Tips for development consultants: How to create value for clients (and keep them coming back!) (Pt1)
I am delighted to be writing this post on a topic that is so close to my heart and central to my professional life. Many of you know that I have passionately run my own consulting practice for the past six and a half years, mainly in the fields of migration, development and related topics. While I do not claim to be any sort of consulting Yoda, I wanted to reflect on some learnings from my consulting career and throw them out into cyberspace on the off chance one person might find them useful.
So here's my stab at explaining the principles that underpin my everyday mission to create value for my clients (or at least to get myself through the day!), along with recommended actions that you can try out to take your consulting to the next level!
This article is written for consultants who work in the international development and public sector spaces, although some advice undoubtedly crosses over into the realm of being a good worker. I couldn't stop writing about this so I'm posting these tips in two parts.
Tip 1: Do what you say you're going to do when you say you're going to do it
There are two aspects to this. The first is practical: projects often require the consultant and the client to know when they will each work on project inputs. Giving certainty to the client about when you will deliver on your end of the bargain helps them plan effectively. The second is about trust and credibility. People will want to work with you if they know, like and trust you. Said you would call the client at 3pm on Tuesday? Do NOT leave her hanging! Otherwise, the next time you promise on something big or - very exceptionally - need to ask for an extension on a deadline (truly as a last resort (READ: someone died)), it'll be a no-go.
This week, actively make small promises - such as when you will email your client or develop a memo about something, or anything else - and MAKE SURE YOU
DELIVER, however low the stakes may be.
Tip 2: Avoid surprises - make it 110% clear how you are undertaking a project and what your next steps are
99% of failed consulting projects (excuse the hyperbole) are probably due to a misalignment of client-consultant expectations. It of course takes two to tango (and I'll talk more about how to be a good client in a future post). However, being a good consultant is about guiding the client towards being clear about what they want. I've seen many consultants not wanting to come across as incompetent by failing to ask questions. And that was definitely myself six years ago (impostor syndrome anyone?). Ask questions. State and re-state your understanding through calls and emails in order to give the client ample opportunity to make corrections.
Another common consultant's retort is that the client's instructions were open to interpretation. In the absence of clarity, it's up to you to bring the clarity. Explain what you propose to do and how you propose to do it. You can do this by:
1) Ensuring that the project terms of reference are detailed, precise and unambiguous.
2) Holding a meeting early on to discuss the client's objectives and ask as many stupid questions as you can.
3) Developing detailed methodologies and inception reports, including a week-by-week schedule of what you plan to do and a detailed table of contents (if the output is a report). Of course, you can leave the caveat that you may revise plans later, but at least you can telegraph your intentions clearly and early on.
And that's just the start. Throughout the project, remind the client of the next steps and how your thinking about the project is evolving.
For projects where the output is a report, propose a detailed table of contents right at the start.
See above three points!
Tip 3: Be proactive and make life easy for the client
I recently had a feedback call with one of my clients. I asked her how she felt the project went. She said, "Actually, I thought it was all pretty easy". In my mind, I was shouting, "Well, it was no picnic for me!" - it involved a complex country context, researching hidden populations, and dealing with divergent views on the client side. But at the same time I was happy to hear that the client found it easy. Consultants are not just service-providers - we are solutions-providers and problem-solvers.
Different clients have different levels of experience, fluctuating workloads, and internal pressures to deal with. Consultants are paid to focus on one small thing (okay, that can quickly end up becoming a few big things, but still). Your project is your baby and it's for you to take care of. So you should bring the ideas and you should outline to the client where and when you need their support. The client may be able to (and want to) take a more active role and that can be great (emphasis on "can"!). But it's first and foremost your responsibility.
When this becomes tricky is when the client might become the project bottleneck. For instance, you want their input on some interview questions or their green light to contact people. For less important inputs and for busy clients, I take the approach of "approval by default". To illustrate: "dear client, please find attached the list of proposed interview questions and feel free to let me know by the end of the week if you have any feedback"; or "I propose to contact [stakeholder] next Wednesday by email with you in CC. Please let me know by Monday if you have any issues with that". I know this approach is not universally endorsed and it should be used with caution. But when a bottleneck ends up affecting your project, it's your head on the line.
Try the "approval by default" method.
Write an email to your client setting out your next steps for the week/month.
Tip 4: Be nice and courteous
While fairly self-explanatory, I would emphasise the importance of accepting criticism of your work gracefully and constructively. A human reaction to receiving criticism is to push back or justify, at times unwillfully exuding passive aggression (practised as an art-form by us Brits!).
I've tried in recent years to actively fight those negative pangs that come with less-than-perfect client feedback. First, understand that feedback is part of the process. You're delivering what the client wants so they should care and provide guidance to help you achieve that (it'd be even more worrying if the client didn't care about your work). Second, make it a habit to show gratitude for feedback. Respond by saying "thank you so much for taking the time to provide insightful feedback". Do it. It goes a long way and fosters clear communication between you and your client. Pressure is a privilege.
When receiving client feedback, make a point of showing gratitude.
Tip 5: Assess your client's preferred communication style early on and adapt to it
Big shout out to my friend and former client Katy for teaching me the value of this one!
I'm a writer (or, rather, typer) and have little appreciation for aesthetics. At home, my partner can redecorate swathes of our house without me noticing. I have a passion for writing detailed emails and plans and part of me thinks all would be right with the world if everyone was the same.
But the world is a bit more diverse than that, which is probably a good thing (we probably don't need a world that runs solely on emails). Some clients prefer face-to-face calls. Some prefer audio only. Some prefer visual communications in reports. Some like to see different colours once in a while. Some are more chatty, or prefer to use WhatsApp. Others like to get straight to the point.
Being a good consultant is about understanding the client's preferences and idiosyncrasies, adapting work style accordingly. I now regularly inject colour and visual supports into my reports when I think it would help the client's reading. When I do send detailed emails, I offer "a quick call to talk it through".
Determine your client's style early on and adapt your working methods accordingly.