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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