You could literally drown in all the ink belabouring the tension that exists between clients and consultants. Poor briefs, poor communication, inaccessibility of the real decision makers and my all-time favourite “they don’t get it”, “it” being anything from creative concepts to expense report reconciliations or strategic business recommendations.
Like anyone reading this, I’ve been in achingly frustrating situations where the decision tree could be mapped as “homicide or suicide”.
But what we don’t celebrate enough…The clients who knock you on your butt. The one’s who test you and raise your game. The one’s who make you better.
Here are five lessons I learnt from some of my clients. I’ve deliberately named them because I believe they deserve the recognition and my thanks.
Understand the whole business, not just your part.
Early in my career, Duminda spent a disproportionate amount of time schooling me on a packaging re-launch he was bringing to the category. The intricacies of forward-buying raw materials, supply chain issues and econometric pricing modelling. Sh*t I thought, you’re making this thing 1kg from 500grams what’s the big deal? What I was too naive to appreciate is it is all important. Distribution, manufacturing, the politics, the economics, the advertising, the customer. All of it. Obsess about your part sure but you better have more than a passing interest in the other stuff, especially the things that you don’t believe are as sexy.
Transparency means there is nowhere for anyone to hide
Antipodean client Shane was so committed to transparency he regularly shared his business issues with us in minute detail. Of course financials weren’t part of it but the level of openness was refreshing. But he expected the same transparency from us. For every “we need to do this better”, there was an expectation we’d respond in kind. While it’s trendy to talk about transparency how often do we really do it? Acknowledge we’re not an expert in all the things we say we are, that our financial rigor could be tighter, that our best folks don’t want to work on their business. It’s tough, impossible even, because openness requires trust and faith that your candour won’t become their next negotiation point. Astute business folks get this so they act without guile or agenda.
Management’s role is to protect
Fancy titles, swanky lunches, flying in the front of the bus are all trappings of the rarefied air of management. Your real task is simpler. It is to protect your people and their ideas. Protect them from distraction so they can focus. Protect them from meddling that can muddy the waters. Protect them from politics that can cause fear or animosity. Global client Richelle did this with aplomb, triaging the stuff we needed to know and deflecting the BS we didn’t. Any manager on any team has to develop that skill. Trust me when your team knows you’ve got their back there’s little they can’t achieve.
Always think about how you’re maximizing value
One sunny afternoon Jim uttered the fateful phrase “how much is this frigging meeting costing me?” Ball-buster? Sure. His point was valid though. All professional services should be about maximizing value, not cost, and cost-maximizing is what a roomful of consultants tends to look like. Consider how much more effective you’d be if you only allocated resources (human or otherwise) based on their ability to maximize value? Consider how profitable you’d be if you reallocated resources from a situation where their value was minimal (or under-appreciated) to one where it was optimized? Consider then, how much equity you’d gain if clients knew you were obsessed with operating this way.
Believe in your people more than they believe in themselves
It’s human nature to be resentful when your work is rejected. It takes a savvy operator like Tony to infuse a team with a sense that better work is within them and that they’re capable of unearthing it. His approach went beyond empty platitudes but a genuine “we’re in this together” orientation. A deft balancing of carrot and stick but an unwavering positivity that we would crack it. Guess who was able to keep us enthused and jazzed to work on his project? Who would always get a little bit more? No matter what role you have, this is a critical skill you must hone. It takes a true magician to raise the bar and still keep your team gagging to try scale it.
Consultancy of any kind is tricky. You’ll have some clients who drive you to distraction. If you’re lucky you’ll also have several who up your game.
What’s the most powerful business lesson a client has ever taught you?
On a lighter note, here’s some professional advice I’ve not taken.