Recently, TechRepublic asked members of IT Consultant Republic to review our consultant evaluation form and send back suggestions to make it better. Among the many helpful hints on improving the form, we received an e-mail from a longtime consultant in a Big Five firm. We thought that his firsthand experience lent perspective to what consultants often have to work with during a contract. We’re featuring it here as a way to invite comments on consultants’ relationships with their clients.
Multiple factors determine client satisfaction
In assessing or evaluating the success or failure of any engagement, project, or contract, many factors affect the client’s overall satisfaction. So many factors outside the realm of control of the consultant can directly or indirectly affect the consultant's performance, and the client must be cognizant of these elements to render a fair and balanced evaluation.
Prepare for the consultant
In Big Five consulting, we’re often asked to come in to work at a client's site. We have often found that upon arrival, the client was not prepared: no place to hang our coats; no place to plug in a laptop; no work surface, desk, or table available to start the work.
On some engagements, it took the client upwards of two to three weeks just to procure workspace. All this time, we were billing and not very productive. On one engagement, I was given a wonderful work cubicle and was quite comfortable and productive. Six weeks into the assignment, I was moved into a cubicle that was smaller than the janitor’s closet and off a busy hallway. My productivity plummeted and the situation eventually was a factor in my leaving the client site for another assignment.
Concomitant with workspace are other matters, which I call "start up logistics," for which clients fail to prepare. These include ID badges for entry into the building, parking stickers (which need to be removable because we’re using rental cars), cafeteria passes, restroom keys, and all the amenities that would be afforded to an employee.
We need to know, for example, the locations of copiers and fax machines that can be used. Are charge codes needed to use these machines? If the consultant is a smoker, where is the smoking area and can the key card be programmed to get back into the building? Sounds ridiculous? You’d be surprised.
On one engagement at a large international bank, we were not permitted to use the fax machine in our work area. We had to take the elevator down 32 floors to the ground, walk to an adjacent building, and take an elevator up 24 floors, just to use a fax machine.
On this same project, it was necessary to work through the July 4th holiday weekend, when the air conditioning was automatically shut down. The temperature in our work area soared to more than 100 degrees. By 2:00 A.M., we were literally working with our shirts off. A building engineer on night duty made us sign a $1,000 invoice to cool our work area because he was not budgeted to cool the floor over the holiday.
Systems access is another major productivity hurdle when beginning an engagement. How long does it take to get network access? At one Baby Bell phone company, it took eight to 10 weeks to get mainframe access.
The solution: Define the client’s responsibilities
We took all of these logistical factors and rolled them up into a "Roles and Responsibilities" section of our Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Essentially, we reminded our clients that the facilitation of these matters was in their best interest.
In these RFPs, we also offered a Project Coordinator, usually a junior consultant not in the core of the project, whose sole purpose was facilitating these logistics with the client and our staff. The Project Coordinator could also remove the burden from the client's staff by helping with disseminating progress and status reports, reserving meeting rooms and catering if needed, setting up new phone lines and voice mail, procuring office supplies if not supplied by the client, etc.
On any evaluation form, I would structure some questions that addressed the client's responsibilities as well. As consultants, we could be unfavorably rated when, in fact, there should be some shared responsibility for the performance on the part of the client. Making our clients aware of these shared responsibilities has cemented our relationships and kept everyone's expectations in alignment throughout.
We also made sure that we kept the client informed about any activities that may have seemed out of the ordinary or that could have appeared unrelated to the work at hand. For example, during the course of an engagement, consultants sometimes have to leave the site—becoming “unbillable"—to attend a firm-sponsored training course. A letter was always written and delivered to the client informing the client of the consultant's absence for a specified period of time and reminding the client that this time was not billed. It also provided an opportunity for marketing in that the client would be getting back a consultant with an upgraded skill set. The form could also ask questions to address training during the course of the project (e.g., “Did the consultant have to get additional training and assess the impact on the project?”).
You can only benefit from adding a section to any evaluation form that addresses questions related to these logistical/operational concerns. Once clients see these topics in writing, they quickly understand how these factors could affect the project. The success of the project and a win-win situation is in everyone's best interest.
Does this sound familiar?
Have there been situations when the client didn’t prepare for your arrival? What kinds of problems did this cause? Do you include language in your contracts or agreements that spell out shared responsibilities? Tell us about your experiences and solutions. If you have a contract that spells out the client’s responsibilities, send it our way and we’ll feature it in an upcoming article.