Project Management

Use the consulting relationship for your client's good

Chip Camden says good consultants are business therapists who make their client's success (rather than their payment) the primary goal.

┬áSome consultants think of themselves as just contract labor — tell me what to do, and I'll do it. Others (who give the rest of us a bad name) more shrewdly analyze the situation to find the best opportunity for the longest, most expensive engagement. They pitch that to their client, collect their fee, and run snickering to the bank before the whole thing collapses. The best consultants expend just as much energy as the latter group on the analysis, but they strive to help clients accomplish their goals because they know that successful clients are the only basis for long-term consulting success.

Here are some tips for navigating the unique relationship between consultant and client to help your customers move forward.

Be an outsider

Because you're not a box on your client's org chart, you possess a different perspective on their business. You can distance yourself better from what's going on within their company to see what it all means to the rest of the world. Your experience with other clients who have been down the same or similar paths can enlighten the road ahead for your customers. Your opinions may be more candid and less biased, because you're not caught up in political power struggles at the office — at least, you shouldn't be.

Be an insider

Even though you remain somewhat detached from your client's organization, you have the opportunity (thanks to your NDA) to learn details of their operations that aren't disclosed to most outsiders. You may also work more closely in a peer relationship with some of their people; this gives you the chance to learn how everything ticks. Don't waste that opportunity. Combine your outside perspective with an insider's knowledge to discern the best directions for your client.

Be an advocate

You should be committed to the goals your client is trying to achieve. If you can't believe in the mission, don't take the assignment. With that in mind, a good consultant keeps their eyes wide open for opportunities that others may have missed — either because they're too involved in the details of what they're already doing, or because they're operating at too high a level of abstraction (often the case with C-levels) to perceive the tiny signs that may point to something big.

Be a devil's advocate

Even though you must agree with your client's goals, you don't have to agree with all of their decisions about how to reach them. While an employee might worry about appearing to be a troublemaker for speaking up, a consultant must always be ready to lose the engagement rather than to avoid telling the truth or raising pertinent questions. If your client goes down the wrong road and you didn't even question it, whom do you think they will blame? As the one independent voice for whose opinions clients are paying good money, they expect wisdom from you even when they say they don't like it. Therefore, you need to avoid tunnel vision on your assignments and keep scanning the periphery for possible threats to your client's success.

Be neither a prostitute nor a spouse

I used to think of myself as a software prostitute — whatever the client wants, if the price is right. Over the years, I've come to find that the best client relationships go much deeper than that — that it's my duty as a consultant to help them recognize and build on their strengths while avoiding self-destruction. It isn't like marriage either, though. In a marriage, the union is so important that candid discussion may suffer as one or both parties conducts a perhaps unconscious risk/benefit analysis before saying what they really think (sometimes informally recognized as "less said the better"). Consultants have to be easy to fire so they can maintain that independent voice. We aren't like lovers, either — even though a lover may start out as a risk-free shoulder to cry on, the significance of the relationship usually escalates quickly to the status of another form of marriage.

Consultants are more like therapists. We must balance a professional independence against an intimate knowledge of our clients, precisely so that we can help them best. Consultants are business therapists.

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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...

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