How to keep the client/consultancy relationship alive

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Once upon a time, there was a design consultancy and a client. They decided to work together. There was optimism and excitement on both sides.

The consultancy and client set to work managing the constraints of a tight budget. The project came to fruition and together they compiled the evidence to enter a prestigious design competition. They went for it, and they won an award for their work. The consultancy was thrilled. The client was pleased. It was a great start to the relationship.

Time passed and slowly, the lights started to go down on the relationship. Little niggles began to creep in on both sides. The level of contact between the consultancy and the client started to tail off. The client sensed that something was wrong and began looking at other consultancies. And the consultancy, sensing too that something was wrong, responded by starting to seek out new clients. Both parties went off in search of a fresh buzz.

Does this sound familiar, inevitable even?
Going in search of a new partner is an expensive way to work for clients and consultancies. It takes up both time and money. Both new parties have to get used to each other and build a strong working relationship. And it’s a pattern that’s destined to be repeated. When the new buzz inevitably starts to wear off, both new partners are at risk of repeating the same behaviour over again.

So why does this happen in a client/consultancy relationship? Perhaps the issues are not tackled in the right way when they emerge, by either partner. Neither has the appetite to do it and, because the situation is left to roll on in the hope it will fix itself, in the end both parties are left exposed.

What can you do to avoid this happening to your relationships?

  • Be direct, diplomatic and swift to respond to changes in the relationship. When a change happens, such as a request for free work, be willing to tackle what lies behind the behaviour straight away. Don’t let it fester and don’t simply respond with a no. And if you’re the client, be prepared to explain the context of the request and what you’re prepared to give in return. And do it in person, on the telephone or face to face. Not by email.
  • Ask questions to open up thinking. When someone asks a question it opens up thinking around a subject for both sides. So with a request for “reduced fees”, ask your client what the reason is behind the request. With this understanding the consultancy has better information to inform their next decision. And the client has a better understanding of their own position by being asked. Do this as part of your regular review meetings, and if you’re not having these, set them up.
  • Listen for opportunities. Hidden in the above conversation could be some new information, and potentially a new way of working. So if you’re the client, keep giving in terms of information, and if you’re the consultancy, keep asking. There is a new way of working, and a new buzz, just around the corner.
  • Spot a pattern and discuss internally. Put something in place to chart your relationships and identify when patterns are emerging. This could be achieved through regular internal meetings to gage the “temperature” of client/consultancy relationships. Score the relationship based on a set of factors that you believe make a great relationship.
  • Use your knowledge of the relationship to create a dialogue. Invite each other to discuss the relationship, and be ready to talk. This very process of opening up a dialogue is likely to uncover something that is useful in the relationship for both of you.

Epilogue
Time passed. It always does. Six months later, it turned out that the new buzz was not quite what it was expected to be. And the old buzz was re-appraised. The phone rang and the consultancy and the client were brought back together.

The next time you get the urge to change your partners to find something new, take a look at your existing relationships and see if you can find what you’re looking for there. Finding a fresh buzz in a current relationship can save a lot of time and pain.


Thanks to one of our DBA members for the insight provided on this piece.

John Scarrott is membership director of the Design Business Association. For more information on DBA membership go to www.dba.org.uk/membership. Follow John on Twitter: @DBAScarrott.

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