While all relationships have their difficulties, I would argue that the client-consultant relationship is among the most complex and problem-prone. And when you’re dealing with multiple clients in very disparate situations, well-developed social skills, cultural adaptability, and a high level of maturity are essential to navigate the client-consultant relationship maze. You’ll have to put those skills to work from time to time to know when it’s necessary to refine your relationship with a client. In this article, I’ll discuss my relationship with one particular client and tell you some ways to change the dynamics of your dealings with a client—for the benefit of you both.
A dual-client conundrum
Over the past year, I’ve worked as both a developer and development lead on two client engagements. The dynamics of these two relationships were divergent from the outset—on one project, I worked remotely for a rather reserved client, and on the other, I worked at the client site in a very social atmosphere for an extroverted client.
Taken separately, these environments would not be unmanageable. While working with both clients simultaneously, however—over a period of about two months—I found myself in a constant state of “cognitive dissonance.” In other words, I was never quite comfortable working with the two extremes at the same time. I felt my mind being pulled in two different directions, which made it difficult for me to concentrate on the task at hand. And as in any relationship, when stress is being experienced by one or both parties, that nervous tension will be projected into any interactions.
I found that the stress I experienced by having to constantly switch social gears manifested itself primarily in my dealings with the extroverted client, but that it was contributing to a sense of dissatisfaction from both of my clients. I was encouraged by my internal bosses to remove my emotions from the client relationships and focus on the tasks at hand. Unfortunately, this advice came primarily from a peer who was unsuccessful at following his own advice. Mixed messages and constant flux were causing me to feel like I was headed for burnout.
A change of venue
I took a step back. I rationalized that there are many intricacies that pop up in all relationships—some of which are unchanging and others which are flexible and moldable. In my relationship with the extroverted client, I noted that the biggest causes of stress throughout the workday were constant phone calls—which, though at times unavoidable in any work environment, had nonetheless become more than a minor distraction to my workflow. These sometimes frantic calls, compounded by surprise in-person visits from any of my three client bosses or two internal project managers, were a major obstacle to my productivity. Priorities seemed to change on the spur of the moment, and on top of that, I was feeling like I was constantly under the lens of a high-powered microscope. My physical proximity to the client was hampering my ability to focus and deliver the type of solutions that would meet my own quality standards.
I decided a change of scenery was first on the agenda, so when that opportunity presented itself (with the approval of my project managers), I jumped on it. I sought solace in the confines of my company’s home office. I then began developing a strategy for distancing myself from the extroverted client.
Polishing business and social communication
My next task was to evaluate all forms of communication and interaction with my extroverted client. I began by making all written correspondence, including e-mail, extremely professional and formal. Although my internal boss and client boss agreed that this elevated writing was more formal than necessary, I found that this style of communication created a bit of distance between the client and myself, which helped me concentrate more clearly on the project. (Incidentally, adopting this more formal writing style ended up being a modest victory for me, as it later led to an informal role within my home office as “language form and substance” advisor.)
But my biggest challenge still remained: I needed to establish an appropriate oral communications style in formal meetings with the client. I began to take on a very dry persona, mixed with an ounce of whimsical, tongue-in-cheek humor—my thought being that a client who laughs is happy, even if the project is over budget. In social situations with the client, I chose my words and tones carefully. I also chose not to attend voluntary events. During mandatory social gatherings, I refrained from “talking business” when such discussions were not initiated by the client, and I took a very conservative approach to disclosing information of a personal nature. Essentially, I drew a clear line between friendliness and friendship.
However, my business communications still needed some work. My instinctive “talk now, think while you’re talking” approach had, over time, become an obstacle to effective oral communication with my client regarding business matters. Once I became aware of this shortcoming, I did what I could to suppress my instinctual need to contribute. It soon became clear that although I had a lot to say and was confident in my understanding of any given topic, I was essentially becoming a distraction in meetings by interjecting or assuming the floor at inappropriate times. My first attempt to handle this problem relied on an “extreme silence” approach. I consciously attended a meeting as a silent observer and took notes whenever the inclination arose to speak. I also participated in meetings with colleagues where I “auditioned” different styles.
Unfortunately, I found that my client had become accustomed to my verbosity, and on one specific occasion, I attended a meeting where I had a lot to say but grudgingly sat silently, letting my colleague lead the discussion. The end result was a 30-minute meeting in which the client did most of the talking. But because the purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm, I found that by not participating, I had, in fact, hampered progress. It became apparent that my oral communications strategy could not be of the “one size fits all” variety.
As a consultant, it goes without saying that specific technical competencies are integral pieces of my skill set. But what I found was that effective communications skills with a client are just as vital to the success of a project, and perhaps more importantly, to the success of a consultant’s career.
Ever had a client who wanted to be your buddy? How did you handle it? Post a comment below or send us a note.