6 Ground Rules for Client-Consultant Engagements

Of all the engagements I have either seen, or been a part of,  expectations can mean the difference between success and failure, regardless of the actual outcome or the project.  In this post I will write about what both clients and consults, in partnership, may be able to do to assure expectations are properly set and managed.

Often times, expectations are based upon perceptions, (rooted in reality or not) rather than fact.  It is in the interest of the client and the consultant to clarify the expectations of not only the project, but the engagement overall, and base them as much as possible on fact.

First, as with any interaction, the ground rules must be set.  Both the client and the consultant should agree to follow ground rules for the engagement.  These apply to both sides.

  1. Respect
  2. Communication
  3. Honesty
  4. Professionalism
  5. Empathy
  6. Follow-through

We, as consultants, should respect the client, the client’s property, and the client’s time.  A client should show us the same respect.  Often, when tensions are high, there is a tendency for either (or both) client or consultant to treat the relationship as something less than the co-worker relationship they have with their colleagues.  If this should happen, it is something that needs to be addressed quickly and effectively by both sides.  Both sides should insist on respect.  If respect is missing from the relationship, there can be very little progress forward.  Moreover, when discussing what feels like a slight from either side, discussing why the expectation is important is a good first step and may lead to understanding and possible resolution.

Communication is the number one reason for failed projects.  We either did not ask or we assumed everyone already knew what to expect.  Just because it has happened a hundred times before in previous engagements, as client or consultant, it does not necessarily follow that it will happen this time.  Both client and consultant MUST be explicit as to what is wanted and what can be delivered.  Everything should be discussed: hours that a consultant will put in per week, hours the client site will be available to the consultant, client resources, consultant resources, holidays, leave, coverage, dress code, lunch time, everything.  Moreover, these communications should be documented and disseminated to all parties concerned.  If there is a misunderstanding about what was said and agreed upon, a document will be a great place to start resolving that issue.   Moreover, feedback is an integral part of communication and a key part of relationship.  Just because things are not breaking does not mean everything is alright.  Never assume either client, or consultant, know what the prevailing sentiment is at the moment.  Both sides should actively ask how everyone is doing/feeling and try to be certain to address any concerns as quickly as possible.  Set up a regular meeting to discuss feedback and the state of the relationship.  Not all feedback will be positive.  Both sides should commit to resolving negative feedback as soon as possible.

Honesty is something that should be taken for granted, but often it is not.  There are any number of reasons why either side would like to be less than truthful.  The truth makes us look bad.  We missed something simple.  We just got it wrong.  Regardless of how painful the truth is, both sides should be committed to an absolutely truthful relationship.  It is only in this manner that a project can be successfully realized.  Honesty should begin at the assessment level and the client should be ready to hear the truth.  No matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise, Rome was not built in a day and it was not cheap.

Professionalism may mean different things to different folks.  To us, it means we hold ourselves to the highest standards that if our actions were on the front page of the New York Times, we would not only be unashamed of our actions, but actually proud of them.  Both client and consultant are professions and should treat each other as such.  There should be little differentiation in how client treats folks in their office and how consultants are treated.  The same is also true for how consultants treat clients and their personnel.

Irrespective of which side of the client-consultant we stand on, we all have lives outside of the office.  We should be empathetic to the clients as the client should be empathetic to the consultant.

Follow-through: After we have all agreed on the project, the parameters, the price, the hours, the deadlines, and the resources, it does not mean we are finished.  Until project sign-off, both sides should revisit expectations to further refine and verify understandings and make course corrections where necessary.  Even the smallest misunderstanding or disappointment needs to be addressed.  If not, that one little piece may be the difference between a highly satisfied client that wants to engage us again and one that will never work with us again.

Attempting to navigate an engagement without common understanding and agreement of expectations is as fraught with peril as traversing the Atlantic without a map, compass, or sextant.  We may get to where we would like to be, but the odds are heavily against success.

Now it’s your turn.  Tell us your war stories of how expectations changed, grew, spun out of control.  Tell us what lessons you learned, how good deeds were punished, and how it could have been better.

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Phone: 312-602-4000
Email: marketing@westmonroepartners.com
222 W. Adams
Chicago, IL 60606
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