In the business of management consulting, the success or failure of a firm is almost wholly dependent on the quality of the client-consultant-interaction. It seems self-evident: a good relationship leads to follow-on assignments and recommendations, the life-blood of business development.
But what makes the relationship solid and fruitful? The client-consultant relationship can be a lot like a love affair: very intense and exciting, but often limited in time. We meet, we engage, we part ways. This Valentine ’s Day has got me thinking about what we as consultants can do to turn a love affair with our clients into a long-lasting, sustainable partnership.
In the spirit of this, I have reflected on the parallels between personal and professional relationships, and how we can learn from the one to apply to the other. Here are some of my top key elements to a successful relationship.
Openness and honesty
Studies have shown that being open and honest about your good and your bad sides is a strong catalyst for creating intimacy and trust between partners. In business relationships, especially in management consulting, openness and honesty are key in all stages of the relationship. Getting to know each other, and clearly stating not only the strengths but also the limitations of what you can provide, will go a long way towards building a relationship of trust. It will add to your credibility and ensure any little problems along the way don’t become massive issues down the road.
Empathy and care
My wife can tell the difference between my genuine care versus my feigned empathy (“mh-hm… I see… sure…”) in a heartbeat, and boy does she call me out on it (rightfully so, of course!). Empathy does not work half-heartedly. Give it your all, however, and it becomes a powerful impetus for a fruitful relationship. Our partners want to be heard and genuinely understood, as do our clients, colleagues, and employees. A few years ago, I participated in a management seminar where we had a wonderful talk about appreciating and empathically engaging your employees and colleagues, and discussed concrete approaches to do so. At a follow-up meeting a few months later, one participant told us: “I tried this ‘appreciation tool’, but it did not quite work the way we discussed!” Similarly, I have seen quite a few very smart and highly skilled consultants who have done just that; they have ‘applied’ empathy because they learnt it at a seminar, not because they authentically cared, and that just does not work.
Creating and developing
The wedding, a new house, a family, personal achievements and new goals; these are all examples of another critical element of a long-lasting relationship: we want to move forward, experience ourselves in new ways and apply our personalities and skills in new formats. It keeps the relationship fresh and alive, however only if both partners move ahead together. The moment one or both get stuck in a rut, the relationship will face crisis. Similarly, trust and professional intimacy between clients and consultants is created when the development of new ways of work, the creation of new products or services, or simply the achievement of the set goal is done jointly: both sides must apply their unique skills and experience to the best of their abilities, and both sides must be open to learning and developing along the way. A client-consultant relationship is naturally bound by contracts and budgets, but it is still possible to open new avenues and perspectives that are mutually beneficial. For the consultant, it is particularly important to look ahead and not get stuck in the same product or offering – continuous development and improvement are key for long-lasting relationships with clients.
Doing the work and doing it well
Never forget: as a consultant, regardless of how empathetic and careful you are, or how excellent your concepts and products, it is all useless if you don’t meet or exceed on the quality expected by the client during implementation. That means bearing down, rolling up your sleeves, and getting your hands dirty. It means going back again and again until it is right, it means doing the hard, uncomfortable things; it means delivering every day. If you are not willing to go there, consulting is not for you. Similarly, our personal intimate relationships require us to do the difficult things, the uncomfortable, the dirty. It means doing the laundry, cleaning the house, going grocery shopping, balancing the cheque-book. In short, delighting will only get you so far if you do not consistently cover the basics.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going
Finally, we all make mistakes. Our plans don’t always work out the way we hoped they would. Life gets in the way of our best intentions and will test the limits of our goodwill and understanding. I do not know of any true relationship that has not faced significant trials along the way. When the going gets tough, a partner may need to be the strong one and grind it out. When the going gets tough, the consultant will show what they are made of. Resilience, patience, focus, and a cool head are critical aptitudes we require as consultants – listen, feel, think, act.