Keeping the consultant-client relationship sweet

Keeping the client happy is important to a consultant. The person newly starting out as a consultant in any field needs to know that there are multiple possible pitfalls in the relationship with clients. The consultant-client relationship is arguably the most prone of all work relationships to a breakdown, simply because it is so fluid and undefined.

Most of the time, clients have no clear idea of what they want from their consultants, except that they want problems solved miraculously. Exactly which problems, and what they would regard as satisfactory resolutions at the end of the process, are often vague in their minds.

You need to take charge. You need to ensure that your client is happy and satisfied that you have done a good job, and, critically, will confidently refer you to other potential clients. Your reputation rests on this. Your good reputation is what ensures a continuous flow of clients: a bad reputation, even if unfairly earned, will damage your income stream.

The first thing you need to do is to listen to the potential client and identify what needs to be done. If you recognise that the scope of the work is impossible to achieve, or not within your field of expertise, say so immediately. If you can recommend another associate, then do so. A client grateful for your advice will have respect for you and will consider using your services in future. Conversely, if you tackle a job you are not geared up for, and botch it, then you are dead in the water. It is better to wait for the next opportunity to come around, and to make a success of it.

Then you need to spend a bit of time doing some research and planning. Establish what the objectives are that need to be achieved. Work out a timeline of which sections of the work can be completed within specific timelines. Most importantly for you, you need to identify the fee that you will charge. Then you can return to the client and explain all of this to him.

It is essential for you and the client to agree to the scope of the work, the timelines and the fee. Be aware that often while you are busy with this project, the client may find an additional appetising piece of work for you to do: but ensure that your client understands and agrees that this is additional work for which an additional fee will be charged – and get this agreement in writing! Failure to do this will most likely lead to an unhappy end to your relationship. The contract you sign with your client is akin to a prenuptial contract: it is not needed if the relationship proceeds smoothly, but essential if things go wrong.

Many clients are easy to work with. It is easy when working with reasonable people, to amend the contract if it becomes clear that the environment is changing, or the nature of the project needs to change direction. But watch out for the client who has a reputation for being difficult to work for. It may be wise to decline such clients.

Importantly, if things go wrong (and they will, from time to time), be upfront with the client. Explain what happened, how you are going to rectify matters, and what you are doing to prevent this from happening again: and apologise.

The bottom line is that being a consultant is not plain sailing. You need to be prepared for choppy waters and to prepare for them. This is the way to achieve success.

Good luck!

Scroll to Top