Whether you are a client that has hired a consultancy for a new initiative or the consultant that has been staffed on a project, it is imperative to establish a solid working foundation and to build positive relationships on both sides. The relationships we build with others throughout our personal and professional endeavors are a driving force behind our experiences. Especially with the interconnectedness of today’s world, you never know where a connection or relationship may take you. To attest to the unexpected outcomes of connections, my fiancé grew out of a relationship from a former project engagement.
Now, my case is undoubtedly an extreme example of a work relationship that morphed into something more. But during my tenure on that project, I spent time fostering great relationships with the entire team, both internal and external, that I still maintain to this day. I’m sure we all can relate to the story of a co-worker turned best friend or an individual that you’ve enjoyed working with that made your long work days a bit happier.
Let’s explore why these work relationships matter, the keys to fostering this type of connection, and some best practices to keep good communication in check.
Happiness fosters engagement.
It is a commonly-held truth that job satisfaction is directly correlated with the level of work engagement and, consequently, the quality of work produced. While there are many factors that play into overall job satisfaction, one prevalent variable is the relationships an employee has with constituents and colleagues in their daily sphere of influence. When it comes to client/consultant relationships, it is the responsibility of both parties to foster an environment that provides opportunities to enhance engagement, grow skills sets, and be a valuable contributor.
When you are working with individuals that you enjoy being around, making efforts to stay in sync, and growing the relationship, you’ll find that everyone on the team is more willing to go that extra mile because each person is vested in some way and does not want to let the collective team or their peers down. They actually look forward to moving the needle towards a shared goal.
Go in with a long-term mentality—it’s better for business and your career!
You have no idea where your project experiences or work connections are going to take you over the course of your career. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short- or long-term contract—you should always go into a project engagement with the mentality that it could expand into a long-term opportunity. If you go in with this mindset, you will find yourself building longer and more valuable business relationships. Again, you have a vested interest in the people and the project outcomes, which provides you and your colleagues with mutual value.
In my experience, when I have had positive mutual experiences with clients, I found myself frequently extending my efforts to help them and pushing myself to a higher level of performance. My good working relationship served as intrinsic motivation. It became a challenge to see what types of results/quality we could achieve working together. And we did great things each time, upping the bar along the way. Because we enjoyed the work and the people we worked with, it made it that much easier to continue working together and collecting great experiences along the way.
You can only provide as much value as they let you.
In order to have a successful engagement, the client has to have a certain level of vulnerability to let you perform or even excel in your role. They have to be willing to knock down their own walls and get out of their own way in order to let you in. They also have to relinquish a certain level of trust and control to the project team. If they question every decision and are constantly changing direction, expectations, due dates, scope, etc., you are in an environment where you cannot provide them with the best service and lead them towards success. Instead, you’re focusing the majority of your time and efforts on adjusting to the constant changes and balancing the client’s mercurial emotions.
On the other hand, there’s the case of a client who hires a consultant in a staff augmentation role—as a billable resource to be used how they see fit. They have an objective and you are there to help them meet that objective, no further discussion needed. The focus is less on the expertise or skill set that a consultant may bring to the project and more on the completion of tasks. As a result, this relationship dynamic has little opportunity for collaboration, challenges, or growth.
That relationship takes the “engagement” out of project engagement and misses the point of hiring outside experts to help you achieve a business goal because they have tried and tested experiences in a particular industry or product. Contrary to some opinions, a primary function of a good consultant is to consult and look out for the client’s best interests. We are there to advise, provide options to best achieve desired outcomes, and highlight potential risks and consequences.
In the end, it takes a joint effort between a client and a consultant to deliver successful results, and there is a blend of both technical skills and domain knowledge at work in that effort.
Tips and tricks for client/consultant relationships.
Here are just a few things that I’ve learned over the years that are useful when building great working relationships during a project engagement for both clients and consultants:
Get to know your team early: Make the consultants feel welcome into your organization. After all, they are going to be there a while. Learn who they are and a bit about their experiences and backgrounds. It also doesn’t hurt to get to know them on a personal level. What do they enjoy doing outside of work? Finding common ground helps us see each other beyond just resources.
Teach them your business: You’ve been working at your organization since before cell phones. You know all the ins and outs. But the consultants are in some ways like new hires. While they may have industry knowledge and technology expertise, they don’t know your organization and its intricacies on Day 1. Help them understand the organization’s dynamics—its products, services, people, and, yes, even office politics. Share company collateral with them like documentation or training manuals. Explain processes and procedures. Give them a tour of the building. Above all, be patient as they assimilate into your organization’s culture.
Be clear on your expectations and outcomes: Most consultants have worked with a variety of clients on dozens of projects. Just as no two organizations are alike, each client has a unique set of preferences for how they work and the definition of a quality output. Help your project team understand what “done” looks like for you. Put your expectations in writing, share exemplars, and meet frequently to discuss progress and answer questions.
Relinquish (some) control and have trust: There is no “i” in “team,” and one person can’t do it all. But consultants can only help as much as you let them. Ask yourself what tasks/responsibilities you were doing previously that you could now transition. How can the project team be structured to allow all members to contribute and leverage their skills? With the power of a team behind you, consultants can easily take on more responsibility that will drive you and the organization towards successful outcomes. So give them the opportunity to lead and contribute in meaningful ways. (And remember they really do have your best interest in mind.)
Look for additional engagement opportunities: Is everyone on the project team in the right role and optimizing their work? Think of other ways consultants may be utilized on a project based on their skill set or the quality of work they have provided to you in the past. Are there other initiatives happening within the organization that a resource may be a good fit for in the future? Bring the consultants into conversations early. Use weekly check-ins as forums to grow discussions and develop a deeper partnership.
Get to know your team early: This applies to both your internal team and the client. You may be working with this group for a while, so it’s important to learn who they are and what makes them tick. In addition, set up a regular cadence to meet with your main client stakeholder. Use this time to ask clarifying questions, understand expectations, communicate concerns, and showcase your work.
Learn all you can about the client’s organization: G.I. Joe famously said that “knowing is half the battle.” The more you know about your client, the better position you are in to help them. Learn all you can, from their products and services to their people. Ask about common procedures and practices. What tools do they use for their daily operations? Try shadowing someone, like a Sales Rep, for a day to get a feel for their role.
Score easy wins: Keep a lookout to score easy wins when you first join a project. How can you add value to the client? Whether it’s providing your subject expertise or simply booking a conference room because they are swamped. Offer to help not only in big, significant ways but small ones as well. Sometimes helping the client save time in his/her day frees them up to seek growth opportunities within their own organization—priceless!
Seek out a mentor: Mentors can show up in your life in surprising ways. Try to establish a mentor-mentee relationship with someone on your project team, whether it’s internal or external. He or she can help you navigate the waters of a project engagement, understand team dynamics, and provide advice and guidance. This person may also see opportunities that you alone might overlook—opportunities for you to grow and advance your skill set during your project tenure.
Seize opportunities: Being engaged allows you to be more in tune when opportunities present themselves. Look for avenues to take on tasks and assignments that grow your skills or challenge you. Search for ways to continue learning about your client, your domain expertise, and your career.
Be confident: Express your opinions, thoughts, and recommendations with confidence. A confident attitude gives you more credibility, and people will then view you as a subject expert who can professionally articulate thoughts. It’s easy for others to mistake a lack of confidence with professional immaturity.
Work relationships can make or break not only your job satisfaction but also the quality of a project engagement and the potential for additional experiences, both professionally and personally. But by making sincere efforts to foster long-term relationships, collaborate often, and communicate well, you can enjoy the benefits of colleagues who are also friends and fast-tracked success for your career.