Guidelines for a healthy client - consulting firm relationship

09 May 2019 6 min. read
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Businesses of every stripe operate in an environment where rapid change is the norm. Technology is bringing disruption to every sector; increased regulation places an increasingly onerous burden on operations while customers and consumers are far more engaged than ever before, and therefore expect ever higher levels of service delivery. Daniel Meere of consulting firm Axis Corporate explains below.

To survive, businesses must continually evolve but this can present challenges. They may not have the skills in-house to manage change, or if they do, their existing resources may not have capacity to lead new projects. At times, collaboration with an objective partner can offer guidance and insight that otherwise they would struggle to access.

This is where support from a consultancy can be invaluable. However, given the considerable investment the appointment of a consulting firm represents, it is essential that a business understands how to manage the relationship effectively in order to extract the maximum value. There are challenges from the outset: selecting a consultancy can be daunting for a firm that has never engaged in such an exercise before.

In the first instance, many companies start their journey by referring to a preferred supplier list. This offers the reassurance of a set of vetted consulting firms, scaling down the wide range of potential partners to a manageable level and removing some element of risk. However, this may present a largely homogeneous group, often dominated by the major players. As the saying goes, no one ever got fired by hiring IBM, however, companies should look beyond a consultancy’s market position: the cultural fit is equally important as a good consultancy should act as a seamless extension to an internal resource. Just as an HR department will seek to build a team with complementary skills and personalities, so should a business seek to engage a consulting firm which has a skillset, philosophy and corporate culture that dovetails with their own.

Guidelines for a healthy client - consulting firm relationship

A consultancy’s experience is also extremely important. After all, the team will be steering a business through times of pivotal transformation and the success of delivery depends on the expertise of the professionals allocated to a project. However, there is a crucial difference between the experience of a consulting firm and the experience of a team. A business should make sure that the team that they are sold is the team that they will be working with.

Ten guidelines for a client-consultant relationship

Of course, the appointment of a consultancy marks only the beginning of the journey – the ability to manage the relationship with a consulting partner effectively is crucial to the successful delivery of a project. The following are ten guidelines for businesses to help ensure a positive and fruitful working rapport:

  • Be clear on the outcome you want. Outputs and outcomes are distinct – one solves a problem, the other satisfies a commitment. Though the operation can be a success, the patient can still die, unfortunately.
  • Agree on the scope of the project and ensure that both outputs and outcomes are clearly understood. This should be documented to avoid any misunderstandings and revisited regularly as the scope may change as a project evolves.
  • Recontract once work has commenced. Projects often start with assumptions and expectations which change even in the early weeks. We find that 're-contracting' to validate and confirm assumptions and expectations after two weeks of engagement is invaluable in ensuring they still chime as a project rolls out.
  • Communicate regularly. Daily stand-ups work well for the core project team to manage day-to-day activity, complemented by weekly touchpoints with the main sponsor. Fortnightly or monthly steering groups should be held with the full senior team – their attendance or at the very least, the attendance of empowered delegation, should be compulsory.
  • Successful delivery is a team effort. Spare the unsparable within your own team and use it as an opportunity for your best to become even better. Insist the same quality standards of the consultancy. If they are not delivering, insist on a change of team.
  • Create the right working environment. Projects are not business-as-usual operations and need a distinct operating environment and working style. Get the basics right with dedicated project space, co-located teams, collaborative platforms and document sharing.
  • Demonstrate leadership as the sponsor. The consultants will react well to clear guidance and effective decision-making. Be open and transparent and do not wince from delivering frank feedback. An absent or disengaged sponsor will lose control and progress will suffer as a result.
  • Capture knowledge periodically. People leave organisations, knowledge atrophies over time and details are lost. Creating a centralised store of knowledge preserves the history and rationale and enables new team members to contribute more quickly.
  • Integrate the team to act as one. Remove all barriers to operating as a single team by setting up common e-mail addresses, actively avoiding a ´two-stream economy´ and encouraging seamless collaboration. This will create a ‘project culture´ and help to attract and retain talent.
  • Act as true partners. Great results require an alignment of objectives and housekeeping basics. Pay invoices on time and give notice on any key changes that might affect the working relationship. Open communication and honest dialogue all greatly facilitate this. Share in each other’s success and actively try to make each other look good.

Engaging a consulting firm can be the single most effective decision a business can make in transforming its organisation to meet the challenges of relentless market change. However, the delivery of a project’s full potential is dependent on establishing and maintaining a collaborative partnership. Taken individually, each of these ten steps are straightforward and relatively easy to get right. When taken as a whole, they represent a powerful blueprint for success.

Daniel Meere is UK managing director of global management consulting firm Axis Corporate.