You have heard the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” While there’s some truth to this, developing meaningful client relationships goes beyond simply knowing someone—it’s about cultivating intimacy. As a consultant, building intimate relationships with clients is critical to your professional development and enables you to create a lasting and meaningful impact on their work and personal aspirations. Fostering intimate client relationships does come naturally to some consultants, but it is also a skill that can be learned and developed. The forthcoming paragraphs will explore some keys to establishing close connections through client intimacy.
The first key is providing value to your client. As an initial step to adding value, you must remember that being a consultant is much more than simply developing and deploying solutions to your client’s challenges and problems. It requires flexibility, agility, and the aptitude to wear multiple hats in support of your client’s needs at a specific point in time. As an example of this flexibility, there will be times that you act as an advisor or coach, while at other points, with the same client, you will be tasked with listening as they vent about a challenge they are facing. There is no shortage of roles to be played, but regardless of the scenario you must be seen as an advocate of their project and personal development goals. The specific way in which you add value will vary from client to client and project to project, but you must be willing to lend your capability and capacity in a manner that puts your client in an advantageous position.
The foundation of intimate client relationships lies in the value you can offer to your client’s company and, more importantly, to the individual employee you are working with. This is an important distinction because most lasting relationships are not fostered through an organization, but rather through a specific individual. To truly make a lasting impact, you need to understand the individuals career aspirations and support them along their professional journey. This requires investing your time into deep conversations with your client, which is something that must be earned.
Earning the Right
Earning the right to have deep conversations with your clients requires building trust. This takes time and a proven investment of your energy and effort in an intentional manner. You should strive to be more than just a consultant; the goal is to become a professional friend that has a genuine interest in the proliferation of their professional development and personal aspirations. This doesn’t always mean doing something groundbreaking; even small acts of thoughtfulness can go a long way to developing trust. Sometimes, this is as simple as checking on their personal well-being or identifying a shared interest that you both enjoy discussing. If this does not develop trust right away that is okay, you can try another tactic that shows your client you are willing to meet them in the middle.
Showing vulnerability by being the first to open-up regarding personal and/or professional topics can be a powerful way to encourage your clients to share important insights that lead to a more trusting dynamic. It’s important to remember that this level of trust is cultivated through one-on-one interactions that occur outside the office. Though this tactic requires you to speak about yourself, you must keep a primary focus on the personal needs of your client and avoid burdening them with your own problems or frustrations. The key is to remain professional by setting boundaries and handling sensitive discussions with care, especially when it comes to project-related matters. The hope is that your client becomes comfortable discussing topics both inside and outside the scope of the project you are both working on. This is evidence of trust being developed, but always remember that this trust is a privilege, and you must allow your client to lead the relationship.
Allowing the Client to Establish their Preferred Dynamic
As trust is developed it is important not to become too comfortable with the dynamic that you have established. The primary recommendation here is to never assume where the connection stands. Client relationships can be fickle and are riddled with variables that you may not be privy to, which is why gauging the level of client intimacy is extremely difficult. To navigate this, take a step back and allow your client to guide the dynamic of the relationship. Remember, as a consultant, you have the privilege of helping your clients, but you also bear the burden of their challenges. The stakes are highest for them, and you must respect that.
The core of your relationship is clients trusting you to achieve specific outcomes, and you must remember that things can change very quickly. Someone who was once an advocate may become resistant to your ideas, and if you force your preferred dynamic on them, it will not end well. For this reason, you must trust in the dynamic that you have created together and give your client the space to operate in a manner that best serves their needs. While it’s easy to focus on relationships with those who welcome us, it’s equally important to strategically build connections with those who may show resistance. Your client will appreciate your ability to relinquish power and if you navigate difficult obstacles together it will lead to long-term benefits. This is also a great way to continue adding value and increasing the level of trust your clients have in the relationship. Though you should allow the client to lead the relationship, it is on you to maintain consistent contact with them.
We’re all guilty of losing track of time, but it’s crucial to check in with your clients regularly through a consistently established channel. As the consultant, it is your job to maintain contact with your client, during, between, and even after your contracted engagement has ended. This will prove that you care more about the person than the project. This is imperative because you never know where your relationship may lead, and if it is preserved you have likely achieved a high level of client intimacy.
Cultivating intimate client relationships is a vital aspect of consulting which requires adding value, building trust, and allowing the client to lead the relationship dynamic. By providing value and supporting the personal and professional aspirations of individual clients, consultants can create lasting impacts that will be remembered. A lasting impact is based on building trust that is achieved through the investment of time, effort, and a genuine interest in the client’s needs. Further, this trust is fostered by showing vulnerability and engaging in deep conversations that extend beyond the scope of the project you are both working on. To maximize this trust, you must allow the client to lead the relationship dynamic, because their preferences and circumstances are sure to change. Lastly, consistent communication and connection, even after the engagement ends, demonstrates care for the individual, leading to a higher level of client intimacy. Ultimately, intimate client relationships are the cornerstone of your own professional development and are imperative to client success.
Written by: Dean McMann
About the Author: Dean McMann is a Founding Partner at McMann & Ransford with 35+ years of experience in consulting and professional services. He is a sought-after expert and speaker on topics of: B2B differentiation, professional services best practices, and overcoming commoditization. In addition to his extensive experience in the Professional Services space, Dean also serves on the board of various non-profit organizations.