We all love our clients. They pay us for helping them with advocacy and grassroots challenges about which we are passionate. They’re often open to our ideas and adhere to our advice as trusted counsel. It sounds like a work marriage made in heaven for a consultant.
But no matter how solid the relationship may be, we all need to pay attention to the warning signs that could lead to one or both parties facing fatigue or potentially breaking things off altogether.
Here are some ways to avoid having a consultant-client relationship get stale:
Get it in writing.
Jointly sign a contract laying out the scope of work, expectations, fees, and expenses (including outside vendors). Failure to have this protection in place before the work starts is unwise and can lead to significant problems should the relationship run afoul.
Set regular check-ins.
Mutually agree on regular in-person and/or conference call check-ins to keep up on the latest developments, discuss strategy, assign tasks, create deadlines and discuss next steps. Having a written agenda helps keep everyone organized and on point.
If you feel it’s been some time since your last communication with a client or you haven’t provided an update on a critical task, pick up the phone and call them or send an update. If you think the client is wondering “what’s up,” you are most likely in need of a check-in even if it’s between regularly-scheduled meetings. Sending a two-sentence check-in email can go a long way in sustaining a client-consultant relationship.
Re-up before it’s too late.
Don’t wait until the 11th hour to address an expiring contract, unpaid invoices or a change in the client’s scenario. That could lead to a lapse in the contract, or a permanent split. Either way, it’s better to get clarity before that happens.
Don’t worry about being the bearer of bad news.
Share bad news as eagerly as you would share positive developments in your advocacy and constituent engagement efforts. You don’t want others (congressional staff, a partner in a coalition or the media) to inform your client of a setback. There’s an expectation that you’ll be open, honest, and at times frank with the client.
As the scope of work shifts or if progress is hindered, consider bringing on another consultant or vendor who offers specialized services or talents.
Look at an RFP process as a chance to reassess.
When a client issues a request for proposals for work your firm has been providing, honestly reassess the relationship, fees, progress and desire to continue working with that organization (rather than blindly pursuing a piece of business that may no longer fit your portfolio).
When things get stale, consider proactively holding a retreat at the client’s location to reassess all aspects of the work, team, strategy and ultimately fees. Offer to lead this retreat at no cost to the client — it may save a valuable relationship and account.
Set the right expectations.
When expectations of the client don’t match up with reality, saying “the “client is always right” sets you up for failure. As professional practitioners, we must help educate our clients on all aspects of our work together, especially following ethical behavior and compliance with industry guidelines.
The same is true when a client expects champagne service and first-class results when allocating a beer budget. Tracking one’s billable hours, offering progress reports and holding regular check-ins allow this important dialogue to occur. If you charge less for VIP results, let it be your decision.
Mike Fulton directs the Washington, D.C., office of Asher Agency and teaches public affairs in the West Virginia University Reed College of Media’s Integrated Marketing Communications program.
Joshua Habursky is the Head of Federal Affairs at the Premium Cigar Association and Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management