In his post Why Client Focus Can’t Be About Profits, Charles H. Green says that “the relationship is the client.” He compares the client relationship with other human relationships, concluding that if you’re in it just for the money, then the relationship is dysfunctional.
Perhaps I’ve grown too cynical over the years, but characterizing a client relationship as a special type of human relationship doesn’t remove self-interest as an ultimate motive as far as I’m concerned. I think we enter into all relationships based on what we think we’ll get out of them, although what we think we’ll get out of the relationships can be quite complex. In the case of a client, we would probably never form the relationship at all were it not for the money, and we probably wouldn’t care to continue it without the money, either. A client relationship can have many nonmonetary benefits, not the least of which are personal friendships, but consultants often have to keep the friend status subordinate to the business status.
I’ll grant a distinction, however, between a short-sighted focus on immediate monetary returns vs. the long view. The road to long-term success has many peaks and valleys, so you won’t keep most clients for very long if you’re only interested in them when they’re generating revenue for you. On the other hand, if you take a genuine interest in their success, then you may be able to accompany them in that direction for the long haul. A relationship like that can be beneficial to both parties, monetarily and personally.
I don’t think that Mr. Green and I disagree fundamentally here, especially about how you should act in the relationship. Let’s explore two scenarios that illustrate my point.
Your key contact with the client has already committed herself to a particular course of action, but you think it’s a bad idea. You know you’ll face major resistance if you try to convince her of your opinion. Even if you’re successful, you will have created a face-saving challenge for her, which could strain your relationship. Nevertheless, you’re convinced that in the long run, it would be better to change plans.
If you take the short-sighted path, you just humor her and go along with the program. She’s the client, after all, so you should do what she wants and collect your fee. Suck all the blood you can out of this corporate corpse before you toss it aside to hunt for another one.
But if you really care about having a successful, long-term relationship with this client, then you must speak up. You can begin the discussion privately with your contact, and even help her find ways to change course gracefully. It might be awkward for you, but your willingness to go through some difficulty on your client’s behalf demonstrates that you sincerely desire her success — even if your motives are initially misunderstood.
Your client expresses a need for some new technical capability. The short-sighted consultant thinks, “I could use my newfound skills in Framework X to do this. That job should keep me busy for several months.” Several months later, the consultant’s conception of the solution is still being slowly bent into the shape that the client really needs.
Instead, you should ask “How could we best solve this problem?” Imagine that you own the company instead of consulting for them and ask: What course of action would you choose? What resources would you employ? Would you hire yourself as the consultant for the particular job?
The point is that you start from the perspective of how the client can best achieve their goals, rather than how you can fill your pipeline. In most cases, being able to do the work is not nearly as valuable to your client as helping them figure out what to do. So even though you might not get a bunch of billable hours out of this gig, you can solidify your relationship with the client as someone on whom they can rely for clear-sighted input.
So, why are you taking a genuine concern in building long-term successes for your clients? It isn’t because you don’t care about your business, or that you’re altruistic, or that the relationship with your client is so valuable in itself; it’s because you care about your interests over the long haul.
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