Explore the 4 key components of successful client-consultant relationships
Companies have a variety of reasons for bringing in a consulting firm. Typically, they need to meet a critical business initiative by tapping expert resources they don’t have. Or, they could be looking for a different way of thinking about a complex problem in order to better solve it. Sometimes it’s about partnering with the needed horsepower to deliver a big initiative or solve a complicated solution faster, with the goal of less friction and measurable results. Almost always, it’s about adding structure to managing strategy, people, process, and technology. And while rarely stated, there is also a desire for client teams to develop new skills or capabilities throughout the process.
Consultants, good ones, are driven by a passion to solve unique problems and to exceed their clients’ expectations. -- Amy Weeden
At its core, consulting is a service business. Experienced clients know the right partnership can be crucial to meeting their professional and personal goals. Others make a leap of faith that the additional budget they spend for professional services will drive greater results than all other available alternatives.
Our experience is that a strong partnership foundation is critical to the ultimate value that is derived from the relationship. With that as the backdrop, we offer up four key attributes of a great client-consultant partnership, with specifics on how you can get the most out of working with consultants.
1. Provide a clear vision of what success will look like at the close of the engagement
While engagements often operate under ambiguous or fluctuating conditions, a prepared client can still articulate what a successful consulting partnership outcome might look like in both the long-term for the organization and the short-term for the engagement. This helps consultants independently determine the next best course of action when time and resources become limited, or when new priorities emerge. While strategies, approaches, and success measures can change throughout a complicated project, the ultimate vision should remain consistent. If there’s ambiguity around a vision, defining success should be the first collective activity of the consultant and client.
Start with the outcome in mind: You can’t go the right way if you don’t know where you intend to end up. -- Kevin Price
2. Act as an internal relationship bridge to help build trust
Consultants are adept at building relationships, but when clients act as the first point of contact to provide introductions and context to other stakeholders and internal partners, it can fast-track the trust-building and keep us moving forward. Setting up initial introductions by sharing relevant details about a consultant’s track record—even interesting personal details like favorite hobbies—accelerates the personal trust connections for greater team cohesion.
It’s also important to make it super clear what the consultant(s) will and won't be working on. This builds trust because it sets boundaries and creates a shared understanding of our purpose. Also, when a client shares a level of excitement and energy about adding additional talent to the team, it inspires both sides to do their best, most collaborative work.
Trust is also critical when problems and issues arise throughout the engagement, which is inevitable. If you start with a partnership perspective and a shared understanding of how to resolve conflict and unforeseen issues, it will lead to better outcomes.
3. Offer consistent and constructive feedback
Consultants are there to serve their clients, and a good consultant will actively seek out and respect constructive feedback. This is especially true for feedback about what’s resonating—allowing consultants to focus on what’s working best in order to leave behind what is not. We want to fail fast and iterate quickly to get to the best outcome. An effective client is also not timid or worried about sharing course-correcting information with a consultant they consider very experienced. The key here is to normalize the process of sharing feedback by being direct when things are not working as intended.
An effective client is also an available client. This is especially the case when consultants request responses to actionable information or input. Setting up a governance structure to capture these basics—such as how often stakeholders and consultants meet to share insights and feedback, how emails and other communication platforms will be used, how brainstorm sessions will be managed—all builds accountability on both sides that can keep the gears running smoothly.
It’s not uncommon for there to be minor information gaps between a client and consultants. Frequently, clients underestimate the amount of time it takes to fully understand a complex situation or assess root causes that can be barriers to success. Oversimplifying the problem can be a missed opportunity to take advantage of a consultant’s experience or creativity. An ideal client will work to minimize information gaps by forwarding as much relevant information as possible. They should also be open to discussions on core, systemic issues, even when they might be leadership related.
4. Understand political dynamics and share what matters
Effective consultants are neutral parties, skilled at delivering outcomes even in the midst of dynamic, politically complicated environments. An ideal client will assist in successfully navigating their consulting partners around or through anything that moves their work in an unproductive direction.
This means briefing a consulting team on any operational and leadership details that can help us do our work. Oftentimes, it involves making the distinction between personal and organizational goals. It’s not uncommon for clients to launch into the next phase of their career following the delivery of a critical initiative. The key here is to use your consulting partners to drive business results, not to empire build or engage in organizational politics. Successful results will speak for themselves, and consultants that end up embroiled in organizational conflict will be hard-pressed to deliver their best work.
While there is no such thing as the perfect client/consultant engagement, leveraging the expertise of others is a critical leadership skill in dynamic environments. As with all relationships, a consulting partnership is an investment that will yield better results when it’s grounded in a shared vision, effective evaluation and communication, and ongoing project support and championship.
Amy Weeden learned from an early age that education is a luxury, but one worth the fight. She’s admittedly a bit of a nerd when it comes to her love for thinking about, talking about, and solving business problems – and she does so on a daily basis. Whether hosting a dinner party, reading the latest business tome or traveling (she’s visited more than three dozen countries and once lived with a Tibetan family in a refugee camp near Mount Everest) Amy is on a lifelong mission to learn and discover.
Amy is a “think straight, talk straight” kind of person, and her answers are invariably direct and honest, leading to a transparent, open dialogue that fosters greater speed to understanding. Before cofounding Propeller, she led teams and projects in a wide range of industries for Watson Wyatt, PricewaterhouseCoopers and ACME Business Consulting. Amy holds an MBA from the Haas Business School, UC Berkeley, and a bachelor’s degree in international development from World College West.
Kevin Price takes a hybrid approach to problem-solving, combining vision and action to get teams moving and drive success. An avid player of board games, he enjoys applying lessons from business to board games, and vice versa, that shed insight into how people communicate, negotiate, and make decisions when given specific objectives and rules.
A seasoned business systems and intelligence analyst, Kevin has extensive experience defining organizational vision and applying agile best practices for companies that include First Tech Federal Credit Union, Stratus Dental Group, Price Fronk and Co., LLP, and KPMG. He holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting and business information systems from Oregon State University.