Thursday, December 4, 2008

Silence Is Not Golden

I recently read five basic questions in a consulting blog. It turns out that the questions themselves can be put together as follows:

The more you sit down with a client to have conversations, the easier your client can develop trust in you. The more trust that the client feels, the better the quality of the feedback you receive. The better the quality of the client’s feedback, the greater the value of your engagement. The greater the value that the client perceives, the greater the likelihood of positive change.

It is all about effective communication.

How you establish communication with your client in the first few minutes of your engagement’s opening conference determines how easy it will be to return the next day. Excel spreadsheets, Word bullet-pointed documents and PowerPoint presentations should be left in your computer bag in the trunk of your rental car for as long as possible, especially on the first day of an engagement.

It is necessary to jot down the occasional note but not at the expense of eye contact and observation. Bear in mind that clients are, despite what they say, like doctors’ patients -- rather afraid and somewhat intimidated. By asking more questions and making fewer assertions, you allow your client to enter a comfort zone. People like to talk about themselves, so stay out of the way and encourage them.

I have asked clients if they will exchange seats with me in the opening conference so I can “see what you see.” I ask about family, encouraging them to talk as much about themselves as possible. Sure, I am looking for “hidden agendas,” “deal killers,” “sacred cows” and other such influences on my client that might impede our progress, but I have a genuine interest in what makes my client interested.

Meet with your client early and often. It is important to understand that clients breathe their own ether: Without clear supporting evidence, clients convince themselves that specific business problems can be resolved with generic business solutions. This can also impede your progress, so it is important to establish your control.

How you conduct an engagement with your client also establishes your control. There are two important considerations that many consultants forget. The first is that you are an agent of change. The second is that every day you must earn the right to return.

Incidentally, you have noticed that I use the word “engagement” rather than “project.” They mean essentially the same thing, but the words evoke different contexts. Projects have deliverables and check points. Each engagement is a partnership, which is what we are creating when we enter the client’s office. Never lose sight of the fact that we are being engaged to partner with our client to implement change.

A recent client told me at the end of the first day, “I’m excited. I learned more from you today than I got out of two weeks with the consultants from YaddaYadda Company.” That moment made me proud to be a consultant. My point is that I practice what I am writing here. The partnership was established because I had left my computer in the trunk of my rental car and let my client do most of the talking. Silence is not golden but an effective working relationship is.

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