My worst client experience ever was many, many years ago, when I was a green consultant fresh out of graduate school and desperate to do a great job. Our client, a small medical company, had asked us to design a philanthropy strategy for them. And boy, did we. It was a work of art in the early days of strategic corporate philanthropy (before Shared Value was all the rage), focused on supporting immigrant women with holistic healthcare.
It ticked all the right boxes: it aligned with their brand, made an amazing media story, allowed them to engage with not just cash but product and skills-based volunteering, and best of all, would have a real impact.
Imagine my surprise (heartbreak? disappointment?) when months later we learned that, ignoring all our advice, they had spent their entire budget for this on building a life-size model of a human body part that is better left unmentioned and touring it across the country.
At the time, I took this personally, but in my decade-plus experience working in the grey area where companies and charities meet, sometimes as a consultant and sometimes as a client, I’ve learned a lot about what makes a great advisory relationship, and what doesn’t. Here are my top tips for organisations – from any sector- thinking about bringing on outside help.
1.) Set expectations early, and manage them often
It’s the consultant’s job to define clearly what our engagement with you will look like. But it’s your job to make sure that your expectations are clear as well. Are you a face-time kind of person? Make sure they know they’re expected in the office regularly. Are you working toward some unmovable deadlines? Tell them so they can plan accordingly. Do you hate when people wear suits? Let them know so they can get their best jeans pressed.
A good consultant will ask for feedback regularly to make sure you are happy and your expectations are being met, but don’t be shy about sharing them. Expectations are a two-way street, and by setting them out early, you can avoid any roadblocks ahead.
2.) Communicate regularly and remember, consultants aren’t mind readers
One of my favourite clients ever was the head of a corporate foundation, who I got on so well with, that when I got married, she sent me a gift off my registry. We got to the point where we often knew what the other was thinking. We were not twins separated at birth – but we spoke often with each other, and made sure that if there was any lack of clarity, miscommunication or challenged expectations, we caught it with time to spare. While we did email a lot, we did most of our chatting over the phone. This made an immense difference, as I could catch any moods or nuances in her voice much better than I could have through the screen.
In a trusted advisor relationship we often get to know each other very well – but even though I thought I might have known what this lovely client was thinking, I always asked anyway if I was right. I can’t read your mind and I suspect you can’t read mine (unless it’s before 8am and then my mind just screams: ‘COFFEE’).
3.) Tell the truth
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they work with a consultant is to keep issues and annoyances to themselves. It’s hard to tell someone they aren’t doing what you want, especially if you’re a non-confrontational person. Often times we are all guilty of just letting something slide for a sub-par result, and then complaining about it afterward.
This is a terrible idea. Not only do you do the consultant no favours, since they may keep making the same mistakes over and over again, but you don’t do yourself any favours either. This is not a hair salon situation – where it’s proven that even the most confrontational of people will tell their stylist they love a haircut, and then go home and cry in the bathroom. You paid for a significant piece of work or advice, and you need to be honest if your expectations aren’t being met. It also goes both ways: if they feel they can be truly honest with you, you’ll get better, more complete and useful advice.
Honesty really is the best policy – yes, even in the salon.
4.) Get what you paid for
Hopefully you’ve done enough due diligence in selecting an advisor to work with that you can trust they know a lot about their area of expertise. Let them share that with you – there is nothing worse than being hired for your knowledge on an issue and never being able to share it. Listening to advice doesn’t mean you have to take it all the time. But give them a chance to share what they know and have experienced before you make up your mind.
The old adage goes that there’s no such thing as a bad client, and I do think that’s true. As a consultant, you can learn from every engagement. But there is such a thing as a bad relationship and the last thing you want is to have that with someone you have paid for a service. If you’ve chosen right, you should demand a lot from them, but the best advice is truly to treat you consultants just like you would anyone else – with kindness, respect for what they bring to the table, honesty and candour, and of course, high expectations.
Alisha Miranda is the Managing Director of I.G. Advisors.