The Holy Grail of Consulting: Powerful Partnerships

Do you know the story of the man who lost his keys in his driveway one night?

When asked why he was looking for his keys on the front porch he said, “Because that’s where the light is.”

In the same way, you and your team may be doing great client work in the light, but you may not be looking in the place where the key to smoother projects and bigger consulting engagements lies.

Here’s a question: How can you guarantee fewer escalations, reduced scope creep and less conflicts?

The answer: By building a great, trusting relationship with your clients. In our view, your primary, overarching goal should be to develop powerful partnerships with your clients so that you’re providing lasting value and a great client experience, one that motivates each client to commit to a long-term, mutually beneficial business relationship.

What does it mean to be a powerful partner? Simply put, it means that you must be successful in three different dimensions:

1) Building strong technical credibility in your client’s eyes

2) Developing and expanding “deep strategic trust” with your client

3) Establishing a balance of power as equals in the relationship

We won’t address how to build strong technical credibility here. It’s not in our wheelhouse and we know from our experience that most services and consulting organizations make technical training a top priority. However, if you feel that you or your team are lacking in technical competency, please make this known to your manager because it’s very difficult to build a strong partnership when your client has concerns in this area. Consider technical credibility the foundation of your powerful partnerships.

Deep strategic trust is the make-or-break quality in every partnership. If trust, respect and transparency are expanding in your relationship, you’re going in the right direction. If they’re contracting, you’re going in the wrong direction. All of the principles and practices we share are designed to deepen the trust between you and your partners directly or indirectly.

The third element, the balance of power, is the hardest dimension to work with in most partnerships. It’s especially difficult to develop in client relationships, because the clients believe they’ll get the best results if they have more power than you and your team. The truth is, clients will actually get better results when there’s an equal balance of power all the way around.

In services, we’re able to bring more to the table and share our best solutions with clients who operate this way. Most client relationships begin with clients believing they have more power in the relationship, and our behavior either reinforces that belief or teaches them over time that we are equals. Even though this shift in the balance will take time, it’s critical for us to believe that we are equal partners and to act that way from day one. The first person that we need to convince of our equality every single day is the one looking at us in the mirror.

The client will always see you as playing one of these four roles: Vendor, Technical Expert, Advisor, or Powerful Partner. Many of us begin our working relationships with clients in the Vendor position, where we have low technical credibility and low strategic trust with them. Why? Because the client doesn’t know us, nor do they really understand what we can do for them; they are waiting for us to prove ourselves before they trust us more.

Most of what happens to us in the Vendor box isn’t to our benefit. When we are in this box:

· The client will keep us out of the loop when discussing important decisions about their business strategy.

· The client will talk to other vendors about their needs for potential new services, products or solutions in our market.

· If we make a major mistake or the client isn’t satisfied with our work we may very well have to deal with an escalation. We will likely get very few chances to do things right before the client escalates. There’s no room for discussion of “extenuating circumstances”, or give and take.

· The client will lean on us to get the work done, but will not necessarily invite us back once we’ve done the heavy lifting. Full adoption, land and expand and upselling are all very difficult to accomplish from this position.

You get the idea. We don’t want to stay in the Vendor box very long. It’s a risky and uncomfortable place to be.

If and when we convince the client of our excellent technical credibility, we’ll move from being seen as a Vendor to being seen as a “Technical Expert”. This is a solid step forward. We do know some professional services people who are lucky enough to start every engagement as a Technical Expert because their company is well known and respected, or because it has a marketplace solution that clients really want and don’t technically understand. This is a far better place to be than a mere Vendor, but ultimately we don’t want to stay here either.

If you are perceived primarily as a Technical Expert, you’re trusted to help solve technical problems and your recommendations are listened to with interest and trust. We find many frontline consultants love to hang out in this role because they are comfortable being the experts, and this is where they feel strongest.

What they don’t see is that this role is also very limited. They can influence the client about technical issues, but they are still out of the room when the client discusses what they care about most: their business ideas, strategic plans and compelling needs. Technical Experts don’t have the ability to influence the client strategically about the best pathway to achieve their business needs with the best systems solutions. They’ll always be the techie who tactically implements clients’ strategic decisions. When their project is complete, they will be thanked for their technical work and asked to leave. Since you’re reading this book, our guess is you’re after something much better than that.

In the Technical Expert position it’s also highly unlikely that you’ll be able to support your client to reach full adoption of your solution. When conflicts come up, you won’t have much leverage to negotiate settlements and often you’ll end up with an unwelcome escalation. Finally, Technical Experts rarely spot new service or product sales leads because they’re too busy implementing to learn about downstream client needs that they can link to their services and products.

If you still think it’s a good idea to stay in the Technical Expert quadrant longer than necessary, consider the technical expert who connects your home cable system. You really want the technician to do the work for you and do it well, and you definitely respect his or her­­­­ knowledge and advice about the cable system. On the other hand, you can hardly wait for them to complete the project and get the heck out of your house!

What about being seen as an Advisor? The Advisor focuses on building the client relationship while developing deeper and more strategic trust. No one expects them to possess deep technical expertise. Therefore, in this position you are playing to a more strategic role without the ability to deeply engage technical issues. In our experience, the sales team generally plays the Advisor role in most tech companies, with support from presales in the Technical Expert role. While this is a strong play during the sales phase, it’s usually a misfit for anyone on the services or delivery team. The exceptions we’ve consistently encountered are customer success or customer relationship managers.

In some companies, they fulfill a specialized role where they directly manage client relationships through any conflict or upselling opportunities. Since their role is to directly manage client relationships while staying away from the technical detail, being perceived as an Advisor is actually perfect for them.

By now you’ve guessed that you want to have the standing of a “Powerful Partner” as often as possible, both with your clients and your internal partners. But why? This holds many benefits for both you and your partner.

Some of these include:

· The client will invite you in “upstream” when discussing important decisions about their business strategy.

· The client will offer you “sole source” sales opportunities when they have needs for potential new services, products or solutions in your market.

· If you make a major mistake or the client isn’t satisfied with your work, you’ll have an opportunity to remedy the situation before they escalate or involve more senior players.

· Managing “scope creep” is much easier to accomplish and much more effective if you’re in this quadrant.

· Full adoption, “land and expand” and up-selling are all much easier to accomplish from this position.

If you’ve successfully become a Powerful Partner, you’ve created deep strategic trust as well as strong technical credibility in your client’s eyes. In the world of consulting, this is the grand prize.

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Steve Vislisel and Marty Friedman are the creators of the “Power of Partnership”, a training program for consultants and professional services pros.

They teach the specific principles and practices required to systematically create both great results and phenomenal customer experience in each client engagement.

They created this methodology for Accenture and have delivered it to over 10,000 services and consulting professionals in great organizations like E&Y, HP Software, Cisco, Visa, Bell Canada, Jive, Apptio and Lithium.

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