Almost 40 years ago, I started a consulting organization with my partner, a computer, and no clients or prospective clients. Today, we have hundreds of clients representing some of the world’s most prestigious organizations, headquartered on four continents. We do more work outside the U.S. than in the U.S.
We did this with no business plan, no business experience (just that of a professor and a guidance counselor), and we never had a business development person. How we got there was by learning how to dance with our clients, some of whom have been clients for more than 30 years. Of course, you do not dance with an organization—you dance with a single partner at a time. It is the relationship with these individuals that is key to success. Their success is your success. This is not a zero-sum relationship. Each party must consider the needs of the other or you will step on each other’s toes and the dance may end.
Why does a client need a consultant? A strong client-consultant relationship is when a client feels comfortable calling the consultant when the client is faced with an issue that may not be related to a current project or experience—simply because the client trusts the consultant’s insights and values them as a partner.
I am sharing the lessons I learned along the way in the hopes that it will help clients and consultants build long-term successful relationships.
- Listen, Observe, and Listen Some More! When a potential client calls, we listen carefully to their needs and ask strategic questions based on who, what, when, where, why, and how (not necessarily in that order). We never start by thinking that we have the solution. We encourage our potential clients to ask us the most difficult questions they may have about us. Once we have a good understanding of our client’s needs, we customize a solution. If we are going to dance together, we must learn each other’s rhythms, steps, and musical preferences.
- It Is All About Relationships. More than 90 percent of our clients come from referrals by current or past clients. Many of our clients have become friends over time. We stay in touch even if they are no longer working (30 years before LinkedIn). Clients and consultants are people, they grow and evolve, and we grow and evolve with them. When one of our clients moves to another organization, they often will bring us along. We have one relationship with a CHRO we have worked with in eight companies in four different business sectors. We grow together, coaching clients about their career decisions, partnering with clients in presentations at professional meetings, and co-authoring articles with our client/partners. We try to support our clients with their professional and personal needs. All of this relationship building is a great source of fulfillment and leads to the next key factor: trust.
- Trust Is Essential. Our clients know they can trust us with their most sensitive information. This can be about business strategy or employees who need our training and coaching. We try be flexible, nimble, and respectful of our clients’ budgetary requirements, and we offer a 100 percent money-back guarantee, which no one has ever requested. A demonstration of client/consultant trust is when one of our clients needed several training programs in the next fiscal year, but had more than $100,000 the current budget year. He asked if we could invoice him in advance and get paid, and then credit him for the funds for future training. This is the nature of our relationship with our clients. We support each other and hold each other accountable. I have been told numerous times by a client that their jobs depended on the success of our programs. Examples include training top executives for international assignments at AT&T and delivering a program on global business to launch the globalization of the NBA after the first larger consulting company failed.
- Honesty and Transparency Is the Only Policy. Clients and consultants must be totally honest with each other. I invited one of my clients, who has hired us at three different companies, to be a co-presenter at a major Diversity and Inclusion Conference. Most of our work together has been around global Diversity projects in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. When we discuss a project, it is a dance of creativity and inspired insights. At our presentation, we decided to introduce each other. When she introduced me, she told the audience she hires me because “I get no BS, from Neal; he will always tell me the truth” As a white male, being complimented like this by a Black female, to a diverse audience, was worth more to me than any amount of money.
In another case, our biggest client at the time had us deliver a mini-MBA program around the globe. My primary contact (my dance partner) was the head of Learning and Development. While one of our associates finished a program in Singapore, he was approached by the director of the mini-MBA program who offered to hire him directly, cutting our company out of the program. Our associate reported this to me and I had to decide if I should tell my primary contact at the company. I felt I had to do this even though it would be problematic for my contact. Two months later, the director of the mini-MBA was replaced.
- Build Your Organization to Fit Your Clients. The client-consultant relationship must be symbiotic. Almost all of our clients come to us for help training their people to work with others in their organization who come from diverse backgrounds. Often these differences are across cultures (global mindset, cultural competence, global teams, international assignments, etc.). Some clients need Diversity training for a range of domestic factors such as unconscious bias, critical conversations on race and inequality, cultural competence in patient care, ethnic marketing, etc.) With these needs in mind, we built a global and domestic team of diverse experts who can handle our clients’ requests promptly and professionally.
I have learned as much from my clients as they have learned from me from our relationships. Each opportunity is a chance to learn a new dance.
Please send any questions or stories about your relationships with clients or consultants to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org