Thursday, 17 July 2014

5 Secrets to Professional Service on Client Engagements

If you think contracting and client work is about billing hours and F*&k all else, stop reading, there's nothing for you to see here. If you feel there's something more to it, that engagements are a precious slice of interaction to be valued, read on.

Still here? Good!

As often happens, I had a interesting and unexpected conversation with a colleague in work today - about professional service on a client engagements.

Every engagement has it's good and bad parts, its ups and downs. At all times though, you need to stay professional, but what does that look like?

Here's my attempt to capture some of what was said and add in a few thoughts of my own.

1. Serve the Client
The single most important thing to remember, is that you are being paid to provide service. Not necessarily 'a' service, even though a Statement of Work may say that. Service can be defined as 'acts of helpful activity'. In any engagement, you'll always be performing acts (see what I did there...)

Therefore, as you are a servant, drop any pretense or arrogance, borne of imagined technical or professional  superiority, and humbly serve your client to the best of your ability, by executing helpful acts as best you can.

That service may come in many forms. Working a little earlier or later. Listening attentively to what is and isn't said, perhaps coaching and mentoring. Speaking well of them in front of colleagues and customers. Producing a good report in time for an important meeting. Apologising for being late... the list goes on, enjoy expanding it. Service is not subjugation.

2. Deliver the best work you can, right to the very end
When we first engage with a Client, there's a lot of positive high energy and excitement about what's to come. We do our best work and give or all, thinking of the positive outcomes it will bring. What comes is often success in a shape we didn't imagine, coupled with a lot of frustration and all too often a slow winding down of a project, where it doesn't have a defined done-done.

It's essential that every engagement, good or bad, successful or not, finishes on a crescendo. Make sure you stay strong to the end. I'll claim there's good science behind this, it's called the Peak End Rule. Clients remember the most intense thing you do and then the final thing you do, then forgetting most of the stuff in between, form a view of what you were like. As time passes the peak levels off and the end is what they remember most.

I implore you, for the security of your reputation and future employ-ability, finish strong!

3. Help the Client succeed
Your glory and success must always be a by-product of the success you bring the Client. You succeed if the Client succeeds. If they fail, you fail. No exceptions. Your reward is getting paid, everything else is a by-product for you.

Constantly look for what is hampering the Client's success and seek ways to resolve it. That could be a lot of things, related to the specifics of the engagement or not. As in 1. above, you might need to step out of the engagement's remit and give that 10% extra on the 100% you're already doing.

Some of helping them succeed will call on your professional skills, maybe technical skills, your network, your ability to coach, heck maybe even just to listen. Ask yourself, is the Client looking good, winning, growing, succeeding? If not, figure out what you can do about it.

4. The Client isn't always right, but they're never wrong
Like a good Barrister, you'll take your instructions and look to follow them as best you can. However, on occasion, your Client will be misguided, ill informed, limited in their understanding, shallow in their perspective, inexperienced in approaches - they will never be wrong.

Don't like the test approach? Think the automation used is rubbish? Seeing sub-optimal management practices? Dislike the organisational structure? Feel the project is hampered by bad supplier relationships?

Great, well done on noticing! It's your job as a professional to offer your insights, experience, training, etc. to highlight ways that things could be improved so that you help the client succeed and deliver the best work you can. It's not your job to belittle the Client and make them feel wrong wrong wrong! That's not how we server the client is it?

Coach and guide, but ultimately if they don't want to follow your guidance, they're not wrong and you'll have to perform your acts of helpful activity in support of what they've asked for. Hey, no one said it would be plain sailing all the time!

5. It's not over until... well never
How long is your career going to be? I'll make up a figure and say on average 15 to 20 years. Where is your work going to come from? Again I'll guess and say people you know (certainly as a consultant) or people that know the people you know. That means anytime you have an engagement it never really ends, as the continuation is that (Linkedin) connection back in time to them through the community and your reputation.

As an example, assuming I make it to the end of 2014 in the current engagement, my network will have directly come to me with engagements for 4 years straight. No looking around, no interviews, just a journey through the bullet points in this post.


6. Have fun with them, sometimes!
Given Clients are so important, as customers, people and fellow professionals. Given you're hoping to engage with them for months on end, that they are people just like you, with hobbies, interests, families, hopes and dreams. It's OK to just leave work in work sometimes and go do something fun.

That might be a few beers after work, inviting them to a corporate do or just demanding they let you buy them lunch as a thank you once during the engagement. (Clients of mine are now thinking of the Spanish meats and wine they've be loaded up with from time time... yum).

The real bonus secret...

... is that it's all about professional relationships. Build it through service, maintain it through reliability and secure it through trust. Sprinkle it with a little fun along the way!


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