How to collaborate with clients

photo by Alice Feldt

An article we recently published in ASTD Links magazine.

Your clients meet you at the door of the conference room.  You can see in their faces that they’re looking forward to the meeting.  So are you.  When you work on projects together, you can feel the energy in the room.  Everyone sits up, leans forward, and laughs.  Ideas appear out of nowhere.  Everyone feels that they’re an important part of the process – and they’re committed to your success together.

For the independent consultant, one of the most important skills (and greatest joys) is collaborating with clients.  When you and your clients can truly work together, you’ll strengthen your relationship with them and produce the best results.

How can you create dynamic collaborations with your clients?  Here are some dos and don’ts, drawn from our many years of experience.

DON’T come in with a ready-made answer.

When clients have a hand in creating a solution to their problem, they value the result more.   Plus, they know things about their company or situation that you don’t:  things that can make or break your project.  Don’t close the door on important discoveries.

DO leave your ego at the door.

It’s tempting to want to assert yourself as The Expert – after all, isn’t that why they hired you?  But focusing on yourself gets in the way of creativity.  You can’t hear a great idea coming from someone else if you’re busy thinking up your next wise pronouncement.

DO acknowledge others’ needs and ideas.

Even if you don’t see the relevance, it’s important to them to be heard.  Make sure you listen, and thank them for their contributions.

DO express your opinions frankly but diplomatically.

They’re consulting you for your knowledge.   It’s your task to deliver your considered view of things, even when your clients aren’t sure they want to hear what you’re saying.  Make it easy to take, if you can, but make it honest and clear.

DON’T defer to clients when you know they’re wrong.

We learned this the hard way!  A client we were working with wanted a particular interactive exercise to last a half-hour.  Our guts and experience told us we couldn’t push it longer than about 15 minutes – but we overrode our instincts and prepared the material.  Sure enough, the participants became restless about halfway through.  We squirmed, but we learned to trust ourselves and stand our ground.

DO use the power of the outsider.

Because you’re NOT part of the company, clients often feel that it’s easier to confide in you.  So you can get valuable information that can help you find the best solution for them.  Go gently as they gradually drop their guard.  Show them that they can trust you.

DO speak from the client’s point of view.

Describe your ideas in terms that will make sense to your clients.  Avoid using your own professional jargon.  (And work to learn theirs.)  In making a case for a solution, always explain what’s in it for your clients:  how it will meet their goals and appeal to their motivations, not yours.

DON’T be all business.

You’re professional, of course, but be sure to let a bit of the personal in as well.  Showing your true self builds relationships, especially when you make it comfortable for your clients to be real, too.  And the more of yourselves you all bring to the table, the more creative your interaction will be.

DO be the enjoyable break in their day.

We’ve noticed that when people meet with us, their eyes get brighter.  The energy flows between us.  Why?  Call it creativity, playfulness, fun.  We try to be a breath of fresh air in the middle of an ordinary working day – an opportunity for our clients to free up their creative juices.

At one client’s offices, people often come up to us as we’re walking in the halls.  They ask us if we’re doing a workshop there that day, or they just say hi.  They associate us with fun; one client even told us, “having you here is a pleasurable experience.”  We consider that part of our job, and one of the ways we create quality results for our clients.

DO share the success.

After a project goes well, remember how everyone had a hand in it – and be sure to celebrate it together.  As Harry Truman said, “It is amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”  Don’t worry, they won’t forget you!  And they’ll be even more eager to work with you at the next opportunity.


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