Back in the 1980s (I’m showing my age here), I worked in management for a software company. Part of the reason why I gave that up to become independent is that I hated dealing with all of the people issues. For a geek like me, computers are far easier to understand than my fellow human beings.

Although it seems obvious now, I didn’t realize at the time that becoming a consultant would require just as much skill with people — maybe even more. As a manager, I could always fall back on the review/raise stick/carrot to get people to do what I wanted. As a consultant, you’re at best on the wrong end of that stick. That’s why one of the most important keys to success as a consultant — more important than your specific technical skills or any feature of your contract — is your ability to build relationships with clients. TechRepublic member josh.t.richards said it well in a recent discussion:

“A lot of us IT consultants get so wrapped up in doing superb work that we overlook the fact that clients aren’t _just_ buying our expertise or even results. They also care (consciously or not) about things like feeling secure, experiencing empathy, and knowing we’ve got their best interests at heart. Delivering good results is a part of this but, even relying on that, is relying on one One Big Thing(tm). Projects are going to fail, you’re going to make mistakes, and things are going to happen that you’ll be blamed for that you may even rightfully consider not your fault. So be it. Don’t make it all about the results every time.”

So how do you go about creating that warm, fuzzy feeling in the cockles of your clients’ hearts?

Obviously, the relationship begins with “We have a job that needs doing — can you do it?” So, despite the fact that performance isn’t everything, it is where you have to start. But even if you’re not qualified to take on a particular project, you can still begin to build a relationship by honestly admitting your deficiency while showing interest in the project’s ultimate success. Ask the client what you would be wondering if you were in their shoes. Turn what you don’t know into empathy for what they might not know. Your thoughtfulness may be remembered when they have other projects available in the future.

If you do land the gig, the best way to become appreciated is to demonstrate that you intend to contribute to your client’s happiness — both corporately and individually. Here are ways to build good relationships with your clients:

  • Tailor solutions to the client’s business and culture, not to your idea of the One True Way That Is Clearly Superior. Sometimes “best practices” are not the best thing for your client. Sometimes the latest and greatest new technology involves too much evolution for its supposed benefits. Yes, you should try to push your client towards what’s best for them, but be sure you know that it is for the benefit of their success rather than your ego and resume.
  • Keep an eye out for creative ways to help your client. We all know that being effective requires focus, but don’t get so focused on your assigned details that you lose the big picture. Keep asking yourself, “What’s next for this company?” as well as “What’s next for this person?” and then think of ways to help them grow towards those goals. Watch for possible threats as well. Ask them about their markets and their competition. Find out what keeps them awake at night. Ask lots of questions and share your knowledge.
  • Be reliable and honest. Do what you say you will, and admit when you’re wrong. When things start falling apart (perhaps because you’re overcommitted), let your client know sooner rather than later. The foundation of any relationship is trust.
  • Be personable. Ask about their family and remember details from one conversation to the next. Find out about common interests you share and weave those into your interactions. Your interest should be genuine — there’s no greater turn-off than the loud faux friendliness of the stereotypical salesperson. But if you truly become a friend, they’ll have a hard time finding it in their hearts to say goodbye. Who would you rather keep around: the person who is fun to work with, or the expert who’s a condescending jerk?
  • Have a sense of humor. Don’t take yourself or your situation too seriously. Use humor to reveal things — but also sense when something is too important to your client to joke about it.

For additional tips, check out Kevin Eikenberry’s post “10 ways to improve your client relationships.”

Besides what I’ve listed in this post, how do you create meaningful relationships with clients?

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