Consultants are chosen to solve problems since they carry deep understanding of the industry and domain they operate in. In addition to all the knowledge that a consultant carries, equally important is the ability to communicate clearly with the client and their stakeholders. Consultants often work with diverse groups in client organizations to understand problem areas, investigate root causes and recommend tailor-made solutions. A consultant who makes the effort to understand the background of his/her audience – their communication preferences, styles, needs, roles is definitely better placed in presenting recommendations in an influential way.
Communication is a skill that comprises of confidence, tact and grace. Information that is complex or technical in nature needs to be presented in business terms or in the language that the client understands. A consultant must display confidence in the clients’ mind, even when they have to respond with “I don’t know”. In the same breath, supplementing it with “I know someone who does” instills a sense of assurance in the client’s mind. Responding with tact and grace is an important skill, especially, when a stakeholder disagrees with what you are saying. In such cases, it would be wise to unearth the reason behind their stance and clarify by either rephrasing or by providing examples, scenarios or testimonials. In addition to this, below are three important tips that can help you overcome challenges when you communicate with clients.
Reply in the affirmative, but only after careful consideration…
Clients often expect consultants to offer multiple options, well researched insights and sometimes, even an unconventional approach for solving their problem. Saying yes to a client in these circumstances might only seem reasonable since they are paying for it. However, being excessively agreeable can cause problems to both clients and the consultant. Sometimes, clients are not exactly sure what the problem is or where it lies. Responding with a yes, in the spur of the moment, without evaluating the request and the implication it carries, leads to false promise. Over-committing and delivering below what is committed severely damages a consultant’s credibility. Analyzing the situation and probing further opens up newer perspectives to the problem at hand.
Buy time to examine and explore all aspects of what the customer has shared and then commit to the client’s needs by replying with an affirmative.
2. Do away with jargons; speak the “language” of the client…
It is of utmost importance for consultants to pick the right words when they are conversing with clients. Using phrases such as, I think you are wrong, with all due respect, let’s agree to disagree, it’s obvious or clear, etc. can come across as insulting to the client’s intelligence. It is prudent to also avoid jargons that your client may not be familiar with. You may be an expert in ERP, but shooting off technical terminologies such as JIT (Just-In-Time), HTS (Harmonized Tariff Schedule), etc. can confuse clients, put them off or even perceive you as a show-off.
Instead, below are a couple of techniques that you can adopt while conversing with clients in such tricky situations:
a. In my experience – this is a subtle approach to inform the client that they have done this sort of work before and they are familiar with the issues that generally cause these kind of problems. This also helps the consultant lead the client into a set of recommendations they want to present.
b. I agree and… – when a consultant uses this phrase, he/she is agreeing to certain aspects of what the client thinks or believes, while also putting forth their views on what else can be done to solve the problem at hand. This creates a win-win situation. Building trust in the initial stages of the engagement goes a long way in getting the client to accept their biases on what may not be working.
3. Quoting a ‘Best Practice’
One of the phrases that consultants use often (and sometimes overuse or abuse) is the term Best Practice. Many of these have been around for a while, for example, the Toyota Management System as a best practice. While in a discussion with a client, use examples, scenarios or cases where such best practices were tried and tested. This assures clients a sense of comfort that you are treading on a path that is not only verified but also works for them in their best interest.
As a consultant, your expertise garnered across several engagements provides a client with the ability to decide what works and what does not. A client may think that their problem is unique but you as a consultant may have solved a similar business problem in another assignment. In such cases, it is prudent to adopt best practices that have worked in similar assignments, rather than reinventing the wheel which takes valuable time and effort.
These three points go a long way in building trust with your client and in doing so, your client will be far more open to the recommendations you are presenting. Finally, to be successful in a consulting engagement, what matters is understanding these softer aspects and leveraging them to your advantage.