What clients want

Over my years as a consultant, I have asked clients what they think it takes to get an effective client/consultant partnership up and running. A few key words come up again and again, across industries, project types and the client's place in the organisational hierarchy

Once a client has hired a consultant, there is a distinct change in attitude. The client's conjectures about what it would be like to work with the consultant turn into expectations. One consistent point a lot of clients emphasise is: They want the consultant to understand and meet their expectations. Although some consultants strive to exceed expectations, most of the clients I have encountered are overjoyed as long as the project goes as planned. The client's primary expectation is that you finish the work on time, on budget and with minimal interruptions. Most clients also value consultants who believe in the organisation's future and do not surprise them with bad news at the last minute. The client's satisfaction grows when consultants use their abilities to solve the problem at hand while helping the client's team improve their own capacity.

Pass on standard tools

Clients express a natural scepticism about solutions that are too 'off-the-shelf' and it is not hard to understand why. Consultants often try to differentiate themselves on the market by selling a mix of their personal expertise and standard tools to implement projects. Clients appreciate the speed and efficiency that standardised advice represents, but they would prefer you to exploit the tools rather than use them as crutches.

The same principle applies to the consultant's expertise. Clients value consultants with expertise that liberates – rather than constrains – their thinking. You will find that clients choose consultants who solve problems within the framework of what they have seen before – instead of just slavishly repeating what worked last time. 

An example: A consultant developed a performance management system using a standard model developed for the client's industry. It was only after the programming was done that the project team realised their fatal error: The program was incapable of gathering a particular type of important data that the managers of the business used daily. 

It is easy to be blinded by your own expertise and fall into the '95-percent trap': By relying on a solution that matches most challenges, you risk limiting the success of the project – and damaging the relationship with the client. In the client's view, 95 percent right is no better than 100 percent wrong.

So, validate your diagnoses before you propose solutions. And bring the client into the initial phase of the project so that your observations are in line with the client's reality.

Ready, Steady, Stop

At Toyota, some employees are authorised to shut down production immediately when they discover a problem. Likewise, clients also want their consultants to stop 'production' on the spot when they discover an error. And they value consultants who have the guts to talk openly about how the project is going. On the other hand, clients complain about consultants who neglect to inform them when something isn't working. Clients acknowledge that their perspective is muddied by optimistic reports from employees or a general lack of knowledge about what resources a project requires. One of the reasons they hire us is precisely to make sure everyone reports their problems.

I was once asked to look at whether a forthcoming project could be implemented at a client. It soon proved that the client's team were not ready to begin the project – so we recommended that they wait. The client praised our team for recommending a postponement, even though it meant that we did not get the assignment.

Beyond assessing the initial preparations, you also need to regularly re-evaluate the client's situation. Example: A project team neglected to check a group of warehouse workers' knowledge before implementing a new process for shipping. The team justified this by saying that previous training was sufficient to equip the employees for the new process. Unfortunately, that was not the case. When the client started using the new process, the warehouse workers' daily routines fell apart. The result was three weeks of wrongly shipped orders and a decline in the level of service. A project team neglected to check a group of warehouse workers' knowledge before implementing a new process for shipping orders.

Clients might resist if someone tries to stop production. But they appreciate honest consultants and objective reports on the likelihood of success, especially if the forecasts turn out to be accurate. The client will always appreciate the consultant who knows the answer to this question: 'Are we ready?'

Honourable intentions 

Clients appreciate it when your primary interest lies in meeting their objectives and not in building up your own business. Show them that you have honourable intentions. Keep the focus on how and when you plan to conclude a project. You might find that this approach will bring in more work than all of your efforts to sell follow-up projects.

I am not suggesting that you go into hibernation. One of your roles is to help clients find opportunities that can improve their business. But sometimes it is better to hold back than to push. And the best way to attract a good client is to prepare for how and when you will leave the stage.