11 Dec 5 tips for a great client-consultant experience
by Kevin Willemse
The decision to engage a consultancy firm (and inviting their resources, methodologies, and tools into your organization to analyze yours) may invoke fear of the unknown, or even carry with it the stigma of conflicting ideologies, ever-expanding budgets, and failed project intentions amidst a blur of pointed fingers. Far too many client-consultant relationships lay on the scrapheap of poor preparedness, miscommunication, and unclear expectations and ownership.
This blog provides a handful of tips to help alleviate these common friction points by understanding how best to prepare for and work with your consultant teams, system integrators, or external strategic business partners to build lasting relationships and deliver project success.
Build the sponsorship team, socialize the project
Nothing is worse than arriving on Day One of an engagement and having to repeatedly explain to attendees and stakeholders every day “why we are all gathered here today”. It’s a poor use of billable time, it becomes taxing on the regular project team, and the project’s overall messaging usually becomes inconsistent between one audience and the next. It also opens the door to potential feedback or resistance from those in the room which may require revisiting the approach, deliverables, or scheduling of the project.
Instead, a successful client/consultant experience is one where the client has beforehand (with the input or at least shared acknowledgment of their consultants) fully socialized the project internally and engaged with those involved in it (or impacted by its execution or outcomes), so that they understand its need, its intent, its expectations, and its deliverables. It also has allowed them the opportunity to contribute ideas and offer their feedback in terms of the project’s expected outputs.
This socialization can take many forms and be executed in many ways, but first and foremost it starts with dedicated, engaged, and visible client sponsorship. Give the project a name, brand it, and call out its leaders for all to see. Establish dedicated channels of communication across all involved and invite input before launching a microsite or public repository. Push out surveys, marketing collateral, or similar awareness campaigns to let those involved know the value, reasoning, and their contribution towards knowing “what project success looks like” and how they can contribute to it.
Reinforcing this aligned project messaging from the senior sponsorship team as often as possible ensures everyone involved brings their best to the table and acts as a touchstone throughout the project to make sure everyone drives towards a shared vision of success.
Have (any) workflow documents ready
“If it can be measured, it can be managed,” the saying goes. Let’s bolster that with “if it is documented, it can be improved,” and isn’t that why you hire consultants in the first place—to improve things? The first thing your appointed strategic advisor or business analyst is going to want to do is understand the daily motions inside your company, so they can be decomposed and improved by proposing a mix of technology enablement and human/data workflow enhancements.
A client who can provide detailed, accurate process documents and workflows for specific operational units at the outset of the consultant engagement hugely accelerates the learning curve and insights they need to make recommendations. They also help steer workshop discussions toward valuable focus areas and highlight dependencies, gaps, or areas for improvement. This will naturally reduce the time, costs, and staff downtime required to extract, understand, and map out the workflows and business processes as part of the consultant’s duties.
Of course, few companies have perfectly documented process maps, and even less actually apply them diligently in their daily tasks. That’s common and understandable. However, if they don’t exist, or are inaccurate or outdated, this is the perfect time to undertake an internal effort to produce at least some form of workflow documents for the business processes and systems you are looking for your consultant’s advice on. They do not have to be perfect; in fact, you should avoid overthinking them, as they will be scrutinized for improvement anyway.
Consider tasking business unit leaders to mock them up before the project begins; perhaps hold extended-lunch workshops and informally whiteboard the daily activities and interactions of individual functional groups; maybe you could come up with your own version of what the process should be, then pass it around for input and ratification. Be sure to assign tools to processes where appropriate and list out pain points, technology or data challenges, and plain old broken, antiquated efficiency blockers that need to disappear!
Whichever approach you take, being able to produce any form of workflow and business process documentation to your consultancy team before they start will not only vastly improve and accelerate their understanding of your organization’s potential areas for improvement, but it is also an inward-looking exercise that uncovers challenges, opportunities, and project outcomes that may not have ever been considered.
Be (really) prepared for tough conversations
Most companies that engage the services of a consultant have acknowledged a potential lack of internal resources, experience, or capability to achieve their goals as effectively as possible. This also means that many clients’ project teams will ask to “be challenged” and to “call out areas where we are stumbling.”
While this direct approach is appreciated by consultants (in fact, any good consultant should be prepared to have these difficult discussions anyway), they often get forgotten by the project sponsors somewhere along the project lifecycle—usually when the course correction proposals put forward seem too difficult. Maybe the change management is far broader an effort than anticipated; perhaps entrenched and closely-held tools need to be discarded for organization-wide collaborative solutions; it could even be called out that the project objectives originally proposed do not address fundamental operational concerns that need to be discussed.
These are the tough conversations an invested, mature client relationship thrives on. When brought to light, it’s perfectly reasonable to challenge the motive and suggestions made by your appointed advisors, but above all, remain willing to have these tough conversations, truly consider their merits, and reach a mutual decision that all can agree on as the course of action most likely to deliver success.
The alternative to this approach is, at its worst, a disengaged client/vendor relationship which proceeds down a project path simply to meet its myopic objectives without solving broader issues; this, to be blunt, wastes a lot of both client and consultant time and skill, delivers a sub-par result, and ultimately compromises the value of the consultant relationship and the entire project investment.
Respect the consulting process
When we climb aboard a train, we usually don’t ask too many questions about its meandering path, where it will take us, or how long it will take. We trust the engineers and the railway management staff, with their experience and knowledge, to build the most efficient track and get us to where we need to be at the time it shows on the ticket.
The consultancy process sometimes feels the same way; questions get asked that may seem irrelevant to the project goals. Occasionally you may be asked to involve stakeholders and representatives or provide assets that you did not originally envisage as being necessary. Sometimes conversations seem to wander into unexplored territory. Or maybe during workshops it feels like we are “doubling back” or “fast-tracking” areas that warrant a different level of speed, depth, or approach.
While a good consultant will devour any guidance and input their client provides to prepare for analysis workshops and solution development activities, bear in mind that their experience and skill set arrives in the room as well. Seemingly innocuous statements can trigger risk or complexity that must be gently uncovered by potentially deviating off-course to make sure they are fully understood. Sometimes, directing a business process conversation in a disconnected way is a means of solving an underlying technical requirement, and requesting additional resources to provide input or propose new discussion topics are not done without reason. These “deviations” are part of the professional consultancy experience and should be embraced—not shut down without reason.
Proven consultants have formed frameworks and methodologies, coupled with technical experience and real-time business analysis skills, that have delivered customer success over many years. While these absolutely do evolve and should be adapted to individual projects and customer needs, if the underlying engagement processes are not respected, it increases the risk of the output to be compromised and the project to derail.
Know that the end is the beginning
A good way to ensure the project focuses on and delivers actionable, relevant outcomes (i.e. value) is for both parties to always bear in mind that, one day, they will shake hands and part ways. Depending on the nature of the project, this is usually where the “real work” starts for the customer. A well-articulated set of follow-up actions, set against an executable roadmap, will enable the sponsorship team and stakeholders to tackle the inevitable next phase of the advisory or solution design project.
In a successful engagement, both client and vendor are encouraged to remind one another that the project must always have an end point in mind – even from day one – so that both remain focused on tangible outcomes. For example, allowing vague, extraneous conversations to distract from these actionable objectives during workshops is just as counterproductive as paying excessive attention to minor technical minutiae that are best left to the delivery team and their managers. While they may seem important at the time, rarely do they contribute meaningfully to building a commanding position to kick off the follow-up tasks, projects, or activities.
When both the consultant and the vendor continually recognize the point in time when the project deliverables need to be handed over, it enforces ownership on both parties for the quality and content of deliverables; the vendor knows to make sure the deliverables are clear, actionable, and align with the project/organization’s goals, and the client knows that they are imparted with the tools, knowledge, and confidence to carry the findings and recommendations into their company.
For more tips on the client-consultant experience, or to embark on your own journey with a proven digital transformation leader, contact Simplus Advisory Services now.
Kevin is a Principal Consultant with Advisory Services here at Simplus. With 20 years’ experience in business solution consulting and delivery, Kevin has formed, led, and been part of dozens of project teams as an analyst, project and services manager, solution engineer, technical strategist, and change management advisor. With this track record, and having worked on both sides of the consultancy and advisory services table, Kevin creates and encourages open discussion around the impact and considerations of technology, people, and process transformations to take businesses from bold ideas to actionable implementation strategies and roadmaps.