Understanding the Client-Consultant Relationship

Dr. Natalia Nikolova is an expert in professional services, having earned her PhD in Economics, Management and Social Sciences from the University of Cologne in 2006. She is currently the Senior Lecturer in Management at the University of Technology Sydney and regularly publishes research on the relationship between consultants and their clients. In the below Q&A, Dr. Nikolova discusses her research and her presentation at AESC’s Boutique and Independent Firm Forum.

What are the core tenets of the client-consultant relationship? What is expected from both parties?

Dr. Natalia NikolovaConsultants need to understand what the client’s expectations are and then they need to understand how best to work with the client to meet those expectations. Quite often when the assignment starts, there is a formal discussion about the role the main client (the project sponsor) wants to fill and what the consultant should be looking for, but there’s not much discussion about which other members of the client organization need to be engaged with. I have found in my research that the best consultants understand that the client is not one individual, but many people within the organization. Not all of those stakeholders will be involved initially with the brief and if they aren’t engaged during the assignment, they can be dissatisfied about the process, the outcome, or both. Sometimes these stakeholders have conflicting needs, and the consultant needs to deal with that appropriately.

Clients who are experienced in using consultants will have learned that they need to help the consultants understand this environment, but many clients are too busy and don’t take enough time during the early stages of an assignment to discuss these issues. It’s also important to discuss questions like how regularly the client expects updates on the assignment and how involved the client would like to be. These early stages, where the assignment is discussed and expectations are set, are crucial to the development of trust – you can’t be seen as a trusted advisor if you behave transactionally.

What does the term ‘trusted advisor’ mean to you and how can a consultant embody it through actions?

A trusted advisor relationship is one that goes beyond the transactional. The client is clear about their expectations and the consultant demonstrates that, if necessary, they will go beyond what was agreed to contribute as a partner to the client. These relationships are built on an individual level and there are two factors: the cognitive (How ‘good’ is the consultant? What are their credentials? What is their reputation in the market?) and the emotional (Do I feel a connection and have a rapport with this person?). If there isn’t an emotional connection between the consultant and the client, I know firms that will change the consultant working on the assignment.

In the era of internet databases, LinkedIn, and other social media tools, have the expectations of trusted advisors changed at all?

I don’t think so. Face-to-face interaction is very important when developing a trusted relationship. The internet tools are helpful as a short cut for research, but I don’t think these can be used to replace relationships and personal networks. LinkedIn is a more useful tool for transactional interactions – if a client is looking for a role that isn’t critical or high level. When the stakes aren’t so high, you can use these tools to fill a position. But when we’re talking about very high stakes positions, I strongly believe that a personal relationship is crucial to understanding your client’s needs and connecting with them. Once a trusted relationship is established, the client would prefer not to move to develop that trust again.