Consultants are People Too: Making the Most of Your Consulting Relationships and Managing Effective Consulting Engagements

Angie Keller

Over the last 20 years I’ve had the privilege of being involved in many different consulting engagements, mostly on the practitioner side, but also briefly as a consultant. Having both perspectives has proven fruitful for me and has no doubt contributed toward many rewarding relationships with consultants. However, I’ve also had many conversations with colleagues who have not experienced successful consulting engagements. Generally, I leave these conversations contemplating what went wrong in their situation; and often I reach the same disappointing conclusion: They didn’t treat the consultant like a person. Before you take offense, think about how you would feel if your clients:
  • are passive and rely solely on you (the consultant) to drive all of the deliverables and process steps when the engagement calls for more of a shared partnership
  • don’t return calls, ignore deadlines, are consistently late or cancel meetings
  • don't understand their own business
  • blame any misstep on you, or use you to cover their own failure to produce deliverables
  • want to take shortcuts negatively impacting the quality of the project
  • continue to change the scope of the project but expect the same budget to cover more work
These are some of the more common challenges cited by consultants, but you might be surprised at how they define their worst engagements. Contrary to the perception of many of my practitioner colleagues, most consultants are not simply motivated by racking up billable hours. They want to have friendly, fulfilling relationships with their clients. One consultant shared with me, "My worst engagements have been when I've just been a body to which directives are made and output is requested, and there is no feedback or discussion about final results and impact. This type of situation leaves me empty and uncertain as to whether we delivered value, wasted the client's money or had a neutral impact."

Similarly, another consultant lamented, "I’m working with a client who wants to change compensation and performance management programs. When we show them what they say they want, we get the response ‘We can't do that...the organization will not be able to accept that...’ This type of client is challenging because you are trying to respond to the organizational changes they need, but they are unwilling to take an active role in driving change. This issue can make my stomach turn particularly with non-profits since their project budgets are tight and the causes of the organizations are so very important...spending money on consultants but not doing anything with it...ugh!"

So what are some characteristics of an ideal client from a consultant’s perspective?
  • Self-awareness (i.e., understands his/her own knowledge on a topic and/or the business)
  • Proactive project management to ensure consulting time and budget are not wasted
  • Understanding of the economics of his or her business
  • Willingness and ability to change
  • Acceptance of responsibility for the assignment, process and outcomes
  • Consideration of the consultant’s calendar (i.e. as little cancelling or postponing meetings as possible)
  • Insightfulness and honesty in offering feedback
As one consultant offered, "My favorite clients are those with whom there is a mutual respect between consultant and client, where the client is truly focused on the value of the assignment. When the work is really connected to the business and there is evidence that what we're doing is helpful, the engagement is rewarding."

Another sure sign of a good consulting relationship is when your consultant feels free to tell you a project isn’t in your best interest. For example, one consultant recalled, "I was working with a client on a new project and presented a preliminary report to the CEO. Based on this initial analysis, I suggested that he not continue the project. The CEO appreciated my candor and we continue to work together on other initiatives."

Ideal clients are also those who enjoy ongoing relationships with their consultants. When consultants have the opportunity to do multiple projects with a client over time, they get to know the history of how the pieces of the company and the leaders within have evolved. This continuity of knowledge enables the consultant to truly act as a trusted advisor.

These attributes are worth remembering to improve the quality of your consulting relationships, but what about the effectiveness of your actual project engagements? Each phase of an engagement requires a commitment to open communication and clear understanding of project objectives, expectations and deliverables to reach an effective outcome.
Phase I: Sales Process
The consultants’ objective is to learn everything they can about the prospective client’s situation to ensure they can create a proposal that provides their best thinking on how to address the issue. Consultants want to maximize the use of their time by talking directly to stakeholders who will be evaluating proposals and approving budgets. Clients who try to keep consultants at arms length may cause the proposal to miss the mark. To avoid this stumbling block, clients should have very direct conversations regarding the information needed and prepare the consultant for how the discovery process will occur.
Phase II: Proposal Approval
The consultants’ objective is to obtain approval on a described process and set of deliverables based on the needs outlined by the client. Consultants want to ensure that clients understand all aspects of the proposal and know the deliverables and dates. They develop fee estimates based on the time and effort required to produce a set of deliverables. If the client does not take the time to understand the deliverables and dates, it can lead to misunderstandings and mistrust when the client changes scope mid-project and the consultant has to ask for more fees. Being flexible is a prerequisite for a consultant, but the client must understand the original proposal to know that changes will impact fee estimates and jeopardize delivery dates.
Phase III: Project Execution
The consultants’ objective is to deliver the approved proposal as efficiently and effectively as possible with minimum disruption to the client’s environment. The biggest challenge in meeting this objective is in the fact finding and data collection phase of any project. A consultant is looking for commitment from the client to provide expected access to data and key stakeholders as stated in the proposal. Clients must make sure they understand what the consultant needs and how he or she is going to use it. Clients may be able to save valuable project time by reviewing and understanding their information needs.

Timely updates are also important. A one-hour weekly call with the consultant project manager and the internal client project manager can help remove project barriers, close communication gaps and provide a platform for the client to provide feedback on performance. This call also allows testing of ideas to ensure alignment of proposed solutions with expectations.

Meetings are very important to consultants. Setting dates early and ensuring attendees are present make a project go much smoother and guarantee budget adherence. Extra meetings and inability to schedule meetings can cause a project to languish and miss delivery dates. Poor attendance cause overruns in budget.
Phase IV: Project Closing
The consultants’ objective is to close the project on time with all deliverables met. Establish a final meeting to review the project process, outline key findings and ensure all final deliverables have been delivered. Consultants like to have a formal end to projects and feedback on the engagement so they can improve their process and deliverables. This discussion also benefits the client so they can be sure all deliverables were accomplished before final billing is completed.
Final Thoughts
The bottom line is that consultants are people too. They’re just like you and want many of the same things. They can certainly help us improve our professional standing by lending credibility to our ideas and helping us execute them more effectively. Do a mental inventory of your consulting relationships and determine if you need to make some adjustments in your own behavior to improve those relationships. Better yet, ask your consultant how you’re doing. Talk about ways to make the relationship more fruitful for both parties. What’s always worked for me is treating my consultants like they are part of my own team—like insiders who are partners in my own success. I find out about their lives and get to know them as people. While this personal knowledge takes some time, it goes a long way in creating trust. I’ve also been able to determine individual strengths in each consultant and know which ones are best for the various projects I’ve led through the years. And at the end of a project, I don’t just write a check. I say, "thank you" and typically accompany this with a big, politically incorrect hug!

Many thanks to my good friends and long-time advisors who graciously shared their thoughts about this topic:
Mitch Barnes, Mercer
Lori Holsinger, Mercer
Eric Maurer, The Alexander Group, Inc. (AGI)
First Published on Human Resources IQ.