In previous articles we've discussed how to get tough on prospects, associates and suppliers, and now we're about to discuss how to get tough on clients.
Do you remember the old Buckley's commercial … "It tastes awful. And it works"
More often than not, clients have to swallow some bitter pills before they can see improvements in their businesses.
Do you know that the Antpitta avis canis Ridgley, a weird bird that looks like a stuffed duck, instead of singing, it barks like a dog? These birds live in the Andes in Ecuador, and they've managed manage to hide from detection because they live in remote parts, and explorers haven't really gone there too often. I mention this soul-delighting interesting fact because sometimes instead of singing glorious songs to our clients, we'd better tell them some bad news, which may come across to them like bark at the moon.
But as former general, Colin Powell once put it … "The untidy truth is better than smooth lies."
Yes, there are engagements whose failures are the consultant's faults. But many engagements fail due to uncommitted clients. So, we have to get tough on clients to make certain they actually achieve what they want to achieve. Consulting engagements are a series of emotional ups and downs. Clients have to face and fight their demons. The very demons that have been preventing them from achieving certain results. And that can be scary. So, first we have to do our best to prevent clients from …
Falling For Market Pornography
This is a problem when clients get swayed on their strategies based on some New York Times bestseller books from some new business gurus. Have you thought about why some of the best business books never reach the New York Times bestseller list? Or any other bestseller list as a matter of fact. Sometimes you have to do things in your engagements that are unpleasant for your clients. So, the more invested clients are in their results, the more likely they stay with you and don't come to you with requests like …
"I've just read this new book from a Harvard professor, and I think we're doing the wrong thing."
Very often, clients – especially small business owners – keep validating their own visions and strategies against various other resources. And they often don't care how credible those resources are. If they like a resource, they fall for it head over heels. So, one big part is to prevent clients from losing their focuses as a result of a new bestseller book.
By the way, books …
Out of curiosity, do a Google search for "10 Underrated Business Books" and "10 Overrated Business Books". You'll be surprised. So, now let's take a closer look …
The Client's Investment
We're talking about three main investments: Time, money and people.
Every farmer knows that if they want to harvest, they have to invest some time to do some preliminary work. Work like plowing the land to prepare it for planting, planting, nurturing the soil and the small plants and, finally, harvesting. And that takes some serious time. And farmers know it's them who have to put in the time to work the land from plowing to harvesting. Consulting clients too must know that they have to invest time to see their desired results materialize. No one else can do it FOR them. Consulting is like lovemaking. You do it WITH clients not FOR-, TO- or AT them.
Although many books and even training courses teach that companies hire consultants when they don't have the internal muscle power to do the work, but I believe smart companies hire consultants for their brains not for their brawns. So, keep reminding clients that it takes time to achieve certain results, and they just have to do the work, instead of just demanding results from you.
Continuing with the farming example, farmers know they have to invest and buy ALL the equipment they need during whole farming the cycle. So, even before plowing the land, farmers buy the combine harvesters. In many cases consulting clients say they pay consultants a small deposit at the commencement of the engagement, and pay the rest upon completion.
This is one major problem. When is completion? Due to low commitment or other types of organizational sloth, the completion day can drag on and on. It's not your fault. Nevertheless, you don't get paid until the client says, "We're done."
I believe we have to have a payment structure that requires clients to make a significant investment before the engagement starts, based on their expected results. And this investment will keep the fire under their butts, so they keep moving and do what needs to be done to successfully complete the project.
The problem with not getting a significant upfront payment is that, instead of being honest, you try to be polite and spend your project time walking on eggshells to please the client, making sure you don't forfeit your fee. I encourage my clients to take 50% down payment, and the remaining 50% 30-45 days later. If it's a very short project, take the second payment halfway through. Don't leave a penny to completion.
The way I see it is that where there is no investment, there is no commitment and, most likely, there is no improvement. And when there is no improvement, rest assured clients will blame you not their own people. So, maximize the commitment using your payment structure. After all, you bring 100% of your best and brightest to the table from day 1.
The farming example again. Farmers go and buy their seeds in their favorite seed stores, but don't expect the seed store staff to come to the farm and do the planting. Farmers have to find the people to do the work. People investment simply means that clients must provide an implementing team to do the work.
Why is this important? At the end of the day, whatever is created, clients have to live with it. Without the client's implementing team, you merely give clients fish instead of teaching them how to fish. Clients remain dependent on you, and that's unethical consulting. Legal but unethical.
Now, if we want to teach clients to fish, we need some of the client's people who want to learn how to fish. But what if clients say they don't have spare people to do the work? Then I suggest that we turn down the engagement because at the end of the day it's likely to backfire. Imagine that you finish the work and clients start complaining …
"It's all good, but we don't know how to do it."
By the end of the engagement, the client's people must know how to maintain the improvement you've just helped to create and how to take it to the next level.
I believe in the power of the written word both in goal-setting and documenting engagements. So, we can use various documents to chronicle our engagements and to avoid misunderstanding. One more point. Some of these documents only apply if you do value-pricing. For those poor billable hour peddling souls some other documents are needed. So, let's see some of these documents …
Engagement Scope Document
This document is a detailed road map of the work we've signed off on the proposal. The proposal is a "big picture" document. This document is created jointly with clients. For a good scope document, I highly recommend Clark Addison Campbell's "One-Page Project Manager" concept (onepageprojectmanager (dot) com). The whole idea is that on 1 single page you can summarize the whole project. It's a project management dashboard.
You start with a basic template like the Basic Template on the Resources page, and and enter all your project parameters like the 12 Steps file, showing all 12 steps of filling in the template. The whole idea of this is that every participant on the project sings from the same song sheet, so no one changes the song, and if someone goes off key within the same song, the error can be quickly detected and rectified. You may want to use this Excel spreadsheet together with a Word document that outlines some other information that doesn't fit into a spreadsheet.
Information like …
- Scope statement
- Role definition
Client Progress Reports
I call it client progress report, but it's really a progress report from the project manager to you. Remember, you're an advisor to the project manager. The ability to do the work must stay in-house, so you can't be in charge. This is a periodic report depending on the duration of the engagement. I like keeping it weekly, so even when clients get derailed, they can get on track pretty quickly. So, on a specific day and time every week, clients must send me their progress reports. In this progress report clients document successes, shortcomings and pre-agreed indicators. This weekly progress report is essentially a 1-2 page summary of the …
This is the project manager's log book as he documents implementation. This can be either a file or a notebook in which clients document the engagement on an ongoing basis. In this logbook clients document the details of their ends of projects. This includes project work, interaction with team members and their subjective observation regarding the project and team members. And from this logbook, clients make weekly summaries, the progress report, and send them over to you.
Poor Progress Caution Letter
Sometimes it happens that some people in the implementing team don't pull their weight, and you have to inform the client, that is the buyer. I prefer to discuss this with the project manager and see what we can do before asking for intervening from the buyer. We do report the incident to the buyer, but try to remedy it without him. If that doesn't help, I ask for help from buyers. This is not about ratting people out. Your client has paid you good money, and she also pays good money to the people she's assigned to the project. So, it's your duty to tell the client if someone sabotages the success of the project. Look, the bad news will eventually reach clients anyway. And it reaches the client with a twist. You'll be blamed for everything. But when you go to the client first, she can hear the story as it is.
What is the difference between your telling and the employees telling? Politics. Employees are emotionally involved in the company's politics, and they protect their turfs. Clients have the right to know the truth no matter who made the mistake. Of course, if it's your mistake, then admit it.
When a change is required in the scope of the project, instead of tolerating random encroachments on the projects, clients must submit a change request, and the change must be scoped out and priced as a separate project. Some of the document's sections are …
- Description of change to the scope
- Description of the business reason for the change. Require dollar values wherever possible
- Description of the impact on the current scope
- Description of impact on resources (time, money, people)
- Description of impact on quality
Change approved or change rejected.
After Action Review (AAR)
This is a concept from the US army. It is a structured and facilitated debriefing session to self-evaluate engagements. You can find a genuine US Army AAR at http://verasage.com/images/uploads/TC25-20AARs.pdf , and it outlines how the process is done. And then you can modify it to your specific needs.
At the end of the day what really matters is how you can achieve your own firm's goals and objectives by helping clients to achieve theirs. But as Earl Nightingale once said … "Be careful of spending time with people who are downtrodden. We're not in the business of uplifting the downtrodden."
What that really means is that you can't want your clients' success more than they do. They have to have a strong desire to succeed. And this desire is clearly demonstrated by the willingness to invest time, money and people in the process of achieving those results.
What is really important is how well you are doing, but you can only do well by creating value outside your firm. But this value creation is a not a solo dance. Your clients have to dance with you if they want to see that value you can deliver. If your clients are not ready, willing and able to implement the value you render, then nothing will happen. And by implementation I mean interpreting, integrating and internalizing the jointly created value into their operations.
You can't help clients who refuse to implement. And you can't afford to commiserate with them and patting them on the shoulders, saying that they can do it next time. This is not a therapy session with "disturbed" people. Yes, we all have minor "issues", but we're not clinical cases in need of psychiatric treatment. Neither are our clients.
My own engagements are more like military training than clinical counseling. Well, I don't yell. But I demand that clients move their butts, so we can see progress. I demand that clients put in 100% commitment to maximize return on their investments. And I make clients give me the right to push them pretty hard.
My engagements are pretty short, so I crank up the intensity. I want my clients to produce outstanding results, but I'm not going to do it FOR them. That's impossible. You can't ask your doctor to go to the chemist to get the prescription he's just written. So, getting or not getting healthy is in the patient's hands not in the doctor's.
Also, you can't let clients fail one after the other because it reflect back on you. So, to achieve your business goals, you need great clients with whom you can create great value and lasting results. Yes, we all care about our clients, but we can't put their success ahead of our success. Why? Because you're not in control of their businesses.
Also, imagine you have 100 clients. It means your own success ranks at 101st on your priority list. That's retarded. The objective of running a consulting firm is not about making friends with anyone in sight. It very often happens in good firms, but that's not the primary objective. Running a consulting firm is about …
- Creating a better and more fulfilled Self
- Creating dedicated, inspired and enthusiastic professionals
- Creating prospects with high potential
- Creating satisfied suppliers
- Creating delighted clients with sexy engagements
And the improvement in each of these five areas leads to a blazingly reputable and profitable firm.
So, you and your people make sure your firm's clients actually do what they need to do to achieve their goals. As a firm leader, you also make sure your people's work to serve your clients is in full alignment with their career objectives and they actually enjoy what they're doing. And the alignment of these two factors leads to great financial performance in the firm. We have to understand that financial performance is an effect, driven by several causes.
And when your firm has great financial performance, you know your clients are delighted and your people are fulfilled, when you go home, you can rightfully claim, "I've done a great job, so I deserve dinner". So, I hereby authorize you to help yourself to double portion of pickles or even horseradish.