me, “You know, you’re very highly regarded here.” I felt like she had just handed me a gold plaque.
I think more common signs that you’re really building trust come in off-the-cuff moments. When a client calls out of the blue and says they just want to run something by you or that they recommended you to a colleague or that they caught wind of a new initiative and immediately thought of you, then you know they think of you as part of their team, their network, their brain trust.
JN: I’m reading a book now called The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. It focuses on seven open-ended questions to ask (coaching) clients. I see a lot of application between this technique and how we might conduct a get-to-know-you meeting or a kick-off meeting. Our clients often know the way in which they need to solve their problems. They just don’t know how to get started—or, maybe, how to execute it well. When they find a partner who listens and cares, and who they like spending an intense amount of time with, that’s a project that can succeed.
DM: It may sound sort of silly, but my clients appreciate that I’m a “real person” with real solutions coming out of my consulting and corporate experience. I have one client who is working with another consultant (to use up a monetary credit) and I know the other consultant pretty well. She’s a tough person to connect with. She’s pleasant, and I imagine her work is fine, but it’s difficult to follow her thought process. Whereas, my client and I are to the point that we sometimes finish each other’s sentences. When we may not immediately understand each other, I can probe and ask coaching-type questions to draw out what she’s trying to communicate. And then we get to work.
MG: To me, this comes down to one simple tenet: Consultants are not “better” than their clients. We must check our egos at the door. Our clients are smart people who usually know what they want and where they want to go. As Jennifer said, our job is to help them get there.
Our clients’ desires and objectives for their work are more important than our desires and objectives for their work. I’ve seen many consultants fail—and earn the disdain of their clients—because it was apparent that a given project was a vehicle for the consultant to do what they wanted to do rather than the other way around.
Capability: Demonstrating that you possess the expertise and experience to consult on and deliver against the client’s goals, standards and objectives.
TW: I believe we demonstrate capability during the course of an assignment. Yes, the buyer has attempted an evaluation by review of previous work and through client references. However, all knowledgeable buyers attempt to confirm their earlier decision in the first days and actions of a project.
GG: A firm can make all kinds of claims on their website, but firms don’t work on projects. People do. I think one gets a much clearer sense of the kind of work you’re going to get by talking to the people who will actually be doing the work.
JN: This is where Smith’s promise that “we don’t just show up for meetings, we actually do the work” matters. Probably the most frequent question I hear from prospective clients is, “Have you done X before? What’s the best practice?” If we can tell a story and show a work sample from another engagement that is closely related to their issue (and better yet, also in their industry) that immediately makes the prospect feel more confident in our ability to lead them to a solution.
DM: Thinking of “best practices” as plug-and-play solutions is dangerous. We can draw from past experiences and “best practices,” but it’s long-term experience and deep knowledge that helps us create and deliver the best solution for our client’s immediate need. Tailored, specific solutions—rather than just “best practice” solutions—bring the most value and deepen the relationship.
Reliability: Earning the client’s trust that you will deliver what you’ve promised according to stated and unstated needs.
TW: Only after we successfully complete more than one assignment are we given the opportunity to be considered reliable.
JN: Last week, I called a long-term client to outline a scope change on a project. He was fine with the related fee increase, told me to move forward and then pivoted to “When should we schedule our enrollment kick-off meeting?” That sentence was our proposal process. There is nothing like past success to build trust and the sense that the consultant is part of the extended team.
With a prospective client, I think the trust organically emerges from the relatability and capability factors that we touched on earlier. If a prospect feels you are genuinely excited about doing the work, that you’re eager to try the proposed solution, and they are excited about applying the quality of our past work to their new situation, we’ve become reliable.
DM: I recently had a client say to me, “I know that when I need you, you’ll respond; some of our consultants don’t.” I was floored. Responding is the easiest step in getting the work! And hey, if we’re known for being responsive, I’ll take that!
Like Jennifer said, it’s wonderful when the new business process is streamlined to “It’s time to renew our Master Services Agreement—can you update the date so I can sign” or “Let’s get our next kick-off meeting on the calendar.” Your past work is earning new work.
MG: Another way you earn trust with a client is by always being honest, especially when things go bad.
I remember a meeting early in my career at another firm. We were brought in to explain to a client how and why things had gone so poorly on a project. I was an underling. My job in the meeting was to sit there, be quiet and take notes. So the meeting started badly and only got worse as my superiors attempted to explain how and why our failure occurred, attempting to displace blame.
It sounded like we were making excuses. And, to my astonishment, no one apologized. Our client was fuming. Finally, against my better judgment, I spoke up and simply said we were sorry that this happened, it shouldn’t have happened, and we will not let it happen again. I owned the mistake—all our client really wanted. Within three months, I was leading the account. That was an important lesson for me.
RC: What really jumps out at me, as the person with least direct client contact, is the personal nature of consulting. And how “relationship” is more than jargon, it’s a foundational principle. Thank you, all.