The client-consultant relationship

Over the years of being an independent consultant, I have enjoyed good relationships, characterised by camaraderie and mutual respect, with most of my clients. But there have been a few less than ideal relationships too.

As we all know, success is a bad teacher. So here is what I have learnt from my sub-par experiences and outright failures. When any or more of the following were found lacking, the interaction was not as productive as it could have been.

Sharing the blue-print

A consultant is an outsider to the client’s business. The main upside of this is that the consultant is not hamstrung by the knowledge of the client company’s past failures. The downside is that without the client sharing information, the consultant may not have clarity on the organisational goals.

A bricklayer, who understands the blue-print of the cathedral he is helping build, is more likely to identify with the higher purpose than one who is simply told to lay the walls. Likewise, sharing the strategic aims motivates and focuses the minds of both the consultant and the client. The consultant can then contribute meaningfully to the cathedral rather than to the particular wall! The client also finds it easy to measure the consultant’s contribution to the company’s strategic aims. This works. Especially with a mutual NDA in place.

Balancing gut-feel and intellectual honesty

It would be naive to suggest that consultants are never hired purely to validate an executive’s gut feel. It is more common than is accepted or discussed openly.

But sometimes, in the course of investigations, things emerge that invalidate that gut feel. Times like these call for intellectual honesty on the part of both the client and the consultant. Because although differences may emerge, it is also a chance to make better informed decisions. How the differences are handled can determine whether the relationship is working or not.

Striving for manageable, open communication

When I was young, I was an impatient child. The kind that would pull out the roots of a plant every 15 minutes to see if they were taking hold. Such impatience is a problem when working on a large strategic project, pulling data and information from a variety of sources including interviews with people in different time-zones. It is better instead to focus on the milestones and boundary conditions.

My clients and I agree on reasonable milestones up front, with the caveat that both parties will  flag any egregious developments right away. This helps both parties save time and energy otherwise wasted on micromanaging the other side’s expectations or deliverables.

Understanding the process of creation

A popular management cliché goes: “we cannot manage what we cannot measure”. Analogously, “we cannot outsource/ purchase what we do not understand”. If the client understands the process of creation, it helps in assessing the consultant’s contribution to the organisation’s goals. Equally it is the consultant’s job to make things less obscure for the client to understand.

An interesting point in projects is scope discussion. The consultant does not want scope-creep and the client does not want to leave anything meaningful out. Both parties may use different assumptions about the relationship between scope and pricing. These assumptions need to be articulated and discussed openly. This sets the right expectations, helps set milestones and helps the assessment of the output.

Passing the “chemistry” check

This is actually the very first step. The right chemistry between the client and the consultant is nearly as important as the right value/ price package. Without it, projects may happen but a relationship certainly won’t develop.

In my case, I usually meet the CEO/ board director/ a senior decision-maker or a few of them. The first meeting is usually an informal chat or a lunch, and there may (or may not be) signs of a good chemistry, commonality of values or similarities in our respective weltanschauung. Projects that help the client almost always lead to professional growth for me too. But only if the chemistry was right in the first place.

So in my experience, successful clients help consultants help them and consultants can also help clients better by avoiding obfuscation and random posturing.

These factors apply to a consulting or advisory situation of any kind, from strategy advice to software development. I return to this checklist often but I am certain there are other lessons in the readership too. Please use the comments link to contribute.

5 thoughts on “The client-consultant relationship

  1. Shefaly

    Being a Consultant is very different from being an Executive or Employee. The upside for those who are Consultants is that the Politics are far easier to read the downside is that the projects fail because you don understand internal factions.

    What you need to understand is that you are employed by a client to engage on a task rather than the general day to day operations. If that is not true then you are a Locum rather than a Consultant. You are contracted to perform a task and most likely the client wishes you to do so as Rumpelstiltskin rather than perform in public, this might change were you a Partner in a Top Tier Strategy House.

    Whilst I was brought up on the “can’t measure can’t manage” mantra over time I have learnt that the correct term is “if we don’t talk then I can’t help”. I am not saying that Consultancy is little more than Cognitive Behaviour Therapy but most assignments failure because the scope is misunderstood.

    The biggest issue for most Consultants is that as Specialist their Knowledge is far greater than the Sponsor and the problem is that they have demonstrated that too well. The Consultant can at times show that it’s not just a Specialist knowledge but rather General and so make them feel small.


  2. Good, solid points. Couple of observations I’d like to share from my experience: (a) ‘no surprises’ – report bad news asap, especially if / when the consultant’s findings reflect poorly on the sponsor, or contradict the sponsor’s goals (b) change control – managing dramatic shifts, either in the environment and/or in the goals of the project (a bit different from scope creep, which is incremental change more or less within the same boundaries) and (c) the need to be humble (esp. relevant if you’re young and part of a big-brand advisory firm and the client’s folks are much older) consultant hubris can sometimes snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


  3. For starters, in my experience, client – consultant relationships start with mutual respect (and humility). The client knows his domain, the consultant his methods of solutioning. The final solution is a journey of co-creation.

    Traditional consulting has the consultant telling and the client listening. Truly effective and transformational consulting works on building a sustainable engagement for co-creation and design.

    This notion that a consultant knows everything is ridiculous. How can a two-bit fellow just out of college walk up to a CEO whose been around 20-25 years and start gassing stuff? In India at least, the IIMs and IITs produce such “God’s Gift to Mankind and Consulting” varieties that are despicable to say the least.

    And finally, in these times when every known business and management theory is being questioned, when all those classic HBR case studies are filing for bankruptcies negating all the best practices that get shared across the world, it is useful for both client and consultant to ask a simple question:

    What value are we creating for our customers? And what do we need to do to deliver it sustainably?

    Starting with first principles and keeping all known assumptions open for debate, a healthy dialogue between different client stakeholders and the consulting teams will be effective.


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