Early in my career, I worked as a client engagement executive in a consulting firm. At the start of every new engagement, I would joke with my team that, “the best day of a client project is the first day. Everyone is happy and full of hope. And then it’s downhill from there.” While I said this tongue-in-cheek and always got a laugh, there is a modicum of truth to it. But, it doesn’t have to be that way for either the consultant or the client.
If your organization plans on engaging a consulting firm, there are some things you can do to ensure a successful outcome.
Determine Areas for Improvement
When you hire a consultant you are entering into a relationship, whether it lasts a week, a month or a year. As is the case in any relationship, setting expectations is essential to success. The first and most important expectation to set is perhaps the most obvious: What are you trying to accomplish with the project? Some clients won’t know exactly where to start in fixing a problem or designing a possible solution. They may know things are working quite right or their current solution is too slow and cumbersome. But, they often can’t identify why that is and what should be done about it.
At Mission Edge, we try and help organizations define where improvement can be made by having them take an organizational “health check.” This is a fairly comprehensive survey of systems, processes, and people that try and define gaps that need to be filled. We often ask several people in management and on staff to take the test so we get an honest view of what issues exist. And we urge clients to be honest! This isn’t a test and no one will see the results. That being said, it can be a powerful tool to start the discussion about what, how, and when the issues identified can be fixed.
Define Expectations for Teamwork
The second expectation stems from the first: now that we have defined what we are trying to accomplish, how will the client and consultant work together to achieve it? What are the expectations for the client in terms of providing key information, making time for meetings, and providing project resources? What’s the expectation on the consultant in terms of work hours, reporting on progress and interaction with client staff and management? Setting these expectations require a written agreement from the get-go, and should be reinforced at every status meeting moving forward. You can never revisit expectations about how the client and consultant work together too many times!
Define the Project Scope
The third expectation revolves around project scope: do the client and consultant agree on how they’ll reach the goals they have set? What are the tasks that need to be completed? How long will they take? This is often where consultant-client relationships can go south. The scope is a key element of the project plan — it defines the features, functions, and requirements of the project or work being done, as well as the resulting time commitment and cost. It should act as the instruction manual for the work being done, so the outcome, time and cost reflect what both parties agreed to.
Unsurprisingly, the instruction manual often gets re-written as the project goes on. Clients identify new features and functions and ask for changes. Any good consultant should be prepared for these “change orders” but, in my experience, many are reluctant to document them properly. The reason for this is simple: they want to do a good job and they don’t want to say no to the client. They often underestimate the additional time it will take to accomplish the new work, and then try to squeeze it in. This almost always ends badly. Without the precedent of responding with a change order that incorporates new cost and time estimates, the consultants will get squeezed at both ends — the client raises their expectations of the work being done but not what they expect to pay, while the consultants work extra hours without fair compensation. If the consultants work for a firm, they’ll also get in trouble for not updating the agreement because the firm won’t get paid for the extra work either.
Setting, communicating and continually reinforcing expectations is key to any successful consulting engagement. For the client, make sure you have a single point person to manage the relationship and insist on written confirmation of everything agreed to in meetings. Make sure to send an email after any discussion of substance recounting what was discussed and/or agreed to, and ask for a detailed accounting of hours and tasks on the billing statement.
Setting these expectations from the beginning will set the tone with the consultant, and let them know what it will take to successfully complete the project – and to get paid for the work they do.