Managing a consulting project is almost always accompanied by a set of unique challenges relative to a specific client. Though the challenges that you are solving for your client are unique, there are some common issues that arise when working with and managing client relationships. This blog explores three of the most common client challenges seen by consultants and discusses several effective strategies to address them. By being proactive and implementing the right approach to common client issues, you can more effectively navigate these challenges and ensure successful project outcomes.
Issue 1: Lack of Client Engagement
One of the most frequent hurdles faced by consultants involves clients not following through with tasks that you have assigned to them. It’s important to anticipate this issue and take proactive measures to address the potential for a lack of client engagement as you create the project plan. At the signing of the statement of work or first steering committee meeting, discussions should include client responsibilities and your expectations/needs to ensure the delivery of a successful outcome. This discussion should lead to an agreement, so the steering committee or project sponsor is able to hold their project team accountable to their end of the bargain. Client buy-in is paramount in this stage of the project, as it can be used as a point of reference if client engagement is lacking. This enables you to manage the client and their work with regular report outs and updates. Scheduling these meetings or check-ins with the steering committee are critical to the early detection of project risks and give them the opportunity to hold their team accountable throughout the duration of your engagement. This tactic puts a buffer between you and the project team, allowing you to maintain a positive relationship with the client when/if they are struggling to deliver on the agreed upon expectations.
Issue 2: Lack of Executive Buy-In
Another common challenge associated with client management is a lack of executive support toward the work that is being conducted. When executives fail to recognize the value of the services provided by consultants or harbor skepticism about potential project risks, they are not likely to support your efforts. Often, the result of this might manifest itself in the form of push back from the project team, an inability to hold the client accountable, or, worst of all, failure to deliver a successful outcome. To tackle this, it is crucial to discuss potential project risks openly and proactively with executives. These should be accompanied with recommended strategies or discussions around how the identified risks can be mitigated. This will help the executive acknowledge that you have thought through the project, adding credibility to your plan. If you do not discuss risks at the outset of a project, executives are likely to feel, “this is too good to be true”. We all know that if something seems, “too good to be true”, it probably is, which is why this is a key element to attaining executive buy-in.
Further, executive buy-in, or lack-there-of, can have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the project team. In almost every consulting engagement, there is likely an individual that resists the efforts of the consultant, referred to as an ‘antibody’. There is no shortage of reasons, good or bad, for this resistance, but attaining executive buy-in will ensure that the project moves forward regardless of the challenges that you are faced with. It should be noted that it is not your role to address the antibody, but you can identify them and report back to the executive. At this point, the executive, who understands and promotes the value of your work, can hold their team, and the antibody, accountable by serving as an advocate of your plan. Ultimately, attaining executive buy-in ensures that you have a project champion that is willing to support your agenda.
Issue 3: Scope Creep
Scope creep, which is an extremely common occurrence in consulting projects, is the expansion of project boundaries beyond the initial agreement or statement of work. While this concept is somewhat natural to the ever-changing landscape of client work, scope creep can be detrimental to project outcomes when resources are diverted away from tasks that are critical to success. Due to how commonly it happens, accounting for and managing scope creep is a skill that every consultant should acquire. The primary way of managing scope creep is through defining effective communication protocols and involving the necessary stakeholders at the outset of a project. One of the most common methods is to incorporate cascaded communication. This is where you communicate with the project lead when you are confronted with tasks outside of the scope of the project and allow them to disseminate that information and collect the reactions of their team. Depending on the client, you may, or may not, be involved in this cascade, but the strategy allows your client to determine the appropriate response to the issue. In turn you are provided with the context needed to understand why it has occurred and what to do about it. When the proper communication channels have been followed, evidence is gathered enabling you and the project lead to have a conversation regarding next steps. This is often a delicate conversation, because it involves a decision; should the scope stay the same or be expanded? It is important to approach scope creep clinically, while also leveraging it as an opportunity to assist the client and potentially up-sell additional services.
In conclusion, managing client challenges in consulting projects requires a proactive and strategic approach. By anticipating and addressing common issues such as lack of client engagement, lack of executive buy-in, and scope creep, consultants can navigate these challenges and achieve successful project outcomes. Establishing clear expectations and regular communication with clients can help mitigate the risk of lack of engagement, while openly discussing project risks with executives can foster their support and buy-in. Additionally, implementing effective communication protocols and involving necessary stakeholders from the outset can help manage scope creep and turn it into an opportunity for providing additional value. By employing these strategies, consultants can build stronger client relationships, enhance project outcomes, and drive success in their consulting engagements.
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.