In managing a business, be it consulting or otherwise, the relationships with customers or clients hold paramount importance. Developing and maintaining these relationships aid in achieving profitability and sustainability. This module examines the maintenance of relationships in a business consulting practice.
Unlike relationships with an accounting practice or supplier, business consulting relationships tend to be short-term, between four and eight weeks. Trust may not build immediately, and maintaining trust after project completion is crucial. Methods such as newsletters and staying in touch with clients are important for this purpose.
In the previous module, we discussed the trust cycle’s significance and how trust forms the foundation of any relationship, determining its success. The stronger the trust, the stronger the relationship. Always consider how to further engender trust within client relationships.
To do this, ensure that your value proposition aligns with clients and projects you engage with. Different value propositions may be necessary for various client segments within the market you service.
CRM software proves invaluable in documenting client interactions, aiding in relationship maintenance and providing a comprehensive history of each client encounter. This tool significantly contributes to the overall management of your business consultancy practice.
In addition to systems and methodology, it is crucial to establish frameworks, processes, and methods within the practice for consistent approaches to client projects. Such structures facilitate smoother staff transitions and simplified training for new employees.
Lastly, this module examines accounting systems concerning billing and fee collection, ensuring that your consultancy practice operates efficiently and effectively.
The initial interaction with a client sets the foundation for your relationship. Indeed, first impressions have a lasting impact and are crucial in establishing trust. Stroh (2019) [^1] intriguingly posits that while relationships may commence with the first conversation, it is the project’s conclusion that significantly influences the relationship’s continuation. This aspect will be delved into later.
Zipursky (2018) [^2] offers valuable insights on cultivating positive client relationships in his book’s ninth chapter, summarised as follows:
- Caring for the client
- Be responsive
- Be proactive
- Promise and deliver
- Exceed their expectations
- Be on time for every client meeting.
- Always do what you say and say what you will do.
- Return phone calls and emails as quickly as possible
- Send clients gifts and notes to show you appreciate them
- If you see something of interest of relevance to your client, let them know about it
- Go the extra mile
- Deliver results on time and on budget.
- Deal with any problems as quickly as possible
- Provide regular progress reports (even if you are not asked to).
Final project stages
Stroh (2019, p. 153) [^1], as previously discussed, shared insights on the concluding phases of a project:
Ideally, the final stage of a project should have a sense of momentum and produce positive results ensuring the project ends on a high note and is deemed a success overall. Showing positive results at the end will make the client feel good, solidifies the relationship, with the client, and increases the probability that the client will invite you back.
Find out if your client is the type that celebrates wins. If this is the case, factor that into the project. Alternately, schedule a project review to discuss the project management.
Chapter 10 of Stroh (2019)[^1] emphasises the significance of project closure, a crucial element in sustaining client trust and relationships. Conducting an in-depth review allows for a thorough examination of the project, its effectiveness, and documentation, among other aspects mentioned by Stroh (2019, p. 157) [^1].
- Have all the agreed actions been completed?
- If the client needs to complete actions been these been clearly documented?
- What would follow-up projects or phases look like?
- Are there any aspects of the project that require auditing in future?
- Are there any project participants that deserve recognition for their part in the project?
- What equipment, resources need to be returned (e.g., email addresses, login access, car parking pass)?
These actions during the final interview are vital for fortifying future relations with the client. Stroh (2019, p. 158)[^1] provides several questions and guidelines to adhere to during this concluding conversation.
- What were we trying to do? Looking back, did we have the right understanding of the project objectives?
- What happened? Different participants will have different perspectives.
- What was different from what was expected? What complications arose?
- What have we learned? How can we apply this learning to future projects?
- How will contact be maintained? Mailing list? Emails?
Conversely, Zipursky (2018) [^2] discusses how project success can be directly linked to all aspects involved. Factors such as service level, client satisfaction, attentiveness, prompt responses to inquiries, and timely reporting contribute to building trust and an emotional connection with the client. This heavily influences whether they will engage the consultant for future projects.
Effective relationships between clients and consultants are essential for the success and longevity of a consultancy business. This not only increases the chances of securing further projects with existing clients but also enhances the likelihood of receiving testimonials and recommendations from them.
Establish effective relationships
Stroh (2019) [^1] examined interviews with business consultants, focusing on their perceived success factors. The significance of relationships was emphasised, particularly the role of trust as the foundation. It supports the notion that people only purchase from those they trust and like, echoing the familiar saying, “know, like, trust and buy.” Without the presence of trust and liking, buying will not transpire.
In Chapter 11, Stroh (2019) [^1] lists the following five key aspects of business consulting:
- Remember the basics
- Establish effective relationships
- Focus on helping the client
- Always play it straight
- Enjoy the work, (or “Do what you love and love what you do.”)
Nikolova, Mollering and Reihlen (2015) [^3] consider “fit” in terms of building trust and suggest it involves a number of levels. There is Client Fit based on the consultant’s reputation and experience. Then there is the Practical Fit where working styles and processes come into play. Then finally there is the Personal Fit which comes down to likeability and many other qualities demonstrated by behaviour and attitude.
Bronnenmayer et al. (2016) [^4] hold a differing perspective and posit that establishing trust in a business consulting relationship can be quite challenging. Clients may perceive consultants as know-it-alls, creating an obstacle to overcome before trust can form. The time available for building trust depends on the project’s duration.
Some findings imply that cultivating trust between clients and consultants may not always be feasible, often due to the project’s term. Nevertheless, trust remains a desirable factor for a project’s success.
Developing a relationship plan
In the realm of relationship plans, terms such as relationship marketing and customer relation management frequently emerge. These phrases essentially pertain to devising an effective strategy for managing customer relationships. Originating from 1990s literature, these concepts were applied to service clients including business consulting, IT businesses, accounting, and legal sectors.
Some individuals view active social media engagement and maintaining a presence as integral aspects of relationship marketing. Additionally, loyalty systems, direct marketing, and email lists are considered part of the tactical side of relationship marketing or relationship plan management. However, these only represent a narrow definition of what it truly means to cultivate business relationships.
Payne and Frow (2005) [^5] introduced a framework for relationship management in a seminal article. They argue that proper client relationship management requires a comprehensive understanding of what customer relationships signify from a holistic perspective. They suggest that a:
..relationship plan unites the potential of relationship marketing strategies and IT to create profitable, long-term relationships with customers and other key stakeholders. It provides enhanced opportunities to use data and information to both understand clients and co-create value with them. This requires a cross functional integration of processes, people, operations and marketing capabilities that is enabled through information, technology and its application (Payne & Frow 2005, p.168)[^5].
Relationship management by segment
Payne and Frow (2005, p. 168) define CRM as, “…a strategic approach that is concerned with creating improved shareholder value through the development of appropriate relationships with key customers and customer segments…”
Figure 1: Customer Portfolio Management (CPM) matrix
Dividing your client base according to the income they generate, with 10% as platinum, 10% gold, 20% silver, and 60% bronze, confirms the Pareto principle: 80% of income comes from 20% of clients. Thaker and Workman’s (2016) [^6] matrix displays the client’s value to the organisation or business consultant on the Y axis and the cost to serve on the X axis.
Although this is a standard method of servicing clients, it risks overlooking clients who could change quadrants through additional service, generating more income for the consultant. One approach is using graphics, such as snakes and ladders, to indicate a client’s potential to climb or fall. Clients with potential to climb require careful attention to ensure optimal service for their conversion into higher paying customers.
Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
A multitude of customer relationship management software platforms exist on the market for selection. The primary aim of a CRM is to document every interaction with clients, creating a unified base containing client history and all transactions. This provides invaluable assets for one’s consultancy practice, including names, email addresses, contact details, and an updatable history.
Many platforms also interact with email systems and social media, allowing for seamless integration. Email marketing proves to be a valuable component, along with analytical data extracted from the CRM. Examples of CRM software encompass HubSpot, Zoho, and ClickUp, which offers a free option. Each possesses varying membership levels.
Selecting a CRM platform is a personal choice and it is worth evaluating several to determince differences in how they perform and suit your individual needs.
The role of consulting systems
The above video talks about the estabishment of systems and processes in your business. A worthy tip that emerged from the video was that after identifying all the systems required, you need to prioritise them. Obviously, the most important will rank as an A, the second highest as a B and the rest as a C. Interestingly, the narrator suggested that after determining all the As, to determine the Cs, the ones that it really would not matter if they were documented or not. It was considered that this is an excellent approach as it allows you to consider those not really necessary as opposed to ranking them with Bs and Cs.
Zipursky (2018) [^2] emphasises the significance of business consultants possessing efficient systems within their consultancy. Consultants can create these systems, or acquire them from sources like online templates or experienced consulting practices. The presence of templates and systems offers the advantage of a straightforward process and documentation by filling in forms or recording requested information. This consistency across the organisation ensures that client interactions follow the same process.
Zipursky (2018, p. 181) [^2 ] defines a system as something that:
…consists of processes, defined steps, and actions you or your client takes at each point along the way. An effective system is like a map. It shows you which way to go, but it also anticipates what you’ll find around each turn and gives you options and ideas of how to proceed.
System and process maps
Zipursky (2018) [^2] suggest that if you are starting a consulting business, that it is worthwhile developing your own systems. His reasoning is that creating your own systems will provide you with the opportuntiy to work through every aspect of your business and determine what it really is that you are offering your clients. Such a process should provide you with the ability to construct insightful systems for your business.
What system is best for you?
In implementing business systems, selecting the most suitable one for specific purposes is vital. Systems differ in structure and application, necessitating careful consideration. Zipursky (2018) [^2] advises newcomers to the consulting field to attempt developing their own system, as it fosters a comprehensive understanding of the business and its processes. This enables critical analysis of documentation, templates, and systems required for efficient functioning.
At times, people may overcomplicate systems, which is unnecessary. It is wiser to create a small, simple system that can be enhanced over time, rather than devising an overly complex one that must be dismantled before further development.
Key areas for systems
Zipursky (2018) [^2] considers that in the fundamental aspects of a consulting business, templates are crucial, particularly within client interactions, an area of great importance. Templates may encompass the initial client interview or meeting, and any subsequent communication. Undoubtedly, both draft proposals and contract agreements demand templates. Possessing such templates ensures that essential elements of these documents are not overlooked during their creation.
Moreover, Zipursky (2018) [^2] emphasises the significance of mapping in a business, illustrating the process by which a client progresses from the initial interview to the signing of an agreement and ultimately, project completion.
- Client meetings – a list of all key questions to ask a prospective client at the initial inteview
- Client communication – templates for your letterheads and emails for example including logos, contact points, web site and signatures for standard use
- Proposal document – professionally laid out report and proposal presenting all the elements of the proposed project
- Contract – a template including all your standard terms in plain and readable style
- Client report – a template that follows a logical process of providing a report to the client on the project progress. How are these best presented? Document or presentation style?
- Working documents – at the centre of your business will be core documents you will use for every project. Standardise these as much as possible while leaving room for flexibility on unique projects.
- Process maps – visually map the progress of clients and projects through all stages of the work and relationship.
- Methodology – document processes for the methodology in collecting data. This can be around the use of the MECE framework.
- Frameworks – document all frameworks you may use in your consulting practice and have them laid out so they can be used as explanatory documents when communicating with clients
- Sprints – this uses Agile methodology where short tasks may be conducted over short two week periods mapped out on a spreadsheet.
- Billing – one of the key systems in your business that ensures that cash flow is sustained allowing expenses to be met on time. Invoices should be clear and detailed, including terms, statements should be sent at month end and a software system used to keep track of debtors.
- Project management – effective project management systems can be implemented using software to track the progress of projects. A standardised project management software program manages all projects in a similar vein.
Numerous online cloud services aid consultants and businesses in streamlining their operations. We will examine a few utilised by the author for specific tasks.
- To systemise and track projects, Clickup is employed, with alternatives being Monday and Trello.
- For document management and templates, Google Workspace is favoured for Docs and Sheets, though Microsoft Office 365 serves as another option.
- HubSpot CRM, available for free, helps track and manage clients, while ClickUp also offers a CRM module.
- Time management is integrated into Obsidian knowledge management software workflow using Toggl as an Obsidian plugin, where all notes are recorded and time tracked.
- Zoho is used for billable time, but Xero, MYOB or QuickBooks are other viable programs.
- For team communication, Sessions – video conferencing software interacts with public calendar and Google Calendar for meetings online. Slack, Whatsapp and Telegram can all be used for text messages.
- Email campaigns and list management are done using ConvertKit, with MailChimp being an alternative.
- Reclaim provides a public calendar integrated with Google Calendar handles diaries and events, while Microsoft Outlook presents another solution.
- Lastly, to backup and share files, Google Drive and iDrive are preferred; however, Dropbox and Microsoft OneDrive are suitable substitutes.
An effective invoicing system, which usually is a component of a larger accounting system, is an essential system for any business. Generally, these are all cloud based these days and include platforms such as Zoho, MYOB, Quickbooks and Xero.
- Terms – your terms should be clearly visible on all invoices and included in your proposal and contract with the client.
- Improving payment times – sending invoices weekly can assist with better payment times, but many clients may only pay monthly. How does your client handle their invoices?
- Get paid on time – clearly establish terms of payment on invoice, make it easy for client to pay with facilities such as Stripe or Square. Also on invoice, detail what happens if payment not made on time.
- Errors – check all invoices carefully. Errors create distrust from clients and hold up payments.
- Automate your billing system – having billing systems integrated with accounting can speed up processing times.
- Integration – apart from your accounting system, where else can you integrate your billing system?
- Billing as a priority – ensure you commit to sending out invoices when they are due. Clients will begin to expect invoices from you if regular. This demonstrates your efficiency and improves credibility.
Getting paid on time
Timely payment is crucial in any business, as cash flow is the lifeblood that sustains it. Ensuring payments are received punctually can be achieved through various methods, such as requiring 50% upfront with the remainder due upon project completion. It is essential to discuss payment terms with clients from the outset, ensuring clarity and understanding.
Consider implementing partial payments throughout the project, allowing clients to appreciate the value of your expertise as progress is demonstrated. Refrain from issuing invoices without providing a report, as clients may struggle to justify payment. If a client hesitates regarding upfront payments, serious consideration should be given to whether their business is worth pursuing, as future difficulties may arise when seeking remuneration after work completion.
This module primarily focused on the daily operations of the business, beginning with the development and management of relationships in your consulting practice, ensuring effective connections with clients. We also explored customer relationship management software and planning to record all client interactions throughout their projects.
We examined client categorisation as platinum, gold, silver, and bronze, acknowledging that 80% of your income stems from 20% of your clients based on this segmentation. We then assessed the necessary templates, processes, and systems for your business, contemplating any additional inclusions.
Lastly, we delved into streamlining processes using cloud systems and software, evaluating payment and billing integration within the practice through accounting programmes, alongside project management software.
[^1]: Stroh, LK 2019, The Basic Principles of Effective Consulting, Second, Taylor & Francis Group, Milton, UNITED KINGDOM, viewed 30 August 2023, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/aibus/detail.action?docID=5675688.
[^2]: Zipursky, M 2018, Consulting success: the proven guide to start, run and grow a successful consulting business, Consulting Success, Place of publication not identified.
[^3]: Nikolova, N, Möllering, G, & Reihlen, M 2015, ‘Trusting as a “Leap of Faith”: Trust-Building Practices in Client-Consultant Relationships’, Scandinavian Journal of Management June 1, Vol. 31.
[^4]: Bronnenmayer, M, Wirtz, BW, & Göttel, V 2016, ‘Success factors of management consulting’, Review of Managerial Science January, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 1–34.
[^5]: Payne, A & Frow, P 2005, ‘A Strategic Framework for Customer Relationship Management’, Journal of Marketing – J MARKETING October 1, Vol. 69, No. 4, pp. 167–176.
[^6]: Thakur, R & Workman, L 2016, ‘Customer portfolio management (CPM) for improved customer relationship management (CRM): Are your customers platinum, gold, silver, or bronze?’, Journal of Business Research March 1, Vol. 69.