Addressing Your Client's Hidden Expectations
Harvey Bergholz, Jeslen Corporation
A lightly edited version of this article appeared in the Journal of Management Consulting.
Some nerve . . . clients who expect more from consultants than that we fix their companies. They pay a fee, and expenses. That entitles them to a set of outcomes. These outcomes are usually tangible and often measurable. That should be enough, yes? . . . but . . . no . . . they want more.
Through my thirty years of management consulting, every client has had expectations on three levels. Collectively, these expectations typically sum to a whole lot more than delivering the deliverables. I believe that client expectations exist in these three categories:
Perhaps you’ve already learned that clients expect more than what the fee has been paid to deliver. If so, you’ve made those expectations a natural part of your work mode, your client management strategies, and your firm’s economics. Failure to do so will place you far behind the "full-value consultants" who do. In the unconscious bargain with clients, you want to be the consultant who delivers on all three levels, Technical, Professional, and Personal. When you do, you’ll achieve a rare positioning: the consultant who "gets it done"; the consultant clients want to spend time with, and from whom they want their people to learn.
The full-value consultant generates sustainable competitive advantages and far higher retention and referral rates. This is a natural by-product of achieving that rare positioning. It results from meeting or exceeding the unexpressed client expectations in Technical Competence, Professional Contribution, and Personal Style.
In this article we explore typical client expectations and a few suggestions for exceeding them. I believe several common denominators exist, the first of which is this: clients have expectations in all three categories because that is their natural risk-management strategy. Most often, this risk-management strategy is unconscious, but it is there. What risk? The consultant’s shortcomings in any of the three areas puts the hiring executive, or direct client, in jeopardy.
Your direct client has (a) spent money; (b) endorsed a performer unknown to others (you); (c) committed to delivering an end result by a deadline; and (d) dropped an interloper into the corporate cultural mix (you again). Together, these four elements create anxiety – in the direct client and in the people watching him/her, and in those who will be affected by the consultant. Anxiety, in turn, triggers self-protective behaviors by the client’s peers, subordinates, and superiors. If you’ve consulted even a year, you’ve experienced these behaviors. They can be harmful to you and your efforts; they can be deadly to your client – and the client knows it. These behaviors (lack of cooperation, information hiding, delays, unavailability, expressed cynicism about the engagement or the consultant) may be harmful to the client’s career health.
Ergo . . . your direct client is at risk when inviting in a consultant. Ironically, the risks do not diminish solely by the consultant’s performance in the Technical Competence arena. In fact, sound performance there is easily undercut by failure to meet expectations in the other two areas: Professional Contribution and Personal Style. Effective consultants manage the three areas consciously and smoothly, and reap dividends as a result.
The simplest of the three value categories, Technical Competence means delivering what we promised in return for the fee. The dry cleaner takes your $2.00 and promises to deliver a clean, pressed shirt by a certain date. Simple. Integrate two newly merged departments; facilitate a strategic planning retreat; design an incentive plan; execute a search; develop a training workshop. This basic quid pro quo doesn’t require much discussion. This is the business – on the surface. This is what is visible and measurable. This is what the client pays for, right? Well, not quite.
For many consultants, life is grand when the engagement is that straightforward: "Give me the deliverables on time and I give you money and you leave town." Alas, the other two dimensions are usually present, though under the surface.
As consultants, we bring a wide range of professional skills and experiences that reach far beyond technical task accomplishment. Clients expect us to contribute these skills unselfishly, proactively, and at no added cost as we execute the engagement.
This is a reasonable expectation. We all have such expectations around the "professional behavior" of service workers. When you bring the car in for repair, you expect the Technical Competence to do the repairs; but you also likely expect the service people to return the car clean, on time, and at the promised price. You may expect them to teach you something in the process too, or you may expect some priority treatment if you’re a regular, long-time customer.
Expectations of "Professional Contributions," layered on top of Technical Competence, are natural in every field. Do we understand what they are in the typical consulting engagement? Below are the expectations for Professional Contributions I’ve encountered most often. When I place myself inside the client’s mind – to empathize – these are things they want to say:
"with me personally"
"with my team"
[A client pursuing a growth-by-acquisitions strategy wanted help. We conducted as much of our work as we could on-site, with their people, to make our processes and thinking visible – to pull back the curtain. As the series of small acquisitions developed, they took on more of the direct process step responsibilities. Did it cost us some days with each succeeding one? Yes, but a dozen years later, they remain a steady client, with engagements in multiple areas, without us having to solicit more business. And in every acquisition event, we’re still at the table]
"with the organization"
If these are some of the common expectations and desires clients have around Professional Contributions, then the question is How? How to deliver on these.
Here are a few ideas to consider . . .
The add-on value services described above come "free," or should. You won’t find them listed in the engagement letter or a contract. They are generally unstated, embedded in the client’s expectations, which makes them even more powerful. Your ability to deliver these – effortlessly, seamlessly, transparently – yet still ensure the client knows you’ve done them is one valid test of a professional consultant.
Most clients are pragmatic: their consultant selection process rests primarily upon the Technical Competence question. Clients have too much at risk to do anything else. Now, if a relationship already exists from earlier engagements, then Professional Contribution comes into play as well. It becomes the next branch in the decision tree. However, these things being equal, Personal Style will carry the day.
I believe Personal Style becomes the equal of Technical Competence and Professional Contributions once the engagement is underway. This is because the client comes to see Technical and Professional contributions as natural and expected. This is akin to Herzberg’s "Hygiene Factors," like compensation or supervision, in his study of what motivates high performers. If these work just right, all they do is help maintain average performance. They’re neutral. People expect reasonable pay and quality supervision. Providing them is not, then, a source of true motivation; but failure to provide them is certainly de-motivating. The real bang comes from the true motivating factors, like achievement, recognition, and the nature of the work itself.
Similarly, clients expect to see Technical Competence and Professional Contributions. Meeting those expectations may satisfy the clients "hygiene needs," but they are not sufficiently motivating to sustain long-term relationships. The differential versus other consultants may well rest in the Personal Style arena.
Again, clients hold a set of expectations in this arena. Usually unspoken, these expectations work like a report card. The client fills out the little sections mentally with each interaction; only you don’t get to see it. The secret entries contribute mightily to the potential for follow-on work. Where clients will discuss with you issues related to the Technical and Professional arenas, here they do not. Personal Style embodies too much that is, well, personal. So as with that blind date that went sour, you’ll find after the first engagement a series of ignored phone calls, or a few too many "No, we’re going a different direction this time" comments. How many sour dates have you told directly, "I’m afraid the personal chemistry just doesn’t work"?
What can you do? Well, beyond understanding the typical client expectations in this arena, perhaps not much. We can all make some adjustments, but Personal Style has far more to do with embedded personality and far less to do with learned behaviors. Popeye put it well when he said to Olive, "I am what I am, and dat’s what I am!"
But before we just give up on this issue, let’s try to understand the most common expectations and desires our clients hold:
Simple, huh? These are the common line items on the report card under the Personal Style heading. How much of who we really are can we change? Probably not a lot; but we can be aware that these things really do matter to the clients at the personal level. They aren’t the deciding factors at the front end of the selection process; but they fast become future knock-out factors once the engagement is underway.
Technical Competence, Professional Contribution, and Personal Style: none of the three alone is sufficient for building a sustainable, independent consulting practice. But mastering all three will yield significant competitive advantages. The large firms try to stock their work teams with elements of each; but we independents have to bring it all.
About the Author
Harvey Bergholz is president of Jeslen Corporation, a consulting company he has headed for more than 30 years. His for profit clients range from small ($100 million) companies to multi-billion dollar global giants. His nonprofit clients include large health care, religious, and educational institutions. His practice centers on providing senior executives with counsel and assistance in shaping and implementing large-scale, high-impact initiatives. Harvey also numbers among his clients some of the world’s largest consulting firms.
Harvey can be contacted at email@example.com
This Page Was Last Updated on June 14, 2015