The most important element in the client/consultant relationship is trust. Trust doesn’t happen automatically, it must be earned. Successful consultants pay attention to building the trust relationship, but sometimes we forget that trust needs to go both ways.

Uncertainty about trusting the client naturally runs highest at the beginning of the relationship. The first question we need to answer is whether their desire to talk to us is a legitimate business request, or something else.

Andréa Coutu recently wrote about safety tips for meeting new clients, in which she presents some great advice for making sure that a physical meeting won’t put you in harm’s way. I’d add to her list that being prepared to defend yourself is always a good backup plan.

Since the late 20th century, in-person contact with prospects has become less expected. I have numerous clients that I’ve never met. We connect via email or telephone, and then use some reasonably secure collaboration tools to work together over the Internet. It’s comforting to know that you never have to risk physical contact. Far too comforting.

Meeting someone face to face, although it presents the potential for physical harm, also opens communication channels that have evolved over millions of years: posture, gestures, eye contact, tone of voice, even body odor. We’re often unaware of these channels, yet they comprise some of the most reliable signals of an individual’s true intentions. Online or telephone contact filters out almost all of those signals. Therefore, it’s far easier for someone to pose as a legitimate prospect when they have ulterior motives. What sorts of nefarious plans should you watch out for?

  • Identity theft. Once you’ve given someone enough information to send you a 1099, you’ve probably given them enough to steal your identity. This is particularly true if you’re a sole proprietor using your Social Security Number as your tax ID. (I’m sure our non-U.S. readers can translate what I just said for the reporting requirements of their jurisdictions.) To protect against this possibility, you need some sort of proof of identity from the prospect before you hand over yours.
  • Theft of work. A prospect might get your saliva going by discussing a large project, when all they really want is some free work or advice. If they can tease that out of you as part of their vendor qualification before they sign a contract, then you’ll never hear from them again. Even though I like to give away freebies to establish a relationship, I’m careful never to advance more work than I’m willing to eat. Even after they sign the contract, I limit the amount of work I perform for the client in any given month until I see how they perform at Accounts Payable.
  • Spam. It’s wonderful that the Internet has made it easy for prospects to make the first contact, but that also means that it’s inexpensive enough for someone to use the same channel for nothing more than to gather one more address to spam. Usually, you can tell from the content of the message that it isn’t legit, but some spammers are getting far more crafty these days. Besides trusting your intuition and a good spam filter, avoid posting your email address online — use a contact form on your site instead, perhaps with a challenge question that’s easy for a human but hard for a bot.
  • Competitive espionage. A competitor might pose as a prospect merely to gather information about how you do business. Corporations have been doing this sort of thing for a long time. The remedy for this is never to reveal anything on first contact that you wouldn’t want published. It also helps to have few secrets, and to treat your competition as colleagues instead of opponents. Your business value should be in what you can accomplish and the wisdom and experience you bring to the table, rather than in some secret formula that you need to keep to yourself.

What other risks do you see in today’s trend towards faceless first contact?