I’ve been reflecting on the question, “what can you learn about potential clients in order to work in the most effective way possible?” When starting a new consulting relationship or project, there are ways to collect information to help you understand how you can best set up the relationship to be most successful.
First, you can learn about their professional background to give you some context about how to engage. LinkedIn is a great tool for this, as you can understand a client’s career trajectory, formal education and industry or professional organization affiliations. For me, this helps me understand what “language” to speak. For example, in the last several months I’ve worked through people-related projects with primary client contacts who come from a process background, a marketing background and a technology background. What’s important to each of them and how they look at the problem varied based on the lens they brought to the table.
Next, talking to a client about their job is a really helpful way to learn more about them. What’s their primary accountability? What does their career path look like at the organization? Why is this particular initiative or problem so important to solve? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the organization? And, the classic, what’s in it for them? While some of these are hard to ask overtly, you can probe in ways to help you understand them. Answers to these questions will give you a sense of what they’ll deem to be a successful outcome, as well as how involved they want to be in co-creating solutions.
It’s also helpful to understand their current reality. Schein’s principle #2, “always stay in touch with the current reality,” resonated with me quite a bit. Sometimes the information we get is distorted based on bias or inherent distrust. Sometimes they aren’t aware of the real problem that needs to be solved. Early on, it’s important to ask good questions to understand what’s really going on to the degree that you can.
Lastly, in an effort to build rapport, I try to pepper in some questions about their personal life. Maister discusses in his book that trust can be earned by showing a genuine interest in the person. While it’s important to read your audience in this regard, I do like to ask people about their kids, their neighborhood, etc. in an effort to get to know them better as a person. Over time, some of the best client relationships I’ve ever had have resulted in us mutually getting to know each other on a personal level in a way that engendered a huge amount of trust.