Every once in a while, we have a consulting lesson smack us in the face. If you’ve been at this work as long as we have, we guarantee there will come a time when you will say aloud, “I knew better than to do that! What did I expect!?”
We have had two of those smacking-myself-upside-the-head moments in the past year. Both incidents have been the result of having a long term relationship with the client. And while we are all taught that having long term client relations is a dream come true, what they don’t teach in consulting school (ok, who out there really went to consulting school?) is that working with long term clients brings up a whole ‘nother set of issues – issues we may not always have answers for in our bags of consulting tricks!
Twice now we have gone against our own cardinal rules for taking on a new client. Twice we have been angry with ourselves afterwards. Twice we have sworn we would do better next time. So now I am hoping that writing it down and focusing on it will help us to not do it again!
Consulting Issue #1 for Clients Who Are Friends
With new clients, we spend a ton of time up front, interviewing everyone, bringing folks together, asking about the organization’s potential and what is keeping them from accomplishing that potential. When the group sees the proposal – the scope of work and the outcomes we will be aiming the work at – it is no surprise, as we have worked with them from the start to come up with the project together.
In addition to this just being smart business sense, it is also the only way we can begin moving the client away from just thinking about their day-to-day issues, and start putting those issues into the context of the big picture change they want to create in their communities – the whole point of our Community-Driven approaches!
BUT, with an existing relationship, all that gets short-cut. We know they already know us, know our work, know it is transformational – because we have already done that work for them in one form or another. We know they already have been through a planning process with us and know what that will entail, as well as what it will accomplish. We know they are fully aware that our focus is on their highest potential to create visionary community impact, and that that is where we will help them go. And we know all this because they have already worked with us, and spent lots of time with us, and experienced the results we are able to help them achieve.
Well that’s one big mistake, now isn’t it?! Boards change. Time passes even with board members and staff who are still there. People forget some things, assume others. If failure to do adequate homework is what tanks consultant-client relationships in new clients, it can also tank our relationships with clients who are now old friends!
But this is not a simple matter of taking each other for granted. It’s more difficult than that. The question becomes this: If the client also thinks they already know what you are going to do, and therefore also feels they don’t need all that up front stuff, how do you convince them to have those meetings anyway? We are all far less likely to push a friend than we are to push someone with whom we are first establishing working parameters. Once we are friends, how does one now do that dance, to push for what is right when the client is saying, “The board said they trust you, and no one really has time to meet, so let’s just get started”?
Consulting Issue #2 for Clients Who Are Friends
Another lesson with clients who are old friends is that we fail to go back to the decision-maker. With a new client, we know that in order to lead the group towards transforming their community, everyone from the top down must be on board. And so those initial discussions will include the board and the leadership on the staff, even if the eventual work will not include those individuals. We do that because those are the people who will be asking the questions related to “Did it get done? And what were the results? And why does that need to be in the budget again?” They may not be the ones doing the work, but they are the decision-makers.
But after you’ve already gotten the gig and worked closely with the 2nd and 3rd in command for 2 years, and you’ve got a wonderful working camaraderie, and the next project comes up, how do you say, “Oh we can’t just talk to you, we need to go back and talk to the board, and talk to your boss.” Even if we have maintained a reporting relationship with those in charge, these are awkward moments, and so we defer. “My boss says he trusts you and trusts me. So let’s get started!”
Bad mistake again. Because when that new project does come up, in the time it takes to say, “Sorry, it’s not in the budget!” we have left the land of Organizational Potential, and are on our way into the land of Bureaucracy. The person you have the relationship doesn’t have the authority to say yes, despite the fact that they love your work and may even have grown personally fond of you.
My friend Renata Rafferty calls this the Tyranny of the Nice. But it is truly our latest consulting conundrum: So what does one do when a great client relationship is standing in the way of having the work reach for the organization’s highest potential?