The Client-Consultant Relationship

The consulting process is interesting and dynamic, and anyone who has been involved on either the delivery or buying side can agree there is an art to the entire process. Both parties wish to believe everything will run smoothly and the entire process will be relatively painless, but there are many steps to a successful relationship and each of them can take a lot of time and energy. In this article, we cover how the consulting process should generally run between the client and each consulting firm they are in contact with from getting to know each other to the project closeout to, hopefully, additional work…

Getting to know each other

The lead up to this phase will be different depending on how the introduction was made. If the client is reaching out to find a consulting firm to partner with, this phase has a function: to build trust with the firm and identify if they will be a good partner. If the consultant or firm is reaching out to the client, this phase is to build trust exclusively, and the consultant should not expect much content from the client yet. If this is the case, the client may not have a high propensity to buy or even know they need a consulting partner.

This period is not just identifying specific relationships between organizations but is also a way to expand networks. The most sophisticated consulting clients should have a Rolodex (old school consulting buzzword – of which there are many) of third party partners. The sophisticated consultants know that networking and relationship building are an endless part of the consulting business. This phase can be paramount for consultants and leaving a good impression can lead to projects from other businesses as the potential client becomes a referral channel.
Clients want to know the people they are exploring are experts or at least smart enough to get the job done. Much of the work management consultants do is not “rocket surgery,” but the solutions are developed through knowing how to approach the problem. During this introductory phase, the consultant or consulting firm is tasked with persuading clients they are logical, process-minded thinkers who will take accountability for the work to be done.

A note: this phase can last a very long time; some relationships never leave this phase. It pays for both parties to be honest about the future of a potential partnership (or lack thereof) and make sure each is not wasting time nurturing a lead which will never prove fruitful.

Need / opportunities discussions

By this point hopefully both parties feel there is a potential to partner in the future, and both should know whether or not there is a good enough fit to begin discussing specific opportunities. This phase may start with a broad discussion such as problematic operational symptoms only or hunches about future disruptions to the client’s business. However, it may begin with a specific opportunity or problem to address with clear goals and steps for achieving those goals, such as the need to cut back production cycle time by 10% through the implementation of a new workflow process. Again, this will be a direct result of how the relationship began (push vs. pull).

Consulting firms can really help clients nail down the problems. As mentioned in our 5 Occasions to Use Management Consultants, occasionally having smart folks with an external perspective in the room will help organizations identify the cause(s) of a problem and thereby begin the process of addressing and fixing it.

In this stage, the consultant should really be listening and asking questions to understand what the client needs are. Too often we see consulting firms pushing solutions to a client without properly understanding what they are trying to accomplish and WHY. Greek philosopher Epictetus said “we have two ears and one mouth…” for a reason. Consultants should be asking questions that yield information valuable to understanding the company and its opportunities.

Consulting firms can often expect to be competing against other external and internal parties for the work, unless this is an extension or addition to an existing project or a sole-source project, which is rare. During this phase, firms will typically engage in a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) as well to share information and data about specific opportunities.

Engagement scope & pitch

As mentioned earlier, some consultants jump right into this phase. In our experience, that approach is ill-advised and can be perceived as pushy by potential clients. This direct approach does work for some firms, but only after you have verbally discussed the what and the why, should you then pitch the how, when, where, and who… This is the time to discuss pricing baselines / cost structure options, if not already discussed. There are three general pricing structures, which can help clients and consultants identify the best approach for the engagement.

This is also the time for the consultant(s) to reiterate the problem, convey the methods in which they will tackle the project and sell the expected benefits associated with the opportunity. For most projects, a successful pitch will include forecasted quantitative results as well as qualitative improvements. Again, the message must align to the client needs. An area where a lot of professionals miss the mark is assuming all qualitative data cannot be quantified – ratings, rankings, and surveys can be easily leveraged, and these will get the client excited and bought into the consultant pitch.

Consulting firms need to balance how much information they share on how they will accomplish the goals during this pitch phase, and there is some newly built trust which comes along with the scoping and pitch process. There are potential clients who take advantage of the consulting courtship process by having meetings to discuss how consultants will help them then taking notes and trying to implement on their own. In fact, when we surveyed close to 500 consulting buyers, 65% of respondents indicated they “will solicit multiple bids, even if we have a partner we intend to use.” This could be used as a price check, validation for keeping it internal, or a general knowledge solicitation process. Therefore, setting phased goals, optimizing time spent in the scoping process, and building trust (on both sides of the table) up front is imperative.

Note: Clients should expect quick turnaround for this, and if the decision is a “go,” both sides need to be prepared for the project. This means aligning resources and making sure access on the client side is ready to go on day-one. This process can also be iterative, and multiple iterations from a client is usually a good sign indicating they want to find an approach with the partner.

Project management / execution

Obviously, the project is the meat of consulting, and we will only cover some basics around this process. For a more detailed view of a typical consulting engagement, we recommend reading the project point of view from at Consensus. If the teams decide to partner, a statement of work (SOW) should be signed agreeing to all the objectives, assumptions, terms, milestones, and clauses. Some larger firms with procurement departments may have a master services agreement (MSA) which covers a lot of the general partnership verbiage, with the SOW being more project execution specific.

Onboarding

Introduce team members and ensure the data, meetings, and workspace are ready for project execution

Discovery

Uncover intel from data gathering and interviews to aid in decision-making

Analysis & Assessment

Analyze the items discovered to assess the meaning and relevance to the project

Solution Design (Roadmap)

Document and prioritize the recommended solutions for addressing the core opportunities or issues

Implementation

Execute the prioritized actions and initiatives

Measurement & Adjustment

Monitor the results and adjust as needed to drive success and improve outcomes

Knowledge transfer / closeout

Consulting relationships can “end” in three ways: extension, addendum, or termination. An extension is additional time from the current consulting project team (typically on the current project), whereas an addendum is additional scope for the partner. Termination is exactly that: the contact ends; although a successful project will almost always yield future work potential.

The final “readout” of an existing project will include a written report with presentation which will include all the key findings, recommendations, projections, risks, etc. There should be quantitative and qualitative information included with summaries in the front and exhaustive supporting details following or in separate files (such as spreadsheets). It is important to ensure this final document can stand alone, as the document can make its way around the client, and it should be able to tell the story without dictation from project team members.

The follow-up needs to go somewhere, and there should exist a continuity plan of the project, especially if the next step is implementation of a recommended action. It is in both parties’ best interests to keep communication open, as networking and referrals are great for staying updated on new opportunities.

Lastly, feedback is an underrated and under-utilized tool. Firms should always gather the opinions of their clients, and satisfaction surveys are a useful tool for consulting firms to solicit that feedback. Another valuable exercise for both parties to go through, whether together or individually, is a “lessons learned,” where key takeaways about the project process are surfaced with the intent of improving procedures of future projects and initiatives.

Lastly, consultants should always ask their clients to review their performance here on Consensus. We serve our community by facilitating open and honest reviews and publishing that information for future buyers. We also serve the consultants by offering a platform for them to build on successes and opportunities from past work.

As the relationship between a client and consulting partner matures, these steps will be less formal. Nevertheless, these are considered best practice for understanding a potential fit to project execution and measurement, and open communication and trust throughout the process are the primary success factors for positive project outcomes.

 

Clients, let us know how your partners perform on your projects by signing up and leaving a testimonial.

Are you a consultant? Make sure you or your firm is listed in our directory, so you are visible to the highest propensity clients.

Consensus is a directory and review database of management consulting firms and their services. At Consensus, we believe there is lack of information pertaining to the quality of work executed by consultants in the eyes of the client stakeholders. We are working to build the largest database of genuine, accurate, and helpful testimonials from  consulting clients.