If you want to be a great consultant, you have to step into the client’s shoes and see the world as they do.
Have you ever wondered what was running through a client’s head? Client/consultant interactions in the AEC industry can be confusing and fraught with misunderstandings. A combined 67 years working on the client side of the food and beverage industry before joining Mead & Hunt has given us a unique understanding and perspective into the minds of clients. Now on the other side, learning to “walk in the AEC consultants’ shoes” has been a challenge that has forced us to let go of some previously held paradigms and shift our perspective.
This experience of working on both sides has given us some useful insights that have allowed us to pursue and complete work more effectively as consultants:
- Listen, don’t tell – you don’t want to be right too soon. Often, because of our experiences, we believe we know the answer to a problem facing a client as they start to describe it. They have hired us to be an expert, so let’s just blurt out the answer, right? Probably not! Coaching and advising from the other side of the table requires patience, listening for understanding, and then asking clarifying questions. Helping the client determine the best answer for their unique problem is the win here, not showing how “smart” you are.
For this reason, it is best to offer multiple options for potential solutions rather than just telling the client what you think should happen. This approach allows the client to have ownership of the direction the project will take. Recently we had a client with floor problems. We knew from our discussion that he was considering exiting the location in the next two years. We provided what we thought was the “right fix,” which would last more than two years, but also an option for a temporary repair to just get him through the next two years. He chose the temporary repair. The “right fix” isn’t always right for every client.
- Invest in relationships. No one looks in the yellow pages for an engineer – clients work with folks they know, trust, and like. Therefore, investing in relationships is vital. Relationships are built on frequency of contact over time. As a consultant, you don’t always get as much time or frequency as you may want to build relationships with clients, so it is very important to make the most of the time you have. Be a friend, have those conversations, and maintain a human connection. It will pay off.
- The devil is in the details. When moving from the client side to the consultant side, it’s necessary to shift your perspective: The client typically has a macro view of the project, but as a consultant, you need to have the micro view. This means understanding all the small details. The client will not be focused on every tiny technical detail – you were hired to be the expert and understand the little things to help the client get the right project outcome.
For instance, we once had a client who had a fork truck door that was damaged. The client’s thought was to simply replace the door. However, as the consultant there is a responsibility to provide a higher level of care so that the new door is the right door. This includes conducting an analysis to ascertain what exactly went wrong. The old door may have been installed without proper engineering, hence why it failed, and corrections may need to be designed to support the door properly. As a consultant, not only do you need to have that more in-depth understanding, but you need to make sure the client understands as well.
- Step into the clients’ shoes. Picture this: You just had a great conversation with a client, and they promised to set up a meeting. A week goes by, two weeks go by, and still, no word. What’s going on? You’ve been ghosted! As a consultant, you need to prepare for this very real circumstance.
While on the consultant side it is easy to feel slighted, when you reflect on this from the client’s perspective, it becomes more understandable. Of course, not all clients behave this way, but clients often have extremely busy schedules with many shifting priorities. It is not uncommon for the follow-up with the consultant to fall to the back burner. You need to realize following up with a consultant is not a client’s first priority. Be patient and don’t take it personally. Learning how long to wait and how to reconnect is a skill you will absolutely need.
Our success on the consultant side of the business has been measured by our ability to shift paradigms to adjust to the needs of being a consultant. If you can master the art of placing yourself in the client’s shoes, you will be far more successful as a consultant. When it comes to successful, mutually beneficial client interactions, a shift in perspective can really make all the difference.
Greg Marconnet’s 39-year career in the food processing industry includes working in and supporting food processing plants with facility design, maintenance practices, equipment design, sanitation and sanitary design. He leads Mead & Hunt’s Food and Beverage Group to deliver valuable engineering solutions to clients. Jeff Janis is a project management discipline lead with Mead & Hunt’s Food and Beverage Group. He has a comprehensive understanding of all client needs. He uses his depth of experience to anticipate project challenges and surpass client needs at every step of the way. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.