Working as a consultant, one of the most crucial parts of the job is how you manage your communication with your clients and, ultimately, deliver satisfaction (or even sheer joy) with your performance. Perception of your performance from client side is probably one of the most important factors to your success as a consultant. Furthermore, if a client is really happy with you, they will probably even end up referring you to their friends in the business. Keeping the importance of client communication and client-side perception in mind, lets go over some of the most important factors that can influence our client relationships from the start.
Pick the Right Clients
Some clients are easier to manage than others. In your initial meeting, be sure to ask questions that ascertain how much experience the client has in dealing with consultants and how he/she expects the consultant-client relationship to be. Some clients want daily updates where some prefer weekly or even monthly updates. Some clients have clear deliverables and expectations, and some have vague ideas that they want you to execute on. Asking these questions from the beginning also communicates to the client that you are an experienced consultant and are adept at dealing with all the expectations that the client might have.
Be Honest and Authentic
As it goes for every relationship, honesty is also key in client relationships. In your initial meeting be honest about your capabilities and what exactly they can expect you to deliver. Set realistic expectations on how much time you take to deliver these things, too.
Overselling your capabilities or efficiency often ends up in a bad situation when the client has higher expectations from you than you are capable of delivering. Be open and honest about your skill set, informing the client about the skills in which you are extremely proficient, and others that you are working to improve on. The client should leave your initial meeting with a clear view of exactly what kind of expert you are. In general, it’s much better to be a master at one trade than being the jack of all!
Develop a Personal Relationship
At the end of the day, we humans are emotional animals and we are always more influenced by how we feel than how we think. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that there is at least a little personal bonding and trust between the client and the consultant. This is an area of high subjectivity so there are no rules of thumb, but mentioning a bit about your personal life and having a shared sense of humor can be really good in developing this personal bond and trust. Make sure to not go overboard with comments about your personal life; the goal is to give the client an idea of who you are as a person and what kind of life you lead.
Anticipate Client Requirements, but Clarify
What really differentiates you as a professional is how well you anticipate the requirements of the business, even before you are told what they are exactly. It is important, however, to not make any assumptions and always ask the clients for specifics. Things can go wrong if what you anticipate and what they actually require are different things. While it’s good to anticipate, it’s better to always ask and clarify.
Think Like The Customer
Ultimately, what will give you good insights and anticipations of the client business is your ability to empathize with their customers. This is one of the most important skills in business and its importance cannot be overstated. It’s good if you identify with the client base and can understand their problems, but in case you don’t, it may be wise to talk with your friends that are in that market segment. For example, if you are dealing with a business about mountain-climbing equipment and you are not a climber yourself, it is probably wise to talk with those who fully understand mountain-climbing and what problems may arise from the equipment they use.
Agree on Clear Deliverables
The less subjectivity there is on what exactly the client expects you to deliver, the easier it is going to be to manage those expectations. For example, if you are a developer, ask the client for specific designs on exactly what they want you to develop. Before you start working on the deliverables, there should be a somewhat clear agreement on what exactly the finished product should look like, how it will perform (in case it is a software product), and in what format or programming language it is going to be written in. In case of software products, it is also useful to discuss whether they expect you to write tests and documentation. (Hint: They usually do!)
Sign a Contract
Drafting a contract is a great way to lay out the specific details and terms of the relationship. Furthermore, it is a great way to get the client to read and understand the finer details of the service that is going to be provided so there is no miscommunication at a later stage. Most bad business dealings are a result of miscommunication and there is no better way to avoid that than to put in fine print the terms of your business relationship.
The Kick-Off Meeting
It’s always good to start off the business relationship with a kick-off meeting. This is the meeting where you can agree on the deliverables and the timeline. It also goes a long way in starting a little bit of a personal relationship as well.
An open communication channel and communicating on a regular basis on the challenges and progress made is going to make you stay on top of the perceptions about how the relationship is going. Be sure to ask the client in the beginning about their preferred method and frequency of communication, and stick to those preferences very strictly. If the client wants to communicate with email only, then it’s probably not a good idea to call them about minor issues. On the other hand, if they prefer calling, then simply emailing them is probably not going to make them happy.
Don't Be Afraid to Walk
Finally, as a professional, it is important that you have the ability to walk away from a business relationship in which you feel is not going well or according to the terms that were set in the beginning. Don’t be afraid to remind the client of the terms of your agreement in case they seem to have forgotten them. If the client wants to change the terms, that’s a discussion to be had, but don’t let them exploit you.
With that being said, I wish you the best of luck in finding good clients and, even more, in being able to maintain good long-term business relationships with them.