Enterprise Software

The human side of IT consulting

Mastering the client relationship is a balancing act. Read Chip Camden's tips on how to walk the line between professional and friendly with your clients.

 The life of an independent consultant appeals to an anti-social streak in my personality. I enjoy working alone in my home office where I don't have to interact face-to-face with others on a daily basis. I decided to go it alone largely because I wanted to be able to focus on my work without the distractions of office politics and interpersonal intrigues.

Nevertheless, I'm not a hermit -- and I must avoid the temptation to become one. Effective and regular communication with my clients is one of the most important ingredients to being successful in this business and continuing my comfortable working arrangement. If anything, the human part of the equation has become more complex than it was when I was an employee. I must now deal with multiple clients who each have their own culture, history, and pecking order. Because I don't see them every day, I may miss important evolutionary milestones in their organization, or fail to recognize unwritten rules of behavior as they come into effect. I need a few reminders to keep the human relationships on course.

Be friendly. As TechRepublic member Englebert noted recently, "An IT Consultant who does his job and rarely smiles or mixes will rarely find himself extended over another who charms well." Like it or not, your client's organization is made up of people -- ignoring that aspect leaves a significant subset of your available tools unutilized. Besides, human interaction can be good for you on its own merits. Believe it or not, it's nice to have friends besides Perl and Ruby. So, try to get to know the people in your client's office. Find out what's important to them. Bring in some good coffee or snacks occasionally. And don't forget your sense of humor. But not too friendly. Maintaining a certain professional distance is a good idea. Remember that your company and your clients have a contractual relationship of equals. Don't do anything to jeopardize that or reduce your client's respect for it. Avoid romantic involvement with your client's employees, and don't do anything embarrassing like drunken karaoke or slam dancing at the company party. Just trust me on those. Focus on results. Because you're an outsider, you can often function as the voice of reason when office politics threaten to overwhelm the decision-making process. Ostensibly, you were hired because of your ability to produce results, so bring the discussion back around to that goal. You can do that better than insiders who may appear to have an ulterior motive for pursuing one direction over another. The one ulterior motive of which you might be accused is trying to generate more business for yourself, so be sure to defuse that one at your first opportunity. But don't discount the human impact. When you call them like you see them, sometimes someone gets the short end of the stick. Your client's best business decision might be to scale back an operation, which could leave some people looking for work or at least feeling slighted. Don't forget that an important component of your client's success is hanging onto motivated employees. So when a decision in which you take part negatively affects someone in the organization, look for ways to turn it into a positive for them. Advise your client on how best to use their talents. If they're leaving the organization, you might consider helping them find contacts in the industry or write them a letter of recommendation. That's easily done now on sites such as LinkedIn -- just be careful what you say because it's out there on the Web for everyone to see, including your client.

The independent consultant lives in a kind of no-man's-land between functioning as part of the client's greater organization and being truly independent. Mastering the human relationships involved is immensely important, yet we must avoid becoming too entangled in them. For all its challenges, it's a balance between distance and intimacy that suits my personality.

More tips about client relationships

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

25 comments
jp7691
jp7691

I tried to be more "social", tried to fit in. It was like swimming up a s.creek without a paddle. Everytime I went to bar, I noticed one thing ... half of ppl there were a half-brains and the other half tried their best not to stick out like a sore thumb. I hate small talk ... waste of time. Do not like kids, so family is out of q. Hate office politics, so home-work serves me best. Prefer way comps think to people ways ... sometimes wonder if ppl think at all, of is it just an instinct based actions mostly fuelled by evolution induced 3f (feed, fight, fuck). So again ... I'm a hermit and that suits me just fine.

Fregeus
Fregeus

..the story behind this statement; "Just trust me on those." Can we have some details??? :o) TCB

jck
jck

[i]Avoid romantic involvement with your client?s employees, and don?t do anything embarrassing like drunken karaoke or slam dancing at the company party. Just trust me on those.[/i] Sounds like you have a story here. Do tell. :^0 I've *always* avoided the personal relationship thing at work. At one job, there was a woman who was interested in me. But, I don't mix business with pleasure. So, that never happened. And, it's smart to avoid that potential hazard. Nothing worse than finding out the ex-girlfriend is the pet of the top boss at one of your major clients, and he/she starts giving you dirty looks and speaking in short sentences. Gives me shivers just thinking about it. Nice article, tho. Good points.

bhicks11
bhicks11

Excellent advice Chip. I like you prefer to sit at home and hack on an application but these reminders are valuable. Keeping that balance is important.

santeewelding
santeewelding

I read every word of it when you first put it out. Resembles messing with high, human explosives.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... if it weren't for all the humans involved. Have you ever felt like that?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That human thought all proceeds from evolutionary pressure to obtain those 3 f's -- in many cases, highly sublimated. But then, the existence of computers proceeds from that also, because they are the product of human thought.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Would never flaunt being a geek nerd hermit. You would never be heard from. Yet, I distinctly heard you.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... I was significantly less careful about interpersonal relationships. I can think of at least five romantic relationships that began in my client's office. I was lucky and managed a graceful exit on most of them. But it only takes one really bad one to burn you. The last one of the five became my current/final marriage. We've been together almost fifteen years now.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I often have to remind myself to touch base with my clients so they won't wonder what happened to me.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, human interaction is far less predictable than the interchanges of integrated circuits.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

At least you can duck your head and bury it behind a computer screen. My job is focused on working with people. ;\

apotheon
apotheon

It's entirely too easy (and too tempting) to increasingly cut humans out of the work -- which tends to lead to cutting out the work, as well. There's a balancing act involved, to be sure.

apotheon
apotheon

The Internet isn't real life, and those words aren't real people. Hermitous types don't have any problem talking to *words*.

jck
jck

...way to end that streak. Personally, I'm thinking about robbing a bank and then running off with some crazy gal into the forests of Italy. This sitting in an office with my door shut because my co-workers are too disrespectful and not mindful enough of their blabbing...really drives me up the wall. No wonder I want to work from home. :^0

santeewelding
santeewelding

You run into the human that is integrated. Then, you have your hands really full of integrated unpredictability.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You chose that though, didn't you? I thought I was escaping human contact, only to find that I needed more people skills than ever.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

We all need to get paid, and that requires people who will pay us to do something. But I shouldn't complain -- I get to do a lot more of what I really enjoy than most people.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Even my own hermitous streak enjoys responding online. There's so much more control in a conversation where you can respond at your leisure and edit your words several times after they're first spoken.

jck
jck

Quite true. On the other hand, it's either rob a bank...or the porto. :^0 What wine, officer? *hic* :^0

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

If you could manage the running off with that crazy gal into the forests of Italy without robbing a bank, you might avoid interruptions from the polizia.

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