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How strong is your client relationship?

The essence of a constructive consultant-client relationship is value creation – people and teams collaborating to lift performance utilizing the right people, skills and technologies. When a client feels that they can rely on their consultant, collaboration rises to a level that maximizes the ability to create value. Therefore, it’s clear to be a truly great consultant or advisor, building and maintaining relationships is essential.

Consultant-client relationships exist across a broad spectrum from “deferential”, “subservient” to “trusted” and “partnering.”  Consultants who excel at establishing strong trust and partnering with their clients know how to resolve differences based on the equivalence of power, strong collaboration, a sense of reciprocity and mutual reliance.

Consultants who are unable to move out of the “subservient” box are unfortunately dominated by their client and the ability to influence from a position of mutual respect is minimal. Moreover, these consultants sometimes exhibit such deference to the client, that they simply assume the client “knows best” and forego their capacity to persuade – ultimately choosing to simply “go with the flow”. 

However, just because a consultant wants to build a strong relationship as a trusted advisor, does the client feel the same way? What if the client just wants a relationship where the consultant simply goes along with their ideas and “does what they are told”? The first step in building a relationship that we want, is to understand the kind of relationship that we currently have. It’s important to be honest when doing a relationship assessment. For example, if you think you have a strong relationship with your client and it is based on mutual respect, why would they “bully” you?

When consultants encounter difficult situations with their client, it becomes easy to not think clearly and carefully about the relationships involved. Pressure can cloud judgement and lead to poor decision making and regrettable behavior. As a consultant striving to be your best, if you feel an issue is highlighting relationship weaknesses, consider a few ways to change it for the better:

  1. Ignore: If a client refuses to discuss an issue rationally or insists on taking a position contrary to the goal of value creation without logical explanation, one strategy is to bypass the issue (for the time being) by simply ignoring it. Perhaps the client is having a bad day, is distracted by another issue or for some other reason is deciding to take position to demonstrate their authority. Agreeing with the client’s illogical perspective is potentially undermining to the goal or building a strong trusting relationship and it can also encourage the client to behave like this again in the future. Confronting an emotional client at such a moment may cause the issue to explode; not responding directly may give the client time to back off and “save face.” Let some time pass by and think of options to address the issue in alternative ways that may be less confrontational. If possible, it may be best to just let it go, and ignore the issue completely.   
  2. Redirect: Sometimes when a client is not behaving constructively, try redirecting their behavior by modeling how you would like the conversation to proceed. You want to show understanding and that you accept their concerns whilst at the same time asking that they do the same for yours. If they follow your pattern, you can (hopefully) get the conversation back on track without ever explicitly saying that it was off track. Phrases like “Perhaps we are mishearing you”, “Perhaps we’ve been unclear” can be helpful as well is indicating to the client how what they are asking for or looking to do may be counter to their own interests.
  3. Engage: This involves taking on an issue or disagreement “head on”, so be careful and stay cool. Speak to how the issue and process to resolve it is affecting your behavior, your attitudes and your emotions. Don’t speak for the client. For example: “I’m feeling frustrated by how often we seem to have addressed this same issue. I don’t feel like the concern with financial risk has been acknowledged. I’d like to fix this. Do you feel equally frustrated with how this is going?” How the issues are being addressed is often implicit in the discussion; this strategy makes it explicit.
When you feel your relationship with a client is moving into “subservient box”, consider asking the client how they work with other consultants and advisors.  Try to understand the client’s company culture.  Do they treat each other like masters and servants or is this a style reserved largely for external consultants and advisors?  This line of questioning typically results in an apology: “Sorry, we’re not really like that, but we’re under pressure to achieve results and maybe that's having an impact”. However, if they respond, “This is the culture here, it's the way we operate” then perhaps you have a decision to make. Do you want to be a consultant in this type of environment?

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