The seven rules of engagement

Relationships with clients are getting harder to establish because of increased competition and clients' skepticism about consultants' credibility. Plus, nearly all consultants try some form of marketing to existing clients, whether they call it account management or project add-on strategy. Follow the guerrilla rules of engagement to get and keep your edge.

> Rule 1: Make It Real-Real Fast

After a project agreement is signed, clients often have conflicting emotions. They're optimistic about your selection, but also feel a sense of uncertainty about what's to come. They can be nervous, fearful, and skeptical about whether you can achieve the project objectives and even may wonder whether proceeding with the project was a good idea. Clients are also concerned about the impact projects will have on their organizations and staffs. They may be reluctant to cede control to you, or may worry about the career and political implications of your selection.

Theodore Levitt, author of The Marketing Imagination, warns us that with intangible products like consulting services, the client ". . . usually doesn't know what he's getting until he doesn't. Only when he doesn't get what he bargained for does he become aware of what he bargained for."2 Levitt rightly points out that clients often can't articulate what they want, but they always know when they are dissatisfied.

With less than one third of a multimillion-dollar project completed, a highly skilled technology firm lost the project. The client was dissatisfied with the work and with team communication, so they booted the firm and started over with a new consultant, wasting several million dollars. If the unlucky firm had done a better job early in the project, it could have avoided the ax and the financial battle that followed.

As soon as a project moves from the sales phase to the delivery phase, clients form lasting impressions about your team and its performance. Move quickly to make results real for clients so they know they are getting what they bargained for—even if they're not quite sure what that is. Get the project off to a quick, organized start and let clients see that the team will achieve results. Here are a few practical ways to proceed:

Demystify Project Administrivia

One or two meetings with the client team early in the process can steer emerging relationships in the right direction. Don't assume clients know all your internal processes, even if you spelled them out in your proposal. And don't assume you know theirs. It may seem like a waste of time at the outset of a project when everyone is itching to get to the task, but an early meeting of the minds on administrative details prevents subsequent confusion, acrimony, and lost productivity. Review billing rates, payment terms, and who will be responsible for completing paperwork.

Clarify Roles and Lines of Communication

Put in writing how you would like to do business. Provide contact information for your firm and the telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of project team members. Go over the roles and responsibilities of the consulting and client teams. Create a clear set of guidelines for communicating problems and resolving open issues. Set up a regular schedule to talk, review project progress, and plan. Make sure that every meeting has a purpose and is worth the time spent. If you engage in early dialogues, you'll uncover incorrect assumptions, potential scope changes, and easier ways to work together.

Revisit the Work Plan

Often, subtle changes take place in the interval between the submission of a proposal and the project's start date. Reduce the client's natural anxiety by reviewing, in detail, the work plan for the project and how each task relates to the ultimate result the client wants to achieve. It's important for all team members to see how their small pieces of the project fit into the big picture. Review resources and schedules carefully to minimize surprises. Don't let clients think, even for a second, that they made a bad decision in selecting you for their projects.

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