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by Ron Carucci and Toby Tetenbaum | March 31, 2009

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Have you ever left a client engagement thinking something was off-kilter about the relationship, but been unable to put your finger on the problem? We have researched the nature of the consultant-client relationship for five years and have identified a set of characteristics that can make or break that relationship and impact the value you create for clients. The roles played by consultants who consistently got high marks from their clients as having "created value" were the Partner, Capability Builder, and Truth-Teller.

Be a Partner, Not a Messiah
While many consultants tout "partnering" in their pitch to prospects, it is singularly lacking in practice. A true partnership is an interdependency, an exchange between equals. Value-creating consultants establish their relationship with the client by explicitly requiring an equal investment in the process and by maintaining the balance whenever it seems to tip too much in either direction. Consultants provide the organization with needed expertise and, in exchange, receive pay and an opportunity to test their models, apply their theories, and challenge their thinking in real time.~

A partnership is a mutual belief in the initiative and an agreement to work collaboratively in a common quest to effect its implementation. It's a willingness to learn from each other; to work, take risks, and make mistakes together; and, if all goes well, to succeed together. In a true partnership, there are no "stars."

Build Capability, Not Dependency
Believing he or she has an obligation to help the organization stand on its own, the value-creating consultant sets as a primary goal helping employees become more competent in solving problems without help from consultants. In fact, capability builders sees their job as putting themselves out of work. Interestingly, consultants who subscribe to this role never seem to lack work. The capability-building consultant involves people as much as possible, holds working sessions with those who will be implementing the program, and involves them in critical decisions. This consultant shifts control to the members of the organization who will do the work.

Tell the Truth, Don't Collude
Sometimes consultants are called in when the organization is in crisis. These chaotic times aren't viewed by most consultants as an opportunity to question clients' decisions, or enact the broad changes that could make them industry leaders. It is easier to follow the line of least resistance, allowing clients to remain within their comfort zone, especially when one's revenue stream is dependent upon a client's relative state of comfort.~

Consultants consistently told us that the most difficult task they faced was delivering bad news to their clients or confronting unproductive behavior within the organization. We believe if you cannot deliver tough messages in a straightforward, unfiltered, nonjudgmental manner, you should change careers. You will only experience anxiety whenever there is bad news to deliver and prevent your clients from realizing opportunities to achieve needed fundamental change.

The next time you sense something wrong with your relationship with your client, check out how well you've enacted these three roles.

Ron Carucci and Toby Tetenbaum are co-authors of the book, The Value-Creating Consultant: How to Build and Sustain Lasting Client Relationships (AMACOM).

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