Category Archives: Organizational Culture

Building Trust: Keys to Client Relationships

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.

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Two Sides of the Same Fence: Consultant Becomes Client

The “Choose Your Own Adventure” series is a well-known set of children’s books, with a simple idea—you, as the reader, become the main character in each book.

Every few pages, the reader is given a choice about how to proceed. What happens next in the story depends on the choices the reader makes—choose one road and you run into a hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex; choose the other and find yourself aboard an alien spaceship.

While I’ve never actually faced a T-Rex or been lured aboard an alien spaceship, I have been lucky enough to “choose my own adventure” several times in my career—going from corporate manager to consultant and back again.

Although the view is a bit different depending on which side of the fence you’re on, it is surprising just how similar the jobs can be when you’ve seen both sides.

Corporate managers and consultants aren’t as different as you might think—beagles and dachshunds, not cats and dogs. For example, they both must:

  • Please their boss
  • Work within a fixed budget
  • Juggle competing deadlines
  • Protect their company’s profitability
  • Take pride in their work

Time spent looking at my work from both sides has greatly shaped my thinking and what I believe to be important keys to understanding one another’s roles.

Consultants: Make sure you understand the chain of command. Just as you work hard to satisfy your corporate managers, don’t forget that they must also satisfy their internal customers.

Early in the project, talk to your corporate manager openly about their corporate hierarchy and any challenges her or she faces. You are there to help them succeed. Always be prepared for last minute changes, delayed approvals or even a complete change of direction midway through. Accept this going in and be happier for it.

Consultants: Corporate cultures can be mysterious, but they can’t be ignored. If your corporate manager isn’t on board with your brilliant idea don’t take it personally. It might not be a fit. Frequently, the two of you can work together to map out an alternative that will still yield the desired results.

Managers: Be realistic with deadlines. I loved being treated as if I were my consultant’s only client, but I knew it wasn’t a monogamous relationship. My work had to be slotted in along with other projects for other clients.

Realistic project timelines keep everyone on the same page. They won’t solve every last minute emergency, but will limit the fallout. If you absolutely need something the next day, tell your consultant—a good one will move heaven and earth to meet the deadline. If you really could wait two days, give them the two days. Ask your consultants what works best for them—they’ll appreciate it.

Managers: Staying connected is not a sales pitch. A good consultant tracks what’s on the horizon and what might solve some of your company’s concerns. They also have knowledge about what other companies are doing. When your consultant calls to check in, talk to you about your needs and share how he can help, listen.

Consultants: Be attuned to your client’s personal style. Some clients enjoy frequent meetings in person, while others prefer a phone call or email. Staying in touch includes respecting your client’s communication preferences.

Everyone: Budgets are real. If you ask consultants what they hate most, I bet it would be talking to clients about money; they would much prefer to leave the accounting side to someone else. Consultant: Your job is to understand the limits of a budget and help a client maximize the impact of their company spend. Managers: Talk to your consultant openly about what you need to accomplish and what you can afford to spend. If you work together, you can usually find common ground that provides you with the services you need, while staying within your budget.

Bottom Line: The best manager/consultant relationship is like a great marriage—partners working together for mutual success. Good relationships run on honesty, trust, and managing disagreements with respect. Feel comfortable enough with one another to openly discuss what’s going well and what isn’t. Remember that no matter what side of the fence you’re looking over, you’re working together so that both sides can be successful.

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More Than a Job Description


More than a job description, a Role Portrait is designed to capture the nuances and particulars of a job. This is particularly useful for both talent acquisition and continuity planning.

A Job Description is Critical

The basic job description is:

“A written statement about a position that defines various responsibilities, duties, qualifications and reporting arrangements. It is used to match organizational needs with skills and competencies required to do the work.”

This is a foundational document in any organization. A good job description is essential for both hiring and allocating human resources. Each position in your organization needs a basic job description. The Society for Human Resource Management(SHRM) has hundreds of prewritten job descriptions to help HR professionals create and correctly format these important documents.

A well-written job description solves many issues for organizations:

  • Helps potential employees understand the job they’re applying for and how it fits into an organization
  • Defines responsibilities and expectations. This sets parameters for new hires, existing employees and managers
  • Fulfills legal requirements to stay in compliance with equal opportunity and anti-discrimination regulations

However, a job description has certain limitations:

  • Job descriptions can become functionally obsolete almost immediately, especially if maintained by an HR department that is removed from the day-to-day activities of the organization
  • Being a fixed document, it may not accurately represent the job during a period of rapid change
  • May unnecessarily confine and limit job performance, especially for high-performing employees with great initiative
  • Can create negative evidence in certain legal situations, like a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination
A Role Portrait is More

While it includes everything found in a good job description, the Role Portrait informs the job description from the unique vantage point of the position holder, immediate managers and associates.

The Role Portrait is a living document that is assessed and amended at least once a year, often as part of the annual review process. A Role Portrait is developed by the department where the job position resides rather than the HR department.

Often, the Role Portrait is written, or co-written, by a person holding the job. They are in the best position to understand and communicate the details of their role. In coordination with their manager, this employee can help the organization answers key questions about:

  • How time is allocated
  • How objectives and tasks are prioritized and performed
  • Key personnel and resources necessary to doing the job
  • Important functions and relationships that might otherwise remain invisible
  • How the job, objectives and tasks have changed from one year to the next

There is no one formula for how to create a Role Portrait. Much depends on the job itself and the people filling in the picture. The main emphasis should be on getting a current and complete picture of a specific role informed by those closest to it.

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Culture Uncentered

Workers Share a Culture Even if They Don't Share a Place

Culture (kuhl-cher) n., the way we do things around here

“Corporate culture” can be tough to define. We talk about it. Sometimes we try to change it. Sometimes we try to strengthen it. But it’s not always clear what “it” is. The essence of corporate culture is well captured in a scene from the 1992 film A Few Good Men. During a cross examination, Naval lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, has this exchange with a witness, Cpl. Jeffrey Barnes, played by Noah Wyle.

Kaffee:  Corporal, would you turn to the page in this book that says where the mess hall is, please.

Barnes: Well, Lt. Kaffee, that’s not in the book, sir.

Kaffee: You mean to say in all your time at Gitmo you’ve never had a meal?

Barnes: No, sir. Three squares a day, sir.

Kaffee: I don’t understand. How did you know where the mess hall was if it’s not in this book?

Barnes: Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.

An organization’s culture is often thought of as “the way we do things around here.” But what happens when you take away the “here”? What if there is no crowd to follow? What if there is no single chow time?

Is the “Workplace” Still a Thing?

We’re living in an economy where more and more work is performed by individuals on their own time, from their own place, and in collaboration with others they might never meet in person. In such an economy, what is a “workplace”? What do words like culture, organization, workforce, or even employee mean?

Think of Uber. Founded in 2012, Uber touts itself as Everyone’s Private Driver™. But Uber doesn’t own any cars. Instead, it connects riders and drivers through a mobile app. According to its website, the number of Uber drivers has grown to about 175,000 in less than three years. That’s more people than The Walt Disney Company employs.1 It’s an enormous workforce, but since Uber drivers drive their own cars and work where and when they want, does Uber have a culture?

I’ve used Uber a handful of times and the experience has always been about the same. The driver shows up quickly (usually before I’m ready to go). The car is clean, and the driver is polite and as talkative (or not talkative) as any other driver I’ve ever hired. So, there must be something going on that helps create a consistent customer experience. How do they do it?

Uber may be an extreme example of a virtual workforce, a thriving experiment of the new, technology-empowered “sharing economy”. But well before Uber arrived on the scene, a growing number of companies were allowing their employees to work outside the office walls.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the number of full-time employees who work from home for someone other than themselves rose 79 percent between 2005 and 2012. That puts the number of remote workers at an estimated 3.2 million people.

But that’s just the full-timers. According to a study by the Freelancers Union & Elance-oDesk, more than one-third of the American workforce is freelance. These “freelancers” include temporary workers and so-called “moonlighters” who hold down full-time jobs and do independent work (like the NFL player who drives for Uber during the off-season).

While not every company is using freelancers or allowing its employees to work remotely today, like Yahoo! and Hewlett Packard, we might expect more companies to try this approach. (Amazon is reportedly developing an Uber-like app known as “On My Way” that would allow anybody to pick up packages from central locations and deliver them to their final destinations.2) If the trend continues, we’ll have a world in which work culture and workplace have an increasingly tenuous relationship. But this doesn’t necessarily mean organizational culture will simply vanish or that water cooler talk will stop just because there’s no actual water cooler.

6 Ways to Promote a Way of Doing Things Around “Here”

Thanks to social media and other online tools, groups that live around the world can share a “way of doing things” even though they rarely — or never — meet face-to-face. (Have you tried to read a teenager’s comments on Instagram lately?) Whether at the most traditional organizations or the most virtual, culture relies on strong ideas that become accepted and shared by the group. Here are a few important things an employer can do to guide and influence a productive “way of doing things around here” even when there’s no “here” there.

1. Write it down.

What core values, beliefs, or actions make you successful? What do your people do; how do they do it; why do they do it? Why do your customers like you? Why do people want to work with you? Culture can be effectively transmitted through stories. Is there a story that captures the essence of your organization? Answer these questions and write it down.

2.  Appeal to the right people.

Uber has a very simple, very clear appeal that they repeat over and over to drivers: Be your own boss. That’s going to appeal to people who are independent and driven. Know the kind of person you want as part of your team. Know what appeals to those people and craft a message that will resonate with them.

3. Use social media.

Based on their research, Gallup says having a “a best friend at work” is one of the 12 traits of highly productive workgroups.³ People are social and working from home or outside a traditional office can be isolating. You can help create and strengthen bonds among team members by using any of the free and easy-to-access social media platforms that are available. You don’t have to moderate these interactions. You may simply want to facilitate online connections.

4. Communicate with the team.

Broad-based communications can help remind individuals that they are a part of something bigger. You don’t want to burden your people with superfluous, irrelevant messages, but you do want to remind them, from time to time, how they fit in and how their work supports the whole.

5. Bring them together.

If you can, have a get-together at least once a year. If you can’t bring your people together in real space, consider bringing them together in real time. Try webcasts, chats, and the fun new app Periscope. Again, there are many good social media tools that can serve as a platform for huddling up your far-flung teams.

6. Identify virtual mentors.

You may do this formally or informally. If you point out the successful, experienced people — the living examples of the culture you want — people new to the group will naturally seek out their guidance. Sometimes it’s just easier to ask a peer for advice than a manager.



² “Amazon’s Next Delivery Drone: You”, Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2015


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