My check engine light on the dashboard just lit up and I think to myself, “Great, now what could be wrong with my car!” Worse, I think, “How will I know if what the mechanic tells me is wrong is actually the real problem?” None of us are experts on every system that we use in our lives. That’s why we all try to have the auto shop or mechanic we trust in our list of contacts. And if we don’t, we call a friend and ask if they can refer us. We want the peace of mind that the shop we go to will give us an honest read on our car, what must be done, and a fair price to fix it.
I have found the same holds true in the world of software development and consulting.
We are often called upon to solve a problem or create an application, but our client doesn’t have the expertise or intricate knowledge of how the programs will actually function. They know how they want it to work — properly without hitches — just like we know we want the car to start and reliably and safely get us where we want to go. And we sometimes don’t have the capacity or desire to know what’s going on under the hood; we just want it to work.
To earn new business, we have to quickly come in and build trust. We need that so both parties can be successful early into the process. In fact, I am not sure we could operate effectively without trust. Customers have to trust that we will be ethical, make decisions in their best interest, find the right solutions, make good recommendations, represent them appropriately and then eventually deliver on our commitments to them. Those are all tall orders when it comes to an early relationship.
I know that the deepest levels of trust are built over time, but the need for some level of trust must also exist early in a relationship, making it a “chicken and egg” situation. If we don’t have trust early in the relationship, it will make it harder to be successful; yet, we must show some success to go build that trust. I am a firm believer that it is possible to build trust early, have success, deepen the trust and generate long-term customers. We have all had that feeling where the partnership “feels right” even if we can’t put a rational finger on it. Within our company, we try to help those rational thoughts along by giving a little in the beginning to generate positive feelings. There are three specific things we do during the business development cycle, before we have a customer contract, just to make sure we are starting on solid footing.
1. Be Transparent and Open in Conversations.
Typically, we like to have a few initial meetings with prospective clients and learn about each other. Just by listening, you can tell lots from the personalities in the room, who is attending the meetings, and how both teams interact. It’s during these conversations that we try to discover and correct any misalignments. That could be in scope, timeframe or budget, but it’s most often in expectations. Being completely honest and even applying a little problem solving around these sensitive topics early puts everyone at ease.
2. Give a Little Bit First.
Nobody wants or can afford to work for free. The same goes for consulting firms, no matter how big or small. What we can do, however, is whiteboard a few ideas, host a discovery meeting to narrow the requirements, or help to problem solve early in discussion. When we do this we show value to the client and they begin to trust our expertise. When we have done this well, we are viewed as experts and given more freedom to do our best work. When building trust between consultant and client, someone has to make the first move. We try to be the first one to make that move.
3. Put Yourself in the Customer Shoes.
When we are able to ask questions about our customer’s business objectives, uncover how they will be measured, and try to learn what defines success for them within their organization, we frequently unearth ways for them to save on cost or schedule or both. Ultimately these conversations feel collaborative in nature and the customer will feel like you are part of their team; by then the inherent trust levels will start to rise.
Assuming you have built some early trust and are now engaged with your new customer, there is still quite a bit of work to do. The most obvious — and the one we take most to heart — is to deliver on the promises and commitments we just made. With open and transparent conversations at the start, everyone should know the expectation for achieving success. And the consultant’s job is to make sure we chart a path (the easiest we can find for them) and deliver the product that exceeds our customer’s expectations.
I know some may think this sounds easy. I also know that in any project, there’s a chance something can go sideways. It might not happen often, but it will happen. Nobody is perfect. The good news is that these challenging situations are an opportunity to increase trust levels once again. Let’s say a project is at risk for falling behind schedule and the cause may have been something outside of anyone’s control. Company A might say, “Factors outside of our control caused the project to shift, we will make the adjustments and deliver, but we need an extra 2 weeks.” Alternatively, Company B might say, “Factors outside of our control caused the project to shift, I can pull in an additional resource and work it through the weekend and we should be able to still meet your deadline.” Even if Company B requested additional funding for going outside of scope, they would still gain more long-term trust by rolling up their sleeves to meet deadlines. If the relationship is really strong, the customer and the consultant can have genuine, collaborative conversations, openly discussing time and budgets leading them to a joint decision that solves the problem.
If (and when) you, the consultant, have made a mistake, own it and own it early. Deliver the bad news and quickly offer a solution. Look for a solution that is in the best interests of the customer and gets them back on track. It is an “opportunity” to be creative. How you handle the challenging situations with your customer will do more to build trust in that relationship than anything else you might do. This may be hard at the time, but it is effort well spent when a renewal or a referral comes from it.
Reacting to challenges during a project is obviously necessary, but there are other proactive efforts we can also deploy as consultants to both build and maintain trust. Something we do consistently well is ensure that we are utilizing our client’s resources wisely by keeping their best interests at heart. There are always touchpoints along the scope of the project where consultants can show value and consideration of their client’s resources. Take advantage of these opportunities by leaving your client with the feeling that you are on their team. A good example of this is when I attend customer meetings at different points in the project, I am there to represent Base2 Solutions; but I will make a point of being a customer advocate. During the meeting, I will challenge my team and look for opportunities to further the customer’s objective. This isn’t confrontational, but a collaborative meeting, both with the customer and my team. I believe that doing this demonstrates to the client that we are thinking harder for them, and their CEO is pushing his team even harder to deliver in the customer’s best interest.
Whether in the beginning of the sales cycle or knee deep in the project, it is important to step back and make the right choices. As a company we never feel like the path of least resistance is the one that will take us to greater heights. As with most things, building and maintaining great customer/client relationships takes a bit of work. And when you have reached the pinnacle of trust, you reap the rewards of a long working relationship and referrals. Trust me, it’s worth all the effort.
Ron Hopkins is the CEO of Base2 Solutions. Prior to his 5 years with Base2, Ron served as EVP and GM of engineering services at The IMS Corporations, VP of AES Information Systems at Tectura and was a director at Scitor. While working with Boeing, earlier in his career, Ron was awarded the Silver Snoopy, the Astronauts Personal Achievement Award for his contributions toward enhancing the probability of mission success. View his complete profile here.