“Personal” Client Relationships

A colleague has just asked me some questions about this sentence in my last blog: But what’s also valuable to a client about employing an external consultant is that the relationship is uncomplicated.

Her questions had to do with keeping client relationships uncomplicated when they’ve gone on for 10, 15, even 20 years: “Some level of personal relationship is inevitable in these circumstances, isn’t it? Sooner or later, the boundary gets crossed? Is it best to not let consultant/client associations get personal for this reason?”

I think the questions reflect a misunderstanding of the boundary.

The fence-line in a consultant/client relationship is there to preserve the consultant’s impartiality and unflinching candor, and to assure that a dissolution will be simple and clean if it becomes necessary. Now why assume a personal connection will damage the fence? When the parties to a consulting engagement  also enjoy each other’s company, their ties will be more robust, but that doesn’t have to complicate the consultant/client covenant.

I, for one, would never discourage clear-headed, mutually respectful people doing business together from broadening their relationships – so long as they don’t think they’re forging some kind of soul-mate friendship that can transcend their work context. If they understand this inescapable (and desirable) constraint, there’s a significant benefit to giving their interactions more range and depth.

When a work relationship evolves in a personal direction, it can be a great help to the consultant’s work. In personal moments, you can learn so much about a client’s professional motivations, vulnerabilities, and aspirations. And the client’s faith in your expertise and motives can deepen. How much more intelligent and surgical the consultation can be as a result.

Consultants and clients are bound to develop personal attachments over time. No harm, no foul so long as they understand the work context – so long as they can honor the fence-line.

About now you might be asking:  Yeah, but can the ideals of objectivity, forthrightness, and simplicity really be honored when a consultant and client share a bottle of fine wine, golf and fish together, reveal intimate secrets, and develop a genuine fondness over the years?

From decades of personal experience, I’d say, absolutely. If that fondness is genuine, both parties will make damn sure nothing goes on between them to contaminate their arm’s-length professional roles. And if they can’t – if their association ceases to be disciplined by their professional obligations to each other – then the principled thing would be to dissolve the business relationship.

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