ASTD Consulting News: Building Better Client Relationships

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The September issue of the Consulting News magazine of the ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) includes an article I wrote on Building Better Client Relationships. The article is below:

Building Better Client Relationships

by Ross Dawson

In an increasingly money conscious and global economy, where consultants often spend large sums and substantial energy in obtaining new clients, the key issue they face is how to build long lasting and deep relationships with valuable clients.

There are two main types of consulting: black-box services and knowledge-based services. A black-box service is one where something is done for the client, but they aren’t party to the process or activities involved. In a black-box situation, the client hires your expertise; they want you to do a specific task, but they are not engaged in the process. On the other hand, knowledge-based services engage both the client and the consultant, who work closely together to create an outcome that neither could have created alone. One impact of this process is that the client is different as a result of the mutual engagement, and the company can make better decisions due to this increased knowledge transfer.

It is necessary to understand how positive client relationships progress in order to position yourself to maintain the clients you attract. Relationship development can be broken down into four stages: engaging, aligning, deepening, and partnering.

Engaging begins with the initial contact with your client. It is part sales process and part exploring the possibility of building a long-term relationship. You will find with some clients it is possible to achieve a mutually valuable relationship, whereas with others, the culture or style of their organization frustrates any attempts to build a deeper relationship. During this initial phase, you need not only to sell yourself, but to assess whether you will want to work with that client over an extended period of time. Your client will be thinking in a similar fashion about you.

Aligning your objectives and expectations with that of your client means actively discussing with him what objectives and expectations each of you has. At the same time, you must establish a path to move to a deeper relationship where mutual value is created. If a client is open to building a deeper relationship, your task is to discuss and uncover what steps will build trust and transparency in the relationship, which will allow you to create more value.

The third stage is to develop a deeper and broader relationship with your client. This involves getting to know more people in the organization, engaging in different types of work within the organization, establishing shared ways of working, and actively sharing knowledge with the client. This stage gives you a more intense and broader view of the company, and because you’ve built the client’s trust, you can interact with more individuals at the company.

Partnering is ultimately where you want to be with a client, especially if you are providing knowledge-based services. However, many consultants never manage to become a partner with their clients. Rather than pricing by time or project, this is the phase at which you may be able to share revenue you helped generate or lower costs you have achieved for the client. In such instances, the client may give you office space, she may provide introductions to others in the industry, she may also actively help you achieve your objectives, or develop intellectual property if you have jointly designed a business process or a learning tool which worked well for the client.

As a consultant, it is your responsibility to build a trusting relationship with the client. You cannot expect the client to take the first step. One of the most important steps is to disclose your objectives at the outset. Collaborative relationships are founded on sharing information, so if you want your client to be open with you, the best way to make that happen is to be open yourself. In an economy in which relationships are increasingly central, the ability to build trust is central, and you can best demonstrate that you are trustworthy by disclosing challenges as well as opportunities.

In addition, you need to understand that different people have different communication and learning styles. You must customize your communication to your client and this requires forehand information and a keen sense of observation. Finally, it is critical to understand that is there is no such thing as a static relationship. So, if you want to engage your client in a long-term, high-value relationship, it is your responsibility to move the relationship forward. Those consultants that are better at building long-term relationships can be assured of a prosperous future in an increasingly competitive economy.

  • Hi Ross,
    Hope all is well. Anyway, I am interested in speaking with you about how product and service companies might increasingly differentiate themselves by bring strategic consulting capabilities in-house. While I realize some have already done this, I suspect this may be the core differentiator in years to come. In fact, I have started to tag the trend “The Guidance Economy.” I would love to catch up with you and hear your opinion on the matter.
    Britton Manasco
    Illuminating the Future

  • Hi Britton, yes let’s touch base. Absolutely that’s part of what can support true knowledge-based relationships. The high-value ‘guidance’ becomes part of a broader package of offers that together is embedded into the relationship.