Client relations: the key to success
You may imagine a flowchart that runs from the client’s request for proposal through to the client paying for the service, and beyond. This chapter describes this main flow of the information consultancy. It focuses not only on written procedures – proposal request, preliminary memorandum, formal proposal, contract, deliverable and invoice. It also suggests how much to charge, what the bullet points of the contract should be and even how to communicate effectively during the process. Keep in mind that the experiences and feelings of your client about your service will largely affect their willingness to deal with you again.
No two consulting assignments are ever identical. That said, some commonalities do exist in the sequence of events from the start to finish of a project, a typical progression of stages in an assignment. Remember, though: ‘Your experience may vary.’ We have focused on events that could appear challenging to new consultants. In reality, most assignments evolve smoothly and successfully, but it never hurts to watch for potential situations requiring special finesse.
Most consultants will sooner or later face the ‘RFP (request for proposal) dilemma’. You receive an inquiry as to whether you are interested in responding to an RFP, or maybe the RFP just shows up in your postbox. Some consultants regularly scan public inventories of government RFPs to look for appropriate opportunities. Bidding on an RFP can be a long shot, so think carefully about whether to invest the time. (Some RFPs are preliminary and in fact state there is no guarantee an actual project will ensue. Some have onerous documentation requirements. Some may even require such detailed guidelines in the proposal that they could, in effect, tell the issuers how to do the project themselves.)
‘We have your name from a colleague who mentioned you do consulting in content management. Could we talk?’ First, make sure those inquiring have come to the right place. If the project in question is not quite up your alley, plan to broker a contact with a suitable consultant. Other projects may arise later on closer to your interests, and chasing the right person for the client now will at least provide an opportunity to expand your network.
When referrals between consultants result in an assignment, offer the instrumental party a referral fee (or commission, agent fee). There are no standard practices or rates, but it can’t hurt to make the gesture.
As was mentioned earlier, it is important to conquer the amateurish attitude of ‘to do everything for everybody – on our own’ and to rise to the level of quality by recruiting professionals who do what they enjoy doing and are the best to perform the given task.
In the first meeting with a potential client – before any proposal has been written – figure out very quickly the client’s true situation and the potential scope of the project. Think about the fact that the client cannot really see what they are about to buy; ‘the product’ does not exist until they have actually bought it. A new client has no product sample to examine or judge. Consequently your professional image, skills and creativity will be the impetus and success of the project.
In many cases, a number of factors feed the desire to seek assistance, and you may be able to offer services beyond those requested at the outset. For example, if the client begins by saying, ‘We’d like someone to evaluate our information centre,’ that may only be half the story. Someone in the client’s organisation perceives the need for such an evaluation. You can certainly say, ‘I have performed many such evaluations and would be glad to do so for you.’ But don’t stop there. You could do more.
Perhaps the potential client should have a user needs assessment and strategic service plan. In short order, you need to come away with enough information to compose at least a preliminary memo suggesting some possible approaches.
Make sure you understand the request. Don’t think that you will find out ‘in the process’. The client doesn’t expect you to know their trade or line of business; they expect you to be able to ask the right questions, so keep on asking until you have fully understood what the client really needs. Make sure you understand what kind of decisions will be made based on the information you gather. This might enable you to gather additional information that will prove valuable to your client, even if this information was not actually identified as needed in the first place.
As a part of your quality assurance process, it is useful to design a request form for yourself that will guide you through the interview so that you don’t forget any important aspects of the request or exactly what you have agreed upon.
Being a little bit wrong about what the client wants can mean spending time, money and other resources on gathering information that doesn’t matter to your client. It can also mean losing business and eventually not surviving in a competitive market.
At the end of the first meeting, offer to prepare a preliminary memo for discussion and explain that it will set out a few different options to consider – within the client’s budgetary range, if known – or offering possible ranges to consider. The preliminary memo should serve as a starting point for discussion and help to make the client aware of the services you can offer. In other words, it is not binding on either party. The benefit from hearing the client’s reaction to the preliminary memo is that you can later prepare a formal proposal based on better knowledge of their preferences.
A memorandum helps to eliminate trouble in the future. Painstaking detail in spelling out exactly what the consultant is expected to accomplish for the client – and at what fee – is a must. It can sometimes feel awkward to ‘belabour’ such details, but the effort can safeguard against an undesirable development later on. Ranging from core matters such as the coverage and scope of a business intelligence plan to operational aspects such as the timeframe for return phone calls, mutually agreed guidelines for a business relationship build a healthy foundation for the long term. Moreover, the process of reaching such an agreement helps bring to light early on questions that might not otherwise surface until they become troublesome.
Of course, the nature of the business relationship is a function of the role the consultant plays. In some cases, we are temporary staff substitutes; in others, we are supposed to work miracles. Each type of role brings along a unique set of expectations that need to be set out clearly – no matter how difficult that might be at first.
Sometimes a client has no way of knowing how much effort is involved in addressing a particular challenge or opportunity and may therefore hesitate to state a budget figure. In such a situation, it is best to attach price ranges to deliverables with the preliminary memo so that the client may select a figure that suits their budget. Fairly wide ranges (e.g. £8,000–£14,000 or £30,000–£50,000) are usually advisable as these numbers are intended only to help the client assess options. You are, of course, always prepared to submit a proposal for a set of deliverables based on the specific figure the client ends up wanting to spend.
Don’t shy away from quoting what your work is worth. Be realistic and don’t artificially lower quotes for fear the client will experience sticker shock. Undercharging does no favour to your reputation, to colleagues or to the consulting profession in general.
Stick to your guns. If the client indicates that the fee is above the intended budget, adjust the offered services. Clients are more likely to feel assured of your quality if they sense you don’t accept less than what is fair and commensurate with your expertise.
Increasing the diversity of experience and perspective is a good thing for all kinds of business. In information services it is likely that many examples of success have their roots in the unique combination of various competencies and skills. Strategic thinking here means conquering the amateurish attitude of ‘to do everything for everybody – on your own’ and to raise the level of quality of your work by cooperating with other professionals who do what they enjoy doing and are the best to perform the given task. There are two methods of cooperation:
Either suggest a colleague that the client can contact or arrange the transaction between client and colleague as a go-between. If you arrange the transaction, you should collect an agent fee from your colleague (agreed upon in advance, of course). If you merely refer a client to a colleague, expect no monetary reward.
Signal your familiarity with the stated situation from other experiences. Ask ‘illustration questions’ to clarify the potential scope of the assignment. ‘In another context I put together a set of recommendations for media monitoring and market intelligence functions and went on to recruit an information specialist to oversee the new unit. Is that the sort of thing you had in mind?’ Such illustrations can help clients see possibilities they may not have initially considered.
Be alert to the possibility that the manager in front of you may not be the originator of the suggestion for calling in a consultant. They could be concerned that your presence somehow reflects poorly on their department’s performance. Empathy, sensitivity and a focus on future enhancements and strategy (rather than just ‘fixing’ current shortcomings) are good approaches.
Assuming the client is satisfied so far, you can now submit a more formal proposal, and, in that context, ask for an opportunity to go over some ideas. Now you can introduce your thinking on some options the client may not have mentioned at the first meeting. The formal proposal, of course, reflects the points mentioned earlier.
Before sending the proposal, go through it with a critical eye. If a colleague or assistant can look at the proposal, as a phase of your quality insurance system, take advantage of the opportunity for a ‘clarity check’:
Is the offer clear, specific and free of undefined jargon? Professional terminology should be explained in context or in a footnote if the proposal is likely to end up with someone outside your own professional domain.
Is there a risk of ambiguity or misunderstanding? Be careful to avoid expressions open to interpretation. For example, ‘outline’ may mean a two-page bullet list to you but could suggest a six-page document to the reader. Scope-specific indications are advised: ‘an overview in the four-page range’ leaves little doubt as to what you are offering to produce.
Naturally, any service agreement sets out what the consultant will deliver to the client. But what about the how? Much as we might privately cringe at spelling out in great detail just when and in what manner certain activities will take place, experience shows that it is vital to have great specificity. For the purposes of illustration, we focus here on the nature and frequency of communication with the client. As an example, any agreement with a client should in some way answer questions such as (illustrations, not a complete list):
To what degree does the client want us to handle independently minor matters arising during the project – as opposed to making noise when unforeseen events happen or surprising facts emerge? What defines a minor matter? In other words, how much closeness or distance does the client want to have regarding the project’s day- by-day progress?
The paperwork documenting that the client has agreed to pay a certain amount, for certain deliverables, need not involve lengthy documents or ones filled with ‘legalese’, but it should be quite explicit as to what is and is not included. A loosely written agreement open to varying interpretation can carry the risk of complications as a project unfolds.
Some consultants write their proposals in such a way that only a client signature is needed to transform it into a contract; others prefer a more open-ended proposal which – upon verbal acceptance – turns into a proper agreement document for signature. Conversely, some clients (government departments, for instance) have standard contracts.
What are the deliverables? A document containing recommendations? A training session? Deliverables can take many forms and it is important to describe them clearly in advance. The contract should clarify the kind of value-adding that the information consultant does, pointing out the clear distinction between online database searches and various types of research. (Experience shows that there are too many instances where the client believes that they are getting a research report while the information delivered is nothing more than a regular database search. Thus, the scope of your services and your research methods should be carefully explained so that the client fully understands exactly what they are getting.) Watch closely that fine line between making explicit the nature of the deliverable on the one hand and stating solutions or giving answers on the other hand. A proposal and agreement should not give away ideas or formulas but simply tell clients what they will have in hand once the project is complete. If the deliverable is a document, a tentative high-level table of contents is a good compromise.
What is the anticipated timeline? It is advisable to use language such as ‘weeks from start’ and ‘days from completion of Phase 3’, rather than fixed dates. Unforeseeable delays can cause much grief if the contract says ‘no later than 15 July’.
What resources will the client offer? Examples include access to personnel for interviews, access to paper and electronic files, a work area with a telephone and a computer, conference call setups, etc.
What is the fee and how is it paid? Is the payment schedule tied to deliverables? Is there a daily rate for X days, after which a new agreement will be negotiated? Is there an upfront fee on signing? (Some organisations may not be in a position to pay such a fee, but upfront fees do help cash flow and are a good indication of the client’s commitment. A typical initiation fee would be in the 10–30 per cent range, depending on the overall size of the contract.)
Generally two main options for payments are taken to be pay as you go and subscription (retainer fee). Studies have shown that clients prefer the pay-as-you-go approach, mainly because this is seen as a way of testing the service before committing oneself to it. Subscriptions are simpler to administer (for both parties) and have the added benefit for the business of enabling cash flow predictions. Clients are known to be more receptive to the payment of subscriptions where a tangible product ensues. Subscriptions are easier to promote in this context. Private sector companies usually invoice in arrears, except where a contractual arrangement exists for a regular and ongoing supply of information.
What out-of-pocket expenses and taxes will be billed? As noted earlier, it may be to your advantage to assume trivial expenses within your fee while specifying large unpredictable expenses as ‘extras’. In some jurisdictions, surtax must be charged on professional fees – but some client organisations are exempt from paying such taxes.
Consider whether you want to include an ‘in case of difficulty’ section. Some consultants have relationships with their clients built on years of trust and feel no need for it – in fact they might feel uncomfortable with even suggesting there could be trouble ahead. It could be wiser to include a ‘best effort’ statement that your services do not guarantee any specific outcomes. Check with other consultants in your field to find commonly used clauses suitable for your contract documents.
Are there confidentiality obligations? In some cases, consultants sign a separate non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to certify they will not reveal any information gathered in the course of the assignment; at other times, such a provision is included in the project agreement.
Confidentiality is a torch word in business intelligence and in information consultancy. Your client must feel assured that their request is handled with the strictest confidentiality throughout the project. This means that you can never disclose to any other party the name of your client or any details on particular requests. You will undoubtedly run into situations where you cannot obtain the requested information without explaining who needs it and for what reason. Even though it appears quite harmless, you cannot give any information on your client at this point – no matter how eager you are to get the information you are asking for. In this situation you simply state you are an information consultant working for a client on a research project.
It is often a good idea to offer the client a specific written confidentiality agreement to be signed by the information consultant or researcher that is handling this client’s requests. The very fact that you offer such written agreement will emphasise that you are not overlooking the confidentiality issue.
Factors such as the level and thoroughness of the discussions leading up to the submission of the proposal and the decision-making ability of the client contact will determine what happens next. In most cases, the project proceeds immediately. If it does not, have patience. Delays can occur for many reasons: the proposal will be considered at the budget meeting a month away; the individual who called you in the first place got reassigned to another department; a new CEO has arrived and all projects are on hold for a while. Any number of circumstances can result in delays.
Expect to receive requests for supplementary documentation – or for writing a business case justification for the project. Such requests may indicate the client needs an effective message for senior managers who aren’t close to the operational detail behind the request for your involvement. Of course, it’s your choice how much time you invest in selling a project. You may have faith that the project will get going ‘as soon as the VP returns from Europe’ or sense that, for whatever reason, there are complications in getting buy-in for the project internally. Experience and instinct are the best guides to deciding whether and for how long to consider a proposal viable.
In the case of non-trivial delays you may have taken on other work, making the original timeline no longer feasible; some juggling must then be done. You may also need to ask whether, in light of a changed timeline, other considerations could impact: for example, ‘Now that you are closer to the annual budget process, should I be aware of key milestone dates?’ Make sure you check with the client before you start.
Keeping track of the client’s requirements. Although the consultant may sometimes get enthusiastic during the work, you have to keep in mind what the client will pay for (anything else you find in the process you have to notice and suggest it as a follow-up project).
Meeting and building a relationship with the team responsible internally for the project is a critical aspect of success. You want to understand the individuals involved. Specifically, you want to know about:
In addition, you want to discover their work and communication styles. Do they want to be closely engaged, or would they prefer to let you run with the ball, approaching them only for specific guidance where necessary? In other words, what clues can you pick up as to what will make them happy during the project?
Before you finish your first project meeting, ensure you have covered what you need from the client. For example, suppose you need to interview key staff. Not only do you need a list of individuals to interview, you also need the client to advise those individuals in advance to expect a call from you. Offer to compose the explanatory notice yourself; the better oriented your interviewees are, the more likely they will provide useful input.
Interacting with the client’s staff1
‘A successful relationship calls for a higher standard of what would normally be thought of as professional virtues – we are, in effect, psychologists.’ That observation truly resonated with us, as we have often observed how a client can experience a situation as very stressful.
As you interact with key staff, you may encounter a range of attitudes. Some will receive you warmly and enthusiastically; others might project a sense of ‘Who are you and why was I asked to see you?’ Don’t take it personally, but do make sure to open every interview with a benefits statement. Formulate and memorise a clear explanation of the improvement and advantage likely to ensue from the overall project and the interviewee’s input in particular. ‘By giving me as much detail as you can, you not only ensure the company gets value for its money, you also increase the likelihood of reaching the best possible solution.’ Some suggestions include:
You must recognise the reality of the client’s experience. Superb listening skills are a must. It helps to remember, ‘Perception is reality.’ If the client experiences dejection and anxiety about a situation or project, allow all the time needed to fully explore any concerns. ‘I’ve been there’ is a helpful approach. (Breaking down a business challenge into manageable parts is one skill that brings strongly positive results. The client’s entire outlook can change for the better simply as a consequence of seeing that ‘the impossible’ is in fact made up of several ‘do-able’ elements.)
When the project involves working with a team of people, allow for sufficient interaction time to gain insight into the group’s dynamics. Such insight can help determine how to respond appropriately in the case of differences in opinion about how a project should proceed.
In a similar vein, you must have a finely tuned sense of interpersonal appropriateness. A shared chuckle can have the effect of bringing the client and the consultant closer as persons; conversely, out-of-place humour, however innocent, can be detrimental.
Experienced consultants have many anecdotes to share in the area of staff dynamics. Often, such dynamics are associated with a disconnect between the client’s intentions and the concerns of the client’s staff. For example, the client may have the best intentions in calling on a consultant – but the staff may perceive our presence as an implicit criticism and therefore be reluctant to cooperate. If we fail to pay proper attention to such psychological aspects, we may well find that our project ultimately fails – not because of the quality of our work but because of unaddressed staff anxieties.
How can we best learn about team dynamics that may have an impact on the outcome of our project? If we are not alerted directly to potential pitfalls, can simple observation in group meetings help us gauge such challenges?
Conversely, what do we do if staff share freely about (and expect us to solve) specific challenges that are not within the formal project scope? Do we risk being told to keep out of politics, or take the chance the client will welcome our out-of-scope contribution?
Every organisation larger than two persons has an organisational culture. To illustrate, we mention just a few elements: the behaviours that are encouraged and frowned upon; the rewards and ‘punishments’ employees perceive; and the degree to which messages from senior management are backed up in action. In addition, we mention the matter of organisational practices in interpersonal communication.
Unless there have been previous dealings with a client, consultants walk ‘blindly’ into the organisational culture. It is risky to make assumptions based on previous clients’ culture as no two organisations share a culture type. It is important to be keenly observant:
Is there an articulated or obliquely suggested disconnect between official enterprise policy and employee experience? If so, how will it affect our work? (For example, official policy may dictate accuracy but day-to-day practice may emphasise speed.)
As you set about doing the work, keep your client informed, in the manner they prefer, of progress compared with the project schedule. Ensure mutual understanding about the amount of informal consultation and ‘checking in’ between the client and the consultant. Some clients prefer the freedom to focus on other things while knowing the consultant is addressing the project; others would rather remain in the loop at all times. Most relationships seem to find a middle ground where the consultant gets in touch with the client in the case of a new opportunity or unforeseen circumstance that may affect the work.
Naturally, unforeseen circumstances and opportunities can develop. For example, a major new product announcement on the part of a relevant vendor may warrant a closer look before proceeding with procurement. Expect to depart – judiciously – from the original work plan. If your research uncovers something surprising, you may want to alert the client immediately rather than sit on the findings until the next official report delivery date. Of course, in-depth knowledge of the client’s business environment and situation is key to making such departures from schedules appropriately.
In more extensive research projects it is always a good idea to provide an interim report. Based on the results of this report the client can decide which additional questions need to be included or the particular areas in which they need a greater depth of information.
As part of your quality assurance system, keeping a log of project activities – meetings and discussions held and the key points covered, spreadsheets constructed, reports drafted – not only serves as future back-up for recommendations, it can also help you make more accurate estimates for future similar work.
Do not hesitate to communicate should the client, for whatever reason, fail to provide what was originally anticipated. You are entitled to say, for instance, ‘I have not yet received the documentation you discussed,’ or ‘Two of the five stakeholders you suggested were unavailable for an interview at the scheduled time.’ Reluctance to appear to nag is understandable on a consultant’s part; however, a clear and open exchange is more preferable. The client might get to know something that changes the original need of information or you might find information that contradicts your client’s hypothesis.
The contract or service agreement should spell out any activities, such as presentations, tied to a deliverable. Some clients prefer to have an advisory group of stakeholders attend ‘delivery meetings’, during which there is an opportunity for clarification and subsequent fine-tuning of project elements.
The information you deliver should be professionally packaged. Even if it is just a database search, take the time to put together a short summary of the results pointing out major trends, etc. Make sure that the information is presented in a neat and easy-to-read format. Longer reports should have an executive summary when possible.
It might be worth pointing out that information specialists and librarians are often much more word-oriented than business people in general. This means that your client might find a graph describing a specific situation much more useful than a report saying exactly the same thing in words. At the same time, the graph might be much more cost-effective to produce.
A delivery is usually accompanied by relief (I did it!) and anxiety (Will they like it?). It takes practice to get over the disappointment you may feel if anyone on a client team challenges your findings or recommendations. In all likelihood, questions are raised merely in the interest of clarity.
Keep in mind that every delivery is your opportunity to reinforce the wisdom of the investment made in you. Everyone likes the assurance of knowing the right action is being taken. Project managers appreciate the overall message, ‘You are on the right track. You will be glad you did this. The benefits will far outweigh any temporary inconvenience.’
As the project unfolds, the client’s team members often come up with requests for enhancements and refinements over and above the work specified in the contract. Within reason, accommodate them, but recognise when it’s time to say, keeping the initial contract in your mind, ‘that could certainly be addressed in a follow-up project. Would you like me to prepare a preliminary estimate?’
Contact the client shortly after having supplied your information. You need to find out if the client has any questions regarding your report. You also need to find out if the information was useful. This is also a perfect opportunity to suggest additional research. If you are well prepared at this stage you have a good chance of gaining a new project.
The invoice must also be professionally handled. Some clients will need complete specifications on the invoices stating exactly what has been provided and to whom (order numbers, projects numbers, etc.); other clients, you will find, prefer to cover all business research under the common text ‘consultancy work’. It is important to find out your clients’ needs in this respect. When strict confidentiality is needed it is often appreciated if you suggest sending a specification on a separate paper together with the invoice. Your client may then keep the specification for their own records while sending the invoice to their accounting department.
Shortly after the presentation or sending the deliverable and your bill, you may follow up with a call to the client ascertaining whether they received it and are satisfied with it. This is a good opportunity to uncover any dissatisfactions or complaints.
If the contracted sum does not arrive in time to your account, you may start with a gentle phone call. If you are not successful, you may make further enquiries with the accounts payable department. Be polite but persistent. If all else fails, notify your client that you will be contacting their senior management or the president of that company.
A legal action may be required; however, external help such as the Better Business Bureau or similar association may induce action on your behalf. The next step is to call a corporate credit reporting agency, but make sure that the client knows your planned action.
If you handle every deliverable and presentation along the way to the client’s satisfaction, the wrap-up should be a happy occasion focusing on next steps. You want to leave everyone feeling you delivered value for money and as if they would like to continue working with you. So focus the final presentation on three things:
Build a database of your projects and clients on past deliverables and the possible requirements of clients, etc. (such a database may soon be our most valuable customer relationship management tool).
Put yourself in front of the client regularly with (an exclusive) e-mail client newsletter (its content may be: smaller studies in the field or abstracts of them, news from the business of the client, new information sources or services, public details on current projects).
The different activities of clienting are drawn by the stairs of client contacts (see Figure 7.1):
The aim is to let the prospective clients elevate you on the stair chart – to turn a potential client into a consumer who requires your expertise and hires you. This then produces a conscious retention as the service provider.
1.Olesen, A.J. and De Stricker, U. (2005) Consultants and their clients. Highlights of a study of success factors in information consulting. InfoTrend. Vol. 60, No. 3. pp. 87–90.